Fuming in anger, exploding in rage, shaking in fear, or trembling with anxiety, what can you do? How can you control your emotions and what can you do if you are reacting to a friend or colleague who is out of control? There are many useful self-directed approaches and traditional advice such as, “Count to 10 before you speak,” ”Sleep on it before acting on the decision you have made,” “Practice stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness meditation,” “Leave the situation,” or “Wait 24 hours before clicking “send” on an angry email response.”
These suggestions aim to reduce the strong negative emotions which could cause people to lash out at or totally withdraw from the perceived threat. Under perceived threat, we may react defensively and impulsively to protect ourselves. During those times we may say the meanest things to hurt the person as a substitute for inflicting actual physical harm.
In almost most cases when angry or frightened we may react automatically. Thus having skills to recognize and interrupt the escalating cycle of negative emotions can facilitate resolving conflicts. These skills allow us to react more cool headed, rationally, and recognize how our responses would impact other people and prevent future blow back from our excessive emotional response. It could also interrupt an escalating argument. Despite our best efforts, it is often difficult to change our emotional reaction especially when we feel threatened, hungry and tired.
Emotion regulation as described by Professor James Gross, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, consists of 1) awareness that there is a need for an unhelpful emotion to be regulated such as noticing an increase in heart rate or worry, 2) selecting a strategy to regulate the emotion such as thinking about positive memories such as a loving grandparent or practicing breathing, 3) implementing and acting on this strategy which means doing the strategy at that moment when we don’t want to and all our impulses are saying “I am right, don’t change,” and 4) constant follow-up to check if what we are doing is effective and if not, what needs to be improved (Gross, 213).
This approach can be very effective and may work even better by combining multiple strategies instead of only one technique. The more skills you have and practiced the easier it becomes to master motional regulation. Sometimes, psychological behavioral approaches may underestimate the role of biological factors such as diet, exhaustion and exercise that underlie emotional regulation.
Think of a four-year child throwing a temper tantrum. As a parent, it not useful to discuss with the child what is going on. Each suggestion may increase the tantrum. Instead the parent thinks, “My child is exhausted or hungry” (how many tantrums don’t occur when the child stays up after bed time or just before dinner?). The millennium’s phrase, “hangry,” is the combination of hunger and anger.
The knowledge that food may prevent or reduce conflict is reflected in the cultural wisdom of most countries except the USA. In the Middle East you are offered tea and sweets before buying a small rug at the bazaar; in Japan or China, you are invited to a meal before beginning a business transaction. The food and may slightly raise your blood glucose levels and encourage digestion which triggers a physiological state that is the opposite of that triggered by anger or fear. It may also evoke positives feelings associated with eating such as family gatherings and parties. As the food and drink are a gift, it may allow you to perceive the other person more positively. Thus, it is easier to be collegial and react more positively in challenging situations. The influence of rest and food has also been observed in Judicial rulings. Judges are much more likely to accept prisoners’ requests for parole at the beginning of the session–right after breakfast or lunch–than later in the session (Danzier, Levav & Avnaim-Pesso, 2011).
What can you do?
One useful mental strategy when you are out of control is to remind yourself that you are acting like a four-year-old child who is having a tantrum. Begin in the same way as you would with a four-year-old: take time out, eat some food, and get rest. Then in the clear light of the next day, after having eating a nutritious breakfast– not just a cup of coffee with a muffin–discuss and resolve what happened the day before that triggered the outburst. Similarly, when another person is out of control, do not to take it personally, he/she may be a momentary acting like four-year-old.
Keep in mind, whatever other people said or did during an outburst, they may have responded automatically because they experienced their survival being threatened. Remember, how in a past moment of anger, you have said something very hurtful? At the moment the words left your mouth, you wished you could have reeled them back in as you realized that it would be almost impossible to repair the damage.
From a biological perspective you were hijacked by the amygdala which is part of our emotional brain (Goleman, 2006). The amygdala processes information 22 milliseconds earlier than the rational brain and acts protectively before our rational brain, the neocortex, can assess the situation and respond. This reaction occurs because the information signals “we are in danger” and evokes the automatic defense reaction as shown Figure 1.
Figure 1. Triggering of a defense reaction is 22 milliseconds quicker from the amygdala than from the cortex. Thus we sometimes react without recognizing the consequences (adapted from Ropeik, 2011)
Implement the cultural wisdom of eating together first and then discussing business or challenging issues. Do not send negative messages by email or mail since that allows people to react asynchronously without having the social feedback to modulate their emotions.
Self-regulation of unhelpful emotions is challenging because negative emotions trigger the body’s defense reactions to prepare it for flight and fight. At that point, it is more and more difficult to perceive the long term consequences of our action– our only goal is to survive. Even our cognitions change and we tend to interpret any information more negatively and may assume harmful intent. The more we are captured by our emotions, the more challenging is it to implement emotional self-regulation strategies.
Once the defense reaction has been activated, it is not the time to resolve conflict. Dr. Gottman and colleagues at the Seattle Love lab, discovered that when couples argued and their heartrate went over a hundred (a possible biological marker of sympathetic activation) arguments could escalate. If the person whose heart rate went up spontaneously took a time out and did self-soothing, the couple had a lower divorce rate and higher marital happiness than those couples who continue the arguments (Gottman & Gottman, 2008).
One of the effective ways to begin emotion regulation is to leave the situation and first complete the fight/flight defense reaction. If possible, this means interrupting whatever you are doing and exercise vigorously. After you have done a vigorous workout, emotional regulation is much easier as the ruminating thoughts have decreased or stopped.
Complete the alarm reaction with exercise
When you are upset take a break. If possible, take a time out and exercise to complete the fight/flight response that was activated by the negative emotions. This is not always possible in a business or social gathering; instead, excuse yourself and go to the bathroom. In the bathroom do the following five-minute exercise that was taught by Rinpoche Tarthang Tulku of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism as an approach to stop ruminating thoughts as shown in Figure 2.
Stand on your toes with the heels touching each other and lifted off the floor with your knees bent. Place your
hands on your sides, breathe slowly and deeply. Do this next to wall to reach with your hand to steady you if you lose your balance. Stay in this position for as long as 5 minutes. Do not straighten up, keep squatting.
In a very short time your attention will be drawn and captured by the burning sensation in your thighs. Continue. After five minutes stop, shake your legs and relax.
After this exercise your thoughts have stopped and continue with the more cognitive approach of emotional self-regulation or return to the meeting. Warming: Do not do this if you have hip, knee or ankle difficulty.
Use heart rate biofeedback to signal you that you may be losing control.
Wear a heart rate monitor to signal you when your heart rate increases twenty to thirty beats above your personal baseline rate during a discussion or conflict. Use that feedback to stop and take time out and implement self-regulation practices such as exercise, breathing or meditation to allow your arousal to decrease. When feeling more calm, return to the meeting.
Food and exercise are powerful tools to augment emotional self-regulation and health. In our research, Lena Stampfli and I have observed that many students who miss meals, have an unhealthy diet, do not the exercise, are sometimes irritable and experience difficulty in concentration. When San Francisco State University students implemented a four-week self-healing project as part of a class experience, the students who changed their eating behavior (eating breakfast, not skipping meals, reducing caffeine and simple carbohydrates and increase proteins, fats and fresh vegetables) and implemented daily physical exercise (e.g., yoga, jogging, and dancing), reported significant improvements in their energy level, fewer emotion outbursts and improved quality of life. They report some of the following:
“I thought I did not particularly like exercising and eating healthy, but when it is over I feel like I am on cloud nine!… I started to look forward to doing my exercises.” –A.M.
“I started to eat breakfast, I started biking to work and did a few [meditation] exercises before bed… I felt happier and more have energy to get through the day.” –C.B.
“I have learned that letting go of what no longer serves me allow room for healing and opportunities for growth… I can only imagine what years of healthy living could do for my well-being.” –K.S.
*I thank Pardis Miri, PhD, for her constructive comments.
The blog was adapted from Peper, E. (2017). Emotional control through mindfulness as path to mental health? Western Edition HP Journal. October. http://thewesternedition.com/admin/files/magazines/WE-October-2017.pdf
Danziger, S., Levav, J.& Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of Amereidcal, 108(17), 6889-6892. doi:10.1073/pnas.1018033108