We all know the usual suggestions for self-care: sleep, exercise, eat healthy, spend time with friends. These are all important to a healthy life and for setting yourself up to be more resilient in stressful situations. But what can you do in the moment when you’re feeling overwhelmed and like you are going to scream? (Or when you just did scream at someone?)
Well, the first step is to actually recognize that you are overwhelmed or frustrated. Congrats! When we can label how we’re feeling, it allows us to step outside of the flood of emotions. This is the first step in being able to stop reacting emotionally, and start acting with a cool head. Here are some other ways to calm down in the moment:
When you are feeling worked up emotionally, the more rational part of your brain tends to take a back seat. After you recognize that you are overwhelmed, try to put a label on what you are feeling, and say it in the third person. So instead of identifying with personal emotions, “I am so angry right now!”, look at the situation as you would as an observer, “Livia is so angry right now.” I know, totally weird. (And if it gets you to laugh at yourself in the moment, even better!) But this helps because it gives you the mental distance to engage with the more rational, cognitive part of your brain, rather than the reactionary, emotional part.
The old advice, “take a deep breath” is actually a great next step. When we feel stressed or anxious, our breathing often becomes shallow as part of the body’s emotional response system. Taking deep breaths and focusing on the sensation of breathing overrides this stress response and sends the message to our body that we are safe and can return to calm. When you are taking these deep breaths, try to just focus on the physical sensations of breathing. Putting your attention on something other than your emotions can help to manage your emotions. I like to think of it as taking a little mental time out from strong emotions. Or try a breathing guide, either auditory, or visual, to help yourself focus on your breathing.
Reframe the situation
Once you have been able to recognize you’re feeling worked up and taken some deep breaths, try to see the situation from a different perspective. The most helpful perspective is one that turns the problem into a situation you can do something about. Often things happen that we don’t have control over. In this case, it can be helpful to focus on how you can control your own reaction and how you will engage your coping skills to handle yourself in the situation.
Here’s a great parenting example: say your child is having a tough time and you are at your wits end. Instead of seeing your child as a problem, try to see the situation from their point of view. In any situation at the most basic level, your child is trying to get their needs met. The way they are going about it may not be enjoyable, but when you can frame the situation from this perspective, it gives you the ability to understand where they are coming from. Most importantly, it gives you a starting point for solving the problem. How help them get their needs met in a more positive way? Is this a time to teach and coach them through a new behavior, or is it time to coach them through coping skills in the moment, and turn to teaching a new skill when they are calm?
We all intend to be the epitome of control and poise in difficult situations. But then along comes a time when we are tired and our self-control has run out for the day and we just react. This is normal. We all need tools and something TO do in stressful situations other than just hoping we will be “better” next time. Practicing these self-management strategies is a great way to help yourself respond to frustrating situations with more control and thoughtfulness. And, like all self-care techniques, the more you practice, the easier it will get.
Text: © Kids In Transition to School 2019
Image: © Peter Pike| Dreamstime.com