Emotional responses don’t always follow logical reasoning. Personally, when I’m at the top of a rollercoaster it doesn’t matter how many safety statistics you share to reassure me — in that moment of panic, I’m convinced we’re about to freefall through the air to peril!
In situations like these, trying to talk yourself out of what you’re feeling isn’t effective. Next time you’re having trouble calming down, try these strategies and see if they work for you.
Observe what you’re feeling
Mindfulness can help you get a healthy amount of distance from the intensity of an emotional experience. Next time you find yourself feeling distressed and overwhelmed, direct your mind to “zoom out” from the stressful moment and observe what you’re experiencing overall. Take stock of any circumstances and events that are contributing to your feeling this way, note how your emotions present in your inner dialogue and your bodily sensations, and describe your feelings to yourself in words or in metaphors.
Through understanding and naming your experience, mindfulness helps you contain your emotional reaction into something that feels manageable instead of devastating. Crucially, mindfulness does not try to make your feelings go away — rather, it helps you navigate them from a more secure place.
The strategy of radical acceptance takes mindfulness one step further. First articulated by Marsha Linehan while developing Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, radical acceptance involves fully embracing the reality of what you are experiencing in the here and now — without denial and without caveats.
Radical acceptance can help you calm down because our resistance to difficult situations is often part of what makes them so painful. When we try to pretend that a tough situation isn’t happening, the stress of pretending just makes our interior experience more tumultuous. When we are overly stuck in bitterness or regret about a hardship, it prevents us from exploring possible solutions or looking for where joy might exist despite or alongside difficulty.
Remember, radical acceptance does not mean that you have to believe that what you’re going through is OK. It means acknowledging the reality of your current experience and any sadness, anger, or other difficult emotions that you may be feeling, knowing that peace will follow.
Another useful strategy from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is taking action to produce the opposite emotion from what you’re currently feeling. Quite simply, if you’re sad, what’s something you can do that makes you feel happy? If you’re nervous, is there an activity that you can turn to that helps you feel relaxed?
Opposite action might be particularly useful for you if you notice you tend to get stuck in your emotional reactions beyond the time that they make sense. For example, if you often feel rejected for days after a friend cancels your dinner plans or if you shame spiral each time your boss points out a small error in your work. This reaction could mean that your mind needs a little help pulling back from intense feelings and opposite actions could boost that process into action.
Visualizing a scenario where you feel calm can be a shortcut to regulating tough emotions. If possible, this is more effective when you can take a few moments to visualize in an environment free from distractions, like a quiet space away from your laptop and cell phone.
Close or relax your eyes and bring to mind a space where you feel calm and at peace - maybe your favorite spot in the park or your memory of what your grandma’s home was like when you were growing up. Make it as real as possible — conjure up the different objects present, any sounds and smells, and let the feelings of joy and peace that emerge take root in you.
Another way to use this technique is to imagine a comforting person or guide as being present with you right now. This could be a mentor who is always there for you, a beloved family member who has passed away, or even a spiritual figure. Picture that person giving you a big hug or sharing some words of wisdom with you. That affirmation that you are not alone can be a powerful reset to bring you back to a calm place.
Soothing with your senses
Focusing on your body and addressing your physical stress reactions can be a really useful way to calm your emotions when talking through them doesn’t help. To start exploring some of those body-based ways to relief, think about using your senses. Scents can activate very strong emotional responses - burning incense or smelling essential oils might bring you to a state of calm. Sound can also be an option - consider playing an instrument, listening to relaxing music, or enjoying the simple sounds of nature, like birdsong or waves at the beach. Physical sensations such as feeling velvet and other soft materials, or lying down under a weighted blanket are additional strategies to consider trying out. Ultimately what’s most important is to find what works best for you.
Therapy can help you learn
Regulating your emotions takes practice. Therapy can be a useful space to learn tools that work for you and troubleshoot areas where you seem to keep getting stuck. I’m available to help — click the button below to set up a free phone consultation. Let’s chat more about your goals and how my practice can help you get there.