“You’re not a robot.”
I tell myself this often, as an exasperated reminder that I can’t expect myself to perform “perfectly,” and that it’s okay to feel my feelings.
You’re not a robot either. None of us are. So, why do we expect ourselves to be able to perform like androids — composed, unemotional, and in control in stressful situations?
It’s not realistic. And it’s not fair. Yet, we still expect and want it for ourselves. Despite our best efforts and no matter how in control we usually are, there will absolutely be times when you will behave very differently from an android to just get through the situation. This is especially true when our emotions are running high and we’re overcome with anxiety, anger, fear, self-doubt, nervousness, or worry. I’m sure you know the feeling.
I want you to know that you can get a handle on your emotions and calm them down before they cause you to do something that’s not in your best interest. Here’s how.
The Physiology of Emoting and Why Emotions Seem Uncontrollable
Controlling your emotions seems pretty impossible because, well technically, it is. You don’t even consciously originate emotions. Your body does. Take stress for example — your body has an automatic “stress response” because your brain’s top priority is always your safety. When it encounters anything that feels like danger, your sympathetic nervous system releases hormones that activate a set of physical changes that put our bodies in ”fight or flight” mode to help you battle or run from the danger.
Notice I said, “anything that feels like danger.”
To your brain, an unpaid bill, a car merging into your lane too close, or a less-than-glowing remark from your boss can feel like danger. The stress response is a physiological response. It is not something you control.
That’s important enough to repeat.
You Don’t Even Originate Your Emotions — Your Body Does
Our hormonal system operates autonomously, without our intervention. We have no choice in the matter. The Harvard Medical School article, Understanding the stress response, confirms that the body begins the response
…even before the brain’s visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening. That’s why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing.”
So, when we’re in high-stress situations, stress hormones are released, and they remain elevated for hours after the event until our parasympathetic nervous system does its job of gradually calming us down.
The keyword here is “gradually.”
Because your brain and body returning to calm is a gradual process, it means that while we’re cooling off, those stress hormones are still elevated and your brain and body are in a state of high alert. So, while the hormones are still in your system, you’re going to be more easily triggered. This means even more stress chemicals are released every time you get triggered. It can become a cycle where your brain and body are chronically stressed. Chronic stress is a factor in almost every disease, mental and physical, and it damages your brain.
If Emotions are Physical Responses, Can We “Think” Our Way Out of Them?
Yes and no. That’s a tricky question.
You might be wondering, “if your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are triggered by physical changes you have no control over, how can we ever expect to manage our feelings with conscious thinking so they don’t hijack our brain?”
In What’s The Difference Between Feelings And Emotions?, Debbie Hampton explains:
Feelings are sparked by emotions and colored by the thoughts, memories, and images that have become subconsciously linked with that particular emotion for you.”
So, subconscious feelings influence our thoughts. It’s a feedback loop. The reverse is true too. Debbie continues:
But it works the other way around too. For example, just thinking about something threatening can trigger an emotional fear response.”
Managing Emotions Starts With the Body
Controlling your emotions and feelings is not easy, but it’s not impossible. It is a learned skill and it does take practice. (Usually lots of it.) It can feel even more difficult if you experienced childhood trauma that created a traumatic stress condition impacting the brain, body, and nervous system.
Since emotions and feelings are both influenced by your thoughts and experiences, if you can:
1. calm your body
2. objectively re-evaluate your experiences
then you can exert more control over your feelings, and subsequently, your responses and behaviors. You’ll have a much easier time accomplishing these when you’re not actively engaged in or recovering from a stress response. Here are three steps to help you get in front of those emotions:
1. Become more familiar with how it feels physically feels to be triggered.
It helps no one to realize that we’re angry after we’re already breathing fire. What are the unique signs you notice that tell you you’re on your way to dragon status? Many of us experience increased heart rate, perspiration, faster breathing, a pounding heart, dry mouth, etc. So, look for those things to know when you need to help yourself start calming down. Notice if there are any other signs unique to YOU that can serve as telltale signs.
What to do: Take the time to notice and become familiar with the physical sensations when you are escalating is the first step in being able to turn your feelings down.
2. Learn in-the-moment strategies to calm down.
Let’s say we’re already experts at knowing when we’re starting to get upset. “Upset” may mean anxious, nervous, angry, or anything else to you. Now, we need actionable tools to use in those high-stress moments to help us mitigate the stress response. What can we do to calm our bodies down, so they stop sending distress signals to our brains?
I’m a huge fan of patterned breathing exercises, since they can be done anywhere, anytime, and are extremely effective to help us reduce stress and anxiety in the moment, and improve our ability to self-regulate. Relaxed breathing exercises have been proven to help people reduce stress and anxiety, improve self-regulation. Your breath is a remote control that calms your brain and body instantly.
What to do: I like the five-minute, Time-Efficient Triangle Breath. I use it myself and teach it to my clients. It can help people healing from trauma become more familiar with their physical triggers, as well as to calm themselves down quickly. In triangle breathing, with the back of the throat slightly constricted, you inhale for five seconds. Hold for five seconds, and exhale for five seconds and repeat. I recommend doing this for about five minutes — multiple times per day, whenever needed. Here’s a video demonstration.
3. Insert new ways of thinking here.
Now that you’re in a physical state that is literally more open-minded to objectively re-evaluating your experiences AND thinking differently, you can install new ways of thinking that shape and change your behavior. When your body is experiencing a stress response, your brain is programmed to scan the environment for danger, and the amygdala suppresses the functioning of your prefrontal cortex. Your thinking brain literally shuts down.
There are ways to help your brain respond better while under stress and effective practices to help you calm it and your body. After you’ve calmed your brain and body, you’ll be in a more responsive state to work with and reframe your thoughts and insert new ways of thinking. When you build the regular habit of positive, conscious thinking, you will be more able to do it in high-stress situations. Because of neuroplasticity, healthier can become your default thinking pattern.
What to do:
One way to build a regular habit of more positive thinking and a calmer brain is the “From Past to Positive” six-minute meditation, designed to help you put your current stressors, worries, and fears into perspective. You can listen to a guided audio of the practice here. Research suggests that practicing meditation can improve many physical and mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression, and insomnia.
What it All Comes Down To
I’m willing to bet that you weren’t taught how to manage your emotions when you were young. It’s an important life skill. Many of us are taught by society and our caregivers to deny and stifle our feelings. That’s just the way it used to be. But now, we know that is not mentally or physically healthy.
A healthy expression of emotion is essential to your well-being. It affects your ability to create healthy, fulfilling relationships, businesses, careers, and lives. I hope the tools I’ve offered help you grow closer to emotional and mental health and an improved quality of life.
Did you try either of these tools? How have they worked for you? Do you have a favorite technique you use to manage your feelings? Please let me know in the comments.
With clients like Google, Cotton Incorporated, and the Space Foundation, in the past two decades, Harmony Major has helped businesses large and small to boost efficiency and performance. Backed by certifications from esteemed institutions like Harvard, HubSpot, and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, she marries neuroscience and CAM therapies to help purpose-driven founders scale and grow.
Founder and “Radical Growth Guru” at Energetic Harmony℠, Harmony Major helps progressive founders transcend the history at the heart of their perceived limitations. She also runs Excellent Presence, helping purpose-driven companies and nonprofits attract better-aligned clients and scale socio-economic impact.