#Askingforafriend: How can intense emotions be regulated?
By Lauren Dixon
GCU Office of Student Care
As humans, we all can relate to the experience, at some point or other, of feeling hijacked by our emotions.
Stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, shame and grief are among the feelings that can overwhelm our sense of self-control and result in distressing physical sensations and unwanted behavioral reactions.
When these feelings become overwhelming, they can interrupt important functions, such as our ability to sleep, our normal appetites, our ability to focus, our motivation and our ability to effectively communicate with others.
To understand how we can manage and calm intense emotions in order to regain and maintain our ability to function in these important ways, it is first important to understand how emotion occurs and interacts within the body.
Many of us can identify when we are feeling emotion, yet most of us have never stopped to consider how we feel emotion or where we feel it.
Emotion is registered sensation in the physical body.
Emotion is what we feel as physiological processes in the body get kick-started and begin to alter which parts of the brain are online and receiving most blood flow, which in turn causes a chain reaction of changes in respiration, heart rate, hormone levels, alertness and muscle tension.
As physiological arousal increases, our bodies move toward fight/flight/freeze reactions where we may experience heightened anxiety or irritability, panic attacks or depression.
All of this happens instinctively and unconsciously. But hope is not lost.
As we become more aware of what’s happening in our bodies when emotional arousal increases, we actually can engage with these processes consciously and intervene to slow down the activation that’s been set in motion.
By directing our attention to what we’re feeling in the body (and away from why we’re feeling it), we can shift our focus from trying to solve, escape, disprove or deflect our emotions and instead start supporting the body by calming these physiological processes through conscious breathing and grounding skills.
Here are some specific self-regulation practices and tips:
- Place one hand on your chest and the other hand over your belly. This is a way to increase awareness of your heart rate and speed of breathing. Don’t try to resist what the body is doing, just be present to support the body in what it is experiencing.
- Lengthen your exhales to slow down your breathing. This will spontaneously deepen the inhalations. Note that shallow breathing and hyperventilating can lead to feelings of light-headedness, dizziness, clammy skin and/or nausea. Deepening and slowing down the breath will combat these symptoms.
- Find a pleasant scent to smell for grounding. Focusing on a pleasant scent helps to anchor the attention away from thoughts so you can stay present with the body. This also helps deepen the breath. Some ideas include essential oils, lotion, candles, coffee grounds, etc.
- Muscle tension and relaxation: Squeeze all, or parts, of your body as tightly as you can (try cupping the hands and pressing them into each other firmly) for 10 seconds (keep breathing while you’re tensing). Then, with a big exhale, release the tension and relax the muscles.