Friday, June 29, 2018

How to Get a Hold of Yourself When You Start Losing It

Someone cuts you off in traffic and an expletive (or two) slips out.

You have a presentation, and you feel like you are going to throw up you are so nervous.

You've asked your kids to pick up their stuff 5 times, and there it still sits, and you ask them to pick it up a lot louder and angrier than you intended.

Or, maybe you are just in a general funk lately, angry, irritable, or maybe just a little sad.

So how do you pull yourself out of your funk, lessen the anxiety you feel in given situation, not snap or make sarcastic remarks to your loved ones as you are unloading the dishwasher yet AGAIN, and refrain from teaching your children new words in the car? I have two techniques for you.

1. Use Your Words 

Yes, the advice given to toddlers every where will also work on adults. Let me explain how.

Lisa Feldman Barrett a neuroscientist at Northeastern University (after decades of research) believes our brain's primary job is to keep you alive (not to regulate your emotional responses), and it does that through predictions. Then those predictions become our feelings or emotions and the emotions we perceive in others. You can influence these predictions 
and  therefore regulate your emotional reactions through reframing and using your words.  Here is how:

"Name That Emotion"

If we can more precisely name the emotion we are feeling, then we are better able to choose an appropriate response or choose not to respond at all. I bet we all can think of a circumstance when we wish we would have not responded.

Say you come home in a really bad mood, snap at your kids, your spouse, and one of them asks you why are you so angry, and you respond angrily, "I'm just in a bad mood."

Now if you play "Name That Emotion" and start to really identify and then name what you are feeling, you can help dispel the funk holding you hostage, and pick a more appropriate reaction. Here is an example:

Say you are in a bad mood because you had to give a last minute presentation for your co-worker who was out of the office (again), and it didn't go well because you didn't have time to prepare, and our boss's boss was in the audience, so now you are afraid that you look like an idiot. 

So instead of saying "I'm in a bad mood", which is a hugely simplistic version of what you are feeling, you identify and name those emotions and their cause. I'm irritated and angry that my co-worker was out again, and I had to pick up the slack. I am hurt that my manager asked me to do it, and I feel like I am being taken for grantedI am mortified and ashamed that the new Director thinks that presentation is my best work, and all I want to do is crawl under my covers and not come out for a long long time.

So imagine saying those words instead of snapping at your loved ones. You have identified what you feel, and you know it's not your kids or your spouse, and now you can choose a more appropriate response with the right people (your boss and co-worker) if you choose to do so. I'm also guessing you are going to get a much needed hug from someone who loves you which is always better than the post yelling guilt feeling.

You can even do this after the blow up. 

I've snapped at my kids to go to bed after a long day. (When I say "snapped" I might mean yell like a crazed banshee.)  Then (during post yell guilt) I name that emotion..."I am so tired and done with this day, and I need time to myself now to see if I can salvage my sanity." Then I go and tuck them in, apologize for yelling like a crazed banshee (which gets them laughing, a bonus side effect of creatively using your words) and say, I'm really tired and done with this day, and I need you to go to bed now.

Learn New Words

Don't just use your words, learn new words. The more precisely you can name that emotion the better for your health, and I am going to go out on a limb here and say the better for your relationships.

Studies have shown that people who exhibit higher emotional granularity go to the doctor less, use less medication, spend fewer days hospitalized, are less likely to drink excessively when stressed (probably eat less when stressed too, but I can't point to a study on that), and are less likely to react aggressively against someone who has hurt them. 

Lessen Anxiety

Using your words doesn't just help with anger, but all emotions, even the good ones, and can help lessen anxiety. 

There was a study done with people who were terrified of spiders. In treating phobias, there are two popular techniques. One, describe the spider in a non-threatening way, and the second is distraction. The study introduced, "name that emotion" as a third treatment (they didn't call it that because that is very scientific-y), and told the participants to call it like it is in excruciating and granular detail. "There is a horrendous, ugly, terrifying, spider in front of me, and I can feel it's creepy little legs practically crawling over my skin, yet I am oddly fascinated by it (from a great distance)." 

Those in the third group was the least anxious in observing the spiders, and the effect lasted a week beyond the experiment.

You can also invent your own emotional concepts

Use concepts when just one word won't do, like I did with the crazed banshee description, or describing a good feeling as "Like finding a $20 in your pocket". 

