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

So deliberately make your exhalations long and slow, as if you were gently blowing bubbles from a bubble wand. As kids, we all learned that blowing too hard leaves you only with sad drips of soap. Instead, a slow, steady exhale through tightly pursed lips works best to create those big, beautiful bubbles.

So channel your inner preschooler and breathe as if you were gently blowing bubbles. Repeat for a few breath cycles and feel your heart rate slow. Who knows—you may even prevent that same inner preschooler from having a tantrum.

If you’re worried about being rejected, show up. If you’re worried about failing, dive in.

Tip #4: Use opposite action.

Opposite action comes from legendary psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan and is exactly what it sounds like: do the opposite of what your emotions tell you to do. If you feel like staying in bed, force yourself to get up and take a shower. If you’re feeling sad and mopey, have a one-song dance party in your living room. If you’re feeling resentful, hold the door for the person behind you or give your dog a tummy rub. If you’re feeling envious, count your blessings.

This works because our mood and behavior naturally want to synchronize. Our mood can take the lead, readying us for action, or our actions can take the lead, thus changing our mood.

That said, some emotions should be honored. If your gut tells you your Uber driver is sketchy, don’t use opposite action to jump in the car and take a quick snooze to boot. Likewise, if your emotions make you resent a job where you’re exploited or harassed, don’t use opposite action to lean in.

Instead, opposite action works best when the emotion you feel isn’t rational or reasonable. It may take some sorting to figure out when emotion should be listened to versus ignored, but some are clearer than others. Prime examples include insecurity, anxiety, and inadequacy: for example, if you’re worried about being rejected, show up. If you’re worried about failing, dive in.

Tip #5: Sit with your emotion.

This last technique, unlike the other four, isn’t designed to cut short a strong emotion. Instead, it’s meant to help you tolerate it, which makes it the most powerful of all. Ultimately, simply feeling what you feel is the key to mastering negative emotion. Willingness to feel emotion puts you in charge.

Strong emotions often occur in a wave—they build, crest, and then fall away. But because it feels like we’ll be swept away in a riptide of anger, sadness, or pain, we often cut off a wave of big emotion before it crests. We stuff it by drinking or bingeing or let it out inappropriately by hurting ourselves or someone else.

It’s super hard, but try letting the strong emotion sweep through you. This takes practice, but sitting with an emotion is the single best way to deal with it. Emotions come, in part, from body sensations: grief is a paradoxical mix of heaviness and emptiness, anger is a hot rush of tension and adrenaline in the head and chest, shame is a burning urge to hide your face. Noting the sensations and being willing to feel them allows the wave to crest and dissolve.

The best way to work up to this is to start a mindfulness practice. That could mean mindfulness meditation, or it could mean working in purposeful mindful moments throughout your day—showering mindfully, washing dishes mindfully, taking a few minutes to scan your body and note what sensations are kicking around in there. Practice directing your attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. Eventually, you’ll be able to notice and respond to your emotions, rather than just reacting on impulse.

But while you work on cultivating your mind, in a crisis, you can hack your body. And sometimes, just knowing you have the psychological equivalent of an Epipen at hand can make you less tempted to leave a trail of your ex’s clothes strewn along the highway.

A final note: if your strong emotions go along with thoughts of killing yourself or you otherwise can’t keep yourself safe, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. You deserve way more than a body hack!

how to be yourself ellen hendriksen bookPre-order Ellen's forthcoming book HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. Get even more savvy tips to be happier and healthier by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or get each episode delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for the newsletter. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

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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.