1. Recognise that your brain has been hijacked

When we are caught up in intense emotions like anger, shame or fear the logical part of our brain literally goes “offline”. Our prefrontal lobe becomes hijacked by our amygdala (our body’s alarm system), triggering the fight-flight response. When this alarm system is activated stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol) are released into our body. Our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and our muscles tense. Before you can do anything, you need to recognise that this process is occurring.

2. Give yourself permission not to think

The thinking part of your brain has essential frozen (just for now!). No matter how much you might want to think clearly, when you’re flooded by emotions, chances are rational, logical thinking isn’t within reach. Try to be accepting about where you are at. Rallying against your emotions and trying to think your way out of how you are feeling will only make the emotion feel stronger. You might also do or say something that you later regret.

3. Calm your breath to calm your mind

To bring your thinking brain back online you need to reduce the intensity of your emotions. One of the most effective ways to do this is by calming your breath. When we become overwhelmed by emotions our breathing changes. Our breathing becomes shallow or rapid, or we hold our breath (or any combination of these changes occurs). These changes disrupt the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body. This imbalance fuels the fight-flight response and can leave you feeling dizzy, light-headed, confused, tingly, breathless, tense, flushed, nauseous and generally panicked.

There are a number of different techniques for calming your breathing. Included below are links to audio files that we’ve created to walk you through these different methods. Give each of them a shot to see which ones work best for you:

It’s always more effective to learn any new skill under ideal rather than stressful circumstances, so when you first start practising breathing exercises it’s best to do it when you feel relatively calm. To really build your confidence with this skill it’s recommended that you practice for five minutes, 1-2 times daily.

4. Distract yourself

After you have calmed your breathing, the next step is to distract yourself. Distraction can help you to get some space between you and your emotions.

It is important to note that distraction is different from avoidance. Avoidance is avoiding emotions and feelings permanently – making a choice not to confront them. Distraction, on the other hand, is a temporary measure. You can come back to your thoughts and feelings once the emotion has died down and you’re in a better space to think clearly.

5. Brainstorm ways to ride out the emotion 

The key objective with distraction is to fill your short-term memory with thoughts that are unrelated to the emotion you are feeling. Keep in mind that none of the suggestions below are a “cure” for getting rid of uncomfortable or painful emotions. They are simple, everyday activities designed to help you to ride out the wave of your emotion until your thinking brain comes back online.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Do something you enjoy: a hobby (like drawing, reading, painting, cooking or knitting), go to a café, exercise, chat to a friend, clean out your wardrobe and donate your clothes to charity, read positive or hopeful blogs or books.
  • Do something nurturing: have a bath or warm shower, light a candle, put on your favourite music or make a pot of tea.
  • Do something that needs doing: washing, cleaning, paying bills, general chores, tidying, sorting, watering plants, cooking, shopping for food.
  • Do something for someone else or with someone else: write a letter or a card to someone you care about, do someone a favour, cook for someone, arrange to meet up with a friend or family member to do something together, make something for someone or give a friend a call.
  • Imagine what someone who you care about would say to you to help you through. It might be someone you know or someone you imagine like a spiritual figure like the Dali Lama. Imagine their face and their words. It can sometimes even help to have a picture in your wallet to bring them to mind in more detail. What would they say that would comfort you?
  • Create opposite emotions to the ones you are experiencing by doing things like watching funny or soppy movies or TV series, reading funny blogs or books, escaping into fantasy novels, listening to upbeat music or reading cards, letters or emails that make you feel hopeful or inspired.
  • Push away the situation by leaving it for some time (this is especially helpful if you feel like your emotions are going to overwhelm you and maybe even make the situation more unbearable than it already is). You could do this by physically leaving. For example, walking out of a room or leaving the house until your emotions are less overwhelming.
  • You could also mentally leave the situation. For example, by imagining yourself putting your pain in a box on a shelf until your emotions have decreased or imagining yourself somewhere peaceful like at the beach or in a forest. Try to imagine the scene in as much detail as possible. What would you see around you? What sounds would you hear? What textures would you feel (for example, sand or grass under your feet, the wind against your skin)?
  • Fill your mind with other thoughts by doing things such as counting back from one hundred by threes, counting your breath, counting the number of red cars that drive by, counting sheep or counting anything really.
  • Fill your mind with other thoughts by observing what is around you. Doing this in the outdoors is ideal. Describe in detail what you can see, hear, touch and smell. This is called mindfulness of the senses.

6. Jot your plan down

Our brains are not capable of even simple problem-solving once our emotions reach a certain intensity. Scrambled, frozen, wiped-out, flattened and swamped…these are all terms that describe how we feel in the midst of emotional storms and for good reason! By coming up with a specific plan ahead of time you can take thinking out of the equation.

Even better, jot your plan down – that way you don’t need to rely on your memory. This might seem like overkill, but you’ll feel reassured and empowered when you follow through with a plan that you came up with at a time when you felt less controlled by your emotions.

7. Give yourself options

Emotions aren’t predictable. What helps you to cope one day might not even touch the sides the next. If you try a particular distraction strategy and it doesn’t seem to turn down the volume of your emotion, move onto something else. Keep working your way through your plan until you notice the emotion shifting. This can be hard work at first, but with practise you will get to know what works best for you.

If you find yourself feeling stuck, uncertain or hopeless in the midst of strong emotions it can be helpful to speak with a psychologist. Each of our team members are experienced in helping people to develop effective ways for coping with emotions. Call us on (03) 9376 1958 or email info@innermelbpsychology.com.au to chat further about how we can help.

Or if you want to chat with someone now, give Beyondblue a call on 1300 22 46 36 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. Both of these services are available to help and support people through difficult times 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.