Have you ever reacted to someone in the heat of the moment and afterwards looked back wishing you had responded differently? Do you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by emotion and notice it affects your ability to focus or be present? Most of us find ourselves in these situations some of the time, but if this happens often to you, you may be having problems regulating (calming) your emotions.
When emotions come big and fast
When we are triggered by something that connects us to a situation from the past, the same emotions will come up big and fast. No longer are you a mature adult in middle age; instead you are that inner 10-year-old who felt those same raw emotions and doesn’t know what to do with them. When this happens, the most important thing is to recognize that you aren’t responding from the present moment; you are responding from a time and place in the past. You are being triggered.
Your Emotions are Valid
One thing we have a tendency to do as human beings is dismiss our emotions as not valid. We may feel embarrassment or shame over our anger and sadness, believing we should be able to respond to situations from a calm and logical place. It’s important to know, however, that your emotions are valid. We aren’t robots, we are emotional beings. It isn’t about ridding ourselves of the emotion; it’s about working with the emotion so it doesn’t overwhelm us and completely take over.
In the world of therapy, we call this ability to manage your emotions staying in your window of tolerance. Your window of tolerance is the place where you are aware of emotions but still in control of them. You feel safe and aware of your environment and can think and feel simultaneously. When you are outside of your window of tolerance you feel out of control. Your body feels tense, your heart may be racing, your breath quick and shallow, your thoughts racing. We call this state hyperarousal. In these moments you don’t feel safe and may be in a state of panic. Conversely, you may feel numb, disconnected and shut down. You can’t think properly and there is a sense of being “frozen.” We call this state hypoarousal.
When you find yourself in a state of hypo or hyper arousal, your ability to think straight and turn to logic is literally out the window. In these moments it is important to come into the body and do everything you can to calm yourself down, bringing you back into your window of tolerance. We do this in two ways: focusing on the breath and present moment awareness.
My favourite breathing exercise is called square breathing. Inhale deeply for four counts, exhale for four counts, and repeat the cycle for four minutes. You can use your smartphone to time yourself so you can give full attention to your breath.
To bring yourself into the present moment I like the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique. Here’s how it works:
5: Note FIVE things you see around you. It could be a pen, a spot on the ceiling, anything in your surroundings.
4: Note FOUR things you can touch around you. It could be your hair, a pillow, or the ground under your feet.
3: Note THREE things you hear. This could be any external sound. If you can hear your belly rumbling that counts! Focus on things you can hear outside of your body.
2: Note TWO things you can smell. Maybe you are in your office and smell pencil, or maybe you are in your bedroom and smell a pillow. If you need to take a brief walk to find a scent you could smell soap in your bathroom, or nature outside.
1: Note ONE thing you can taste. What does the inside of your mouth taste like—gum, coffee, or the sandwich from lunch?
These are just a couple of ways to begin to bring yourself back into your window of tolerance. At that point you have more access to the thinking and reasoning part of your brain and can respond to whatever situation you are in from a calmer and wiser place. If you remember nothing else, remember this: when you are emotionally overwhelmed come into the body and do all you can to focus on present moment awareness and your surroundings. Practice this regularly and you will master the art of staying in your window of tolerance.
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