My son invented his own curse words a a substitute for the new words describing anger and frustration he may or may not have learned in the car. When he got frustrated and upset he said, "Ploopy". We all started saying ploopy, and you know what? It is impossible to be really mad when saying "ploopy" and you are not going to get a call from a teacher for that word being used. Speaking of kids...

Helping kids identify their feelings will not only give them the same benefits listed above as adults, but it will also help them (and you) right now.

I have found nothing calms a tantrum or a bad mood faster than getting down eye level with a kid, and helping them name what they are really upset about it.  You aren't solving their problem for them, rather you are giving them the gift of learning how to deal with their emotions and solve their own problems. 

When my son is hurt he responds with anger. When my daughter is hurt, angry, etc., she cries. Helping them identify and name the emotions they are feeling helps them choose a better response (One that doesn't involve hitting a sibling because you are really hurt that they won't play with you right now. Hypothetically speaking of course.)

Also, studies have shown that children who read a lot have higher emotional intelligence and can empathize better than children who don't read a lot, especially books with emotionally complex characters who are not all "good" or all "bad"). Learning empathy and learning new words is a win win.

In Summary: 

An emotionally intelligent person has lots of words and concepts AND also knows which ones to use and when.  

So next time you feel your body/brain reacting ask yourself what really concerns you about the situation? What are you really reacting to? Are you really angry or are you hurt? Are you really mad at the person who didn't return your call or do you feel rejected? This will allow you to choose the most appropriate response for that situation.

2. Reframing

Reframing or recategorizing is a useful tool. I call it the

"What else could be true?" Game.

My husband's commute is horrible, and he often finds himself sitting in traffic because of an accident. He used to get really agitated and worked up, but now he tells himself there is someone up ahead of him who is definitely having a worse day than he is. As an added bonus for me, this reframing means that I don't also have to be tortured with a play by play of the commute from hell. 

I do the same when someone cuts me off or is racing through traffic. I say maybe they aren't a self-entitled jerk. Maybe they are rushing a loved one to the emergency room or rushing to get to a loved one in the hospital. Morbid and depressing? Probably, but it erases (most) of my irritation, and doesn't ruin my day. 

When you are feeling butterflies and other signs of anxiety you can tell yourself that your physical feelings are signs that what you are about to do will be a disaster doomed to failure, or you can say, "hey, this is my body feeling excited and getting ready to do something. A normal bodily function."  

Your brain and body don't assign the concept of emotion to a physical sensation. You do with your words.

Before a horse show or a Tae Kwon Do test, I ask my kids if they are nervous (name the emotion). Usually the answer is yes. Then I say, good, that is your body getting excited to do what it has been trained to do. So now, they recognize that their body isn't trying to betray them, but getting them ready to do great things. 

When you perceive someone has slighted you in some way, and you feel angry, hurt, rejected, etc., you can play "What Else Is True" and make sure one of the stories include a re-categorization of it's "not about me"

They may not have seen you wave at them because they were worried about their sick aunt. They may not have answered your text for a hundred different reasons that have nothing to do with you. They may have turned down your invite to something because they suffer from social anxiety themselves. Maybe they really are jerks, but again, you don't cause them to be a jerk (despite what they may claim). They are jerks because of something they are dealing with or not dealing with. People carry their own baggage with them just like you do

Bottom Line: You can get all worked up by your assumed story, or you can make up a different one that makes it not about you.

It ain't easy and It Takes Practice

As a pessimist/realist I struggle with this almost daily. Like, what really are the odds that jerk who cut me off was rushing the emergency room? Probably not likely, but it could happen, so I'll make a decision to choose to believe he or she is doing just that, and let it go as I happily go about my day versus my more "realistic" version of events that leaves me pissed off for a while afterwards.

Am I perfect at it? Far, far from it (PMS weeks are definitely harder), but I keep at it because when I do it, it works. One day, I will be walking around in peaceful, zen-like bliss, I have no doubt.

It can also be fun, especially with your kids. Be creative, use words from different cultures and languages. Teach them about ASSuming. Make up your own emotional concepts, and watch your negative emotions evaporate or at least lessen their grip on you.

So this week try it for yourself. 1)Name that emotion and 2) Reframe and see how it works for you.

If you want to learn more Lisa Feldman Barrett wrote: How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain 

You might also like: How to Get Your Husband to Empty the Dishwasher and Other Secrets to Life

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