5 Body Hacks to Instantly Calm Overwhelming Emotion

Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen breaks the glass on 5 body hacks that pull the plug on overwhelming emotion.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #181


Getting overwhelmed with emotion isn’t pretty. Think fist-shaped holes in the drywall, a blowout bar fight, or throwing your soon-to-be-ex’s stuff out a window, preferably ablaze. But overwhelming emotion can also turn privately inward, resulting in cutting, drinking yourself into a stupor, or a massive binge.

Buy Now

As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Affiliate, QDT earns from qualifying purchases.

In some ways, all the drama makes sense: big emotions often feel scary. But it’s not the big emotions themselves that are dangerous, it’s the way we choose to react to them.

But decisions made in the heat of the moment are almost always regretted. We end up hurling insults we wish we could take back, scaring the people we love most, and generally digging ourselves into ever-deeper holes. Worst-case scenario, we end up hurting someone else or ourselves.

Now, while it’s vital to work on long-term solutions, there are methods to pull the plug on overwhelming emotion in the moment. We all know someone (or are someone) who seemingly has an allergy to emotions—even a small exposure to negative emotion leads to the psychological equivalent of anaphylaxis. In those moments, you need a quick fix. Therefore, by request from an anonymous listener, here are 5 body hacks to try when you need an emotional Epipen.

Tip #1: Go soak your head.

One way to instantly disrupt overwhelming emotion is to immerse your face in ice water. Seriously. Fill the sink, add ice cubes, hold your breath, stick your face in, and keep it there for 30 seconds.

Why on earth does this work? Holding your breath and immersing your face triggers what’s called the diving reflex, which is your body’s lifesaving reaction to a fall into cold water. It’s evolution’s protection against falling through thin ice on a lake or capsizing your raft into a cold ocean.

Specifically, your blood vessels reflexively narrow, your pulse slows, and oxygen shunts to your most vital organs—your heart and your brain. In order to conserve energy, all non-essential bodily functions are dampened, including, it so happens, negative emotions.

An alternative way to trigger the reflex and stay dry at the same time is to keep a gel pack in your freezer and, when you’re feeling out of control, hold your breath and place it over your eyes.

Tip #2: Literally chill out.

If you’re not in a socially acceptable place to soak your head, you can also squeeze a fistful of ice until it hurts. After all, it’s better to dig ice out of your cocktail than risk throwing it in someone’s face.

Squeezing ice until your hand hurts doesn’t trigger the diving reflex, but it does create a strong sensation that activates pain offset relief. This is the phenomenon that occurs when a painful sensation stops. When you finally let go of the ice, rather than returning to your pre-ice emotional state, your body will experience a short burst of intense relief, even euphoria.

Pain offset relief is also the reason cutting “works,” but squeezing ice is a much safer way to get a similar result.

Tip #3: Breathe as if you’re blowing bubbles.

No, this isn’t some kind of “visualize your negativity floating away on bubbles” exercise. It’s a breathing trick that makes use of a physiological phenomenon called respiratory sinus arrhythmia.

A key to calming your body is slowing your heart rate. And while you can’t change your heart rate by sheer force of will, you do have backdoor access via your breath.

The trick is to make your exhale longer and slower than your inhale. Why? Heart rate synchronizes with respiration—when you inhale, your heart beats a little faster, and when you exhale, the pauses between your heartbeats are a little longer.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.