How to Keep your Cool when Emotions are Running High

Posted: May 1st, 2021

  • Have you ever overreacted? 
  • Have you ever said or did something that you later regretted?
  • Maybe in the heat of the moment you have yelled at your spouse or children? 
  • Or sent an email that was inappropriate? 
  • Or honked & used inappropriate gestures in a traffic-jam?

First, we have all been there at some point in our life.  Second, what happened is limbic system ( your inner 5-year-old) was in the driver seat of your decision-making in those moments. Psychologist Daniel Goleman called that overreaction to stressors “amygdala hijack”.  I call it, “letting a 5-year old drive your car and hoping you will get safe to your destination” 

According to triune brain model, we have 3 regions of the brain that are responsible for performing different functions: brain stem (our primal brain responsible for instinctive responses), limbic system (our emotional brain, responsible for somatosensory & emotional experience, implicit memory), and Neocortex ( our thinking brain, responsible for intellectual & executive functioning, verbal language, conscious thought, and self-awareness).

Under normal circumstances, you process information through prefrontal cortex, the part of the thinking brain - where all higher functioning like logic, problem-solving, decision-