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Emotions: Please calm down!

Ever feel like you are just going to explode? Or ever watch someone who is feeling like they are about to explode?

Of course you have! Emotions can get so big that we can "blow our top" or "lose our mind." This is highlighted in kids, especially toddlers.


So what's going on here?

Emotion comes from the root words "excite" and "move", they are basically bodily reactions intended to excite and move us in valued directions. Emotions are also "preverbal"...what does that mean? Well, basically, you experience emotions before you develop the language to describe the emotions. Ever seen a sad baby? Did they say "I'm feeling sad today?" You are right, they didn't, but somehow they communicated to you in a "preverbal" way that they are sad.


Now, infants are typically excited to move to get food, sleep, connection, and a clean diaper...that's about it. Their mechanisms to obtain this include...crying...and looking really cute.


TODDLERS (can you tell I have a toddler right now?) on the other hand developmentally are going through a phase where they are starting to see themselves...yeah themselves, as in their self as separate from us...and have a tough time navigating a new drive for independence with this fancy new self while at the same time still wanting/needing to be dependent. For example, my toddler wants to pour the milk and drive the car (hello independence)...and if she doesn't then what does she do? Loses her little mind. She screams her favorite words "no" and "mine" and has elaborate non-intimidating physical displays...a true "tantrum." Her excitement to move towards independence is poorly matched to her physical and verbal abilities to do so...I would explode too, and per my parents, I did. "Payback" is how they refer to my present situation.


You, too, experience emotions. They don't go away once you graduate toddlerhood. And sometimes you, too, probably feel like you are going to lose your little mind...or have totally lost it.


So how can we find our mind again?

We often go about it all wrong! Sometimes we think we can address really big emotions cognitively - "mind to mind" - the problem is, as we've said before, we've lost our mind!


It's like me sitting down with my toddler in the middle of a tantrum and saying "OK, honey (sweeten my approach a little), I would like to have a discussion with you about the merits of your reactions to the situational stimulus that, if I may be so bold, proved unproductive for you...I know you have been struggling with this tension of independence and dependence and maybe here we can highlight some of the nuance for you..." On my more tired days I might just yell back "Stop it!"


This is a mind to mind approach which, you guessed it, didn't work.


The trick to reducing emotions is not to go through the mind, but through the body.

So much of our bodily reactions are autonomic (or automatic). This is that stuff you might have heard about before - the sympathetic nervous system, the "fight", "flight", "freeze" responses. This affects our heart rate, breathing, digestion, blood pressure, etc.


So because the reaction occurs in the body, I direct my efforts towards the body to reduce it.


How do I do this?

There are two parts to this:

  • Reducing my baseline emotional sensitivity:

This is the day-to-day stuff of trying to maintain good nutrition, sleep, physical activity, connection with others, maintaining valued hobbies/activities, mindfulness/mediation, etc.

  • Acutely reducing emotion in the moment:

This is the stuff we can do situationally when big emotions arise. Here I am trying to reconnect with the body through things I can impact like my breath and making contact with some of my senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.


What might reducing emotion in the moment look like?

The first thing I might try is focusing on breathing! This is one part of that autonomic nervous system that I can also bring into voluntary control.


For young kids, you can try the "blow out the candle" trick. This is where I hold up my thumb and pretend it's a candle and ask them to help me blow it out. I flicker the candle more and closer to a hidden position in my hand the deeper the breath and the longer the exhale. Ultimately the candle is successfully blown out once I feel like we have gotten a handle on the breathing.


This trick doesn't work as well for the adults I see road-raging in the community. If blowing out the candle doesn't feel like a good fit then you can help others by working to regulate your breath for yourself (they may start to mirror you) or maybe even having a big sigh. You can focus on breath counts, like 4-7-8 where you breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds or box breathing where you breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and hold again for 4 seconds, repeat. For me the big idea is shifting focus toward the breath and getting a good deep inhale and a long exhale.


Cold temperature can also be helpful.

Whether that's putting frozen peas on your face, a baggie with ice water, or even just sticking your head in the freezer...safe exposure to cold temperature can help reduce emotions acutely.


Intense physical activity can also be helpful.

Whether this is doing jumping jacks, pushups, running around the couch...intense brief physical activity that you can do safely can help reduce emotions acutely.


Tapping into the 5 senses can be super impactful.

This can be done in a lot of ways based on whatever works for you! I think about it by going through the senses: touch, hear, smell, see, taste. You could have a favorite stuffed animal or have your favorite lotion to put on your hands. You could listen to some music or soothing sounds. You could have a fresh book close by and smell its pages. You could look through a photo book or closely inspect something around you (table, tree, chair, anything). All of these things are intended to reconnect with our body so we can then find our lost mind.


Once we have found our mind, then developing a language for our emotions is essential. Notice the correlation between the language abilities and emotional regulation of a 10 year old compared to a toddler...it makes a difference! To learn more about emotional regulation strategies and developing a language for emotions check out my Therapize Yourself course at the link below!





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