Some of the main questions I get asked by clients during emotions week is “How do I calm down my emotional triggers?”, “What is the answer?” and “Can you give us the exact formula?”
As I’ve gone through the experience of figuring out how to calm myself down over the years, and as I’ve counselled many clients including children, I’ve learned there is not, nor will there ever be a one size calculated answer for these questions, and that frustrates many clients! Especially the ones who are more prone to wanting fast answers and quick results. It depends how they process their emotions (verbal processors vs. thinkers; crying physically vs. talking it out) it depends on their personality (quiet, talkative, serious, silly, introvert or extrovert). It depends on the trigger or situation(private or public) and it depends on their underlying unresolved issues like shame and mental health as that will determine to what extent they distort the information in their heads and emotions and it helps give an idea of how long that distortion trigger may last.
I have learned there are 3 categories of regulation (which is just a fancy word for calming down emotions and getting back to baseline).
- Limbic brain regulation – right brain to right brain claiming of the fight, flight or freeze system – calming of the emotional/ body part of the brain. Remember this is the part of the brain responsible for immediate relief, instant pleasure/ reward, emotions, senses, smell, sight, sound, taste and body.
- This is where you connect with the emotion of the person who is upset by empathy and validation of pain (even if it may be distorted! They will come around in a bit once they’re calm)
- Empathic facial expressions, validation of he emotion through empathetic sounds or short phrases such as “Hmmm”, “That sounds hard” “I’m sorry that happened to you”, “That is really overwhelming” or “I can’t imagine how you feel”
- Naming the emotion. In child counselling this is called “name it to tame it” – science states that simply naming the feeling that someone might be feeling will release dopamine into the brain and calm down the limbic system. For example: “Does that hurt?”, “That is scary”, “Do you feel lonely?” or “You must be angry”. All of these phrases help organize the chaos of the limbic brain.
- Just look at them and listen, put your hand on their shoulder and not say anything.
- Art activities or expression of emotions
- Calm the body down or get emotions out through the body (yelling, screaming, hitting pillows)
- Connecting with the earth elements is grounding for the senses (earth – sand, grass, rocks, trees; fire, wind; water – hot baths, hot showers, swimming, beach, a long slow mindful handwash)
- Massage, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxing, body scan, mindfulness visualizations (PTSD coach is a great app)
- Yoga and deep breathing together or apart
- Logic – left brain to left brain connection – connecting with the thinking part of the brain. Remember this is the part of the brain that is responsible for long term, big picture multiple perspectives, logic, reason, details, order and language. Some ways to calm down with logic:
- The person that is helping you try to regulate fills out your thinking with other pieces of the puzzle that you may be seeing due to your emotional reactions (essentially they speak for your cortex that is currently out of order). They may remind you of the big picture rather than the immediate moment with phrases such as “I don’t think that person meant they do not like you by making that comment. Look at all the ways they have been consistent with you and cared for you over the years(and they list examples).
- The person may help you calm down your emotions by problem solving the issue – helping you make a pros and cons list, or thinking about it and analyzing it from many different angles.
- The person may help you by thinking of the long term consequences of giving into your emotions and impulses – “You will feel really bad about yourself tomorrow if you binge eat tonight, and you will probably feel worse than you do right now with shame and feeling heavy in your body”, “Maybe journaling is better” and “Let’s talk it out”.
- Again, the focus here is words, language and using the mind – challenging distorted thoughts exercise through Cognitive behaviour therapy would fall in this category.
- Space – sometimes people just need to put the problem, situation on the ‘back burner of the stove’ of their mind for a while and distract themselves for a bit (with the intention of coming back to it later to process it). This could include:
- Going for a walk, drive
- Going to your room and watching a funny show, reading a book, completing some work or another task
- Just going on with day to day life until you are ready and have the time and energy to sit down and do the internal work of processing. This may be a few days or a week or even longer and that is okay, again, if you have the intention of coming back to it.
A person who prefers space needs to hear phrases like “I love you, and I am here for you when you are ready to work this out”, “I’m making you a snack while you take a break from this”, “I will be sitting right outside your door ready to talk when you are” and “I’ll be praying for you while you take some space”. These phrases help the person know you are still with them in the space and they are holding you in their thoughts and heart, even in the space. It helps them not feel abandoned, but rather very supported.
Activities that can use logic and emotion: poetry and music
Sometimes a person needs a mix of all three. Sometimes they need emotional before logic. Sometimes they need logic before emotional. Sometimes they never need the emotional and only the logic. And sometimes they just need space and then they can engage in one or both of the styles. Another point is some people need to and prefer to engage in these styles on their own, and others need other people often. If you noticed from the above descriptions there are two ways to regulate – by yourself and with another person (or with your higher power). The ones that involve another person form amazing brain circuits to help the person calm down. This is called co-regulation (a fancy word for describing that another person is present in your pain and mirroring you for how to calm down which actually calms you down better and faster). The design of co-regulation is that a child is supposed to get co-regulation from their parents consistently. It is not until that age of nine that a child has the capacity to take all the skills their parents taught them and try to calm down on their own.
The goal is that consistent co-regulation helps one self-regulate more consistently and confidently. They are then able to reach out for co-regulation only then they really need it or are really stuck rather than every single time they feel uncomfortable.
My style is a mix of all three; but I generally default to needing the limbic brain regulation first. Once my limbic brain is calm either through a hug, crying by myself, with Jesus, with my friend, or a hot shower, then my cortex comes back online and I’m able to sort things out much better.
What is your mix of regulation or preferred style(s)?