Anger, despair, sadness—strong feelings can be hard to cope with. When your mind's a hot mess, your body holds the key to taming your emotional crisis.
When was the last time you totally lost it? And by “it,” I mean your sense of calm, ability to reason, and maybe even your perspective.
Perhaps you got into a heated argument, suffered injustice at work, got swindled out of a lot of money, or got cheated on by a romantic partner. What thoughts were running through your mind? What emotions did you feel? What was happening in your body, and what did you do with it? In other words, how did you handle this emotional crisis?
No one is immune to emotional crises
I know that I’ve found myself spiraling—no one's immune. There was a time, at the depths of my dissertation-writing despair, when a single unsuccessful statistical analysis led to an avalanche of regret, anger, sadness, and self-doubt. I found myself crying in my windowless office, convinced that I had wasted my entire adult life on the white whale of science.
In the moment, it can be impossible to see the big picture.
Eventually, things were okay—I published my dissertation, got my Ph.D., and continue to cultivate a healthy relationship with science. But in the moment, it was impossible to see the big picture. There are other times when I experienced awful injustice. In those times, it wasn’t my loss of perspective that hurt; it was uncontrollable forces that plunged me into crisis mode. That felt intense too, like an unstoppable welling up of white-hot tension that made me want to throw nice, breakable things.
We may have pretty good ideas about how we’d like to approach an emotional crisis. We envision ourselves calmly taking stock of the situation, making reasonable arguments and fair negotiations, weighing pros versus cons lists, and tying up everything nicely with a step-by-step problem-solving plan. In reality, it's not so easy to “keep calm and carry on” when it feels like your hair is on fire, or like the ground just dropped from beneath your feet.
The trick may lie in using our physical bodies.
To regulate emotions, you have to get out of your head
Emotion regulation is a complicated business. There's a whole sub-field of psychology that studies how we stabilize our own out-of-control emotions, whether it’s through cognitive strategies like reframing our thoughts, or more spiritual strategies like cultivating mindful acceptance.
We won’t go into the whole list of strategies researchers have studied, but I think it’s worth highlighting the almost-magical power of using our bodies to regulate our minds. So, let's review three body-oriented tips, and the science behind them, to learn how to survive an emotional crisis.
These tips are borrowed from Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which was developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of the University of Washington and an expert on emotion regulation and treatment of borderline personality disorder. Specifically, we’ll talk about the TIP skill. TIP is an acronym that stands for: Temperature, Intense exercise, and Paced breathing.
1. Cool your body temperature
When someone is in a panic or rage, we describe them as having their “hair on fire,” being “hot-headed,” or behaving like their “blood is boiling.” There’s a good reason for that!
When our sympathetic nervous system—the fight-or-flight system—is activated, our blood pressure rises, our hearts beat faster, and we generally get hotter. And when we’re hot, a 2018 study shows that we feel more anxious, irritable, and unhappy, and we even have worse self-control. In this study, men who are smokers were particularly prone to these heat-induced effects. No wonder it’s so hard to quit smoking—each craving is a mini-crisis that is all the harder to manage when it’s hot.
In the heat of the moment, you can help yourself by turning down your body’s thermostat.
In the heat of the moment, you can help yourself by splashing your face and neck with cold water, holding an ice cube in your hand, or otherwise turning down your body’s thermostat. As with the other tips for today, this one for regulating body temperature works by activating the parasympathetic nervous system—the rest-and-digest process. It’s like applying a gentle brake on the raging fight-or-flight machine in your body.
2. Do some intense exercise
Do you pace or want to throw things when you’re in a spiral? I know I do. The body is experiencing tension and adrenaline, again because of the sympathetic nervous system.
The good news is that you can tame that tension with aerobic exercise. Not only does exercise help our mental health in the long run, by releasing endorphins and growth proteins important for brain health, it can also help in the immediate moment. And the even better news is that this works whether you consider yourself generally good at regulating your emotions or you think you're a hot mess.
A 2015 study measured participants’ general emotion regulation tendencies, had them either jog or stretch for 30 minutes, and then showed them the saddest movie clip in the world, a scene from the 1931 movie The Champ. (By the way, this clip is popular among emotion researchers—many of them use this to induce sadness in research participants!)
With intense exercise, even people who usually are not great with emotion regulation were able to maintain their mood.
Among those who merely stretched, participants who were generally not as good at emotion regulation became sadder and stayed sadder longer. But among those who jogged, even people who usually are not great with emotion regulation were able to maintain their mood.
So, if you know that you’re heading into an emotionally tense situation, get in a good sweat first on the treadmill. It will set you up to better keep your cool no matter what you face next.
3. Practice paced breathing
The age-old advice to “just breathe” has a good point. I’ve talked about how it’s not helpful as the first piece of advice to give someone who is actively anxious because it can sound condescending, but it is a useful tip to remember for yourself and to share when someone’s ready.
Breathing slowly and deeply is another simple way to activate the rest-and-digest system in the body. You can try breathing in for a count of 5 and then breathing out to a count of 7. If this is too slow, feel free to adjust the count. The important thing is to slow down and pay attention to your breath.
If you pair this technique with diaphragmatic breathing (a.k.a., belly breathing), research has shown that you will not only feel better in the moment but also improve your overall mood and ability to sustain attention with repeated practice. To practice diaphragmatic breathing, place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly and try to make it so that the one on your belly moves more than the one on your chest. For inspiration, this is also how dogs and babies naturally breathe—just watch how they do it!
Keep calm and carry on!
So, remember to TIP during an emotional crisis—cool your Temperature, get some Intense exercise, and Pace your breathing. These are easy-to-remember go-to's, whether your blood is boiling with anger or your stomach is dropping like it’s the end of the world. I especially love these strategies because they’re so physical, for when it’s hard to put on your rational thinking cap and talk your fight-or-flight system down from the ceiling. After your body has settled down, it will be much easier to “keep calm and carry on.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show. Stay in the psychology loop! Listen and subscribe to the Savvy Psychologist show on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Disclaimer: Please note that all content here is for informational purposes only and does not replace the professional judgment of your mental health provider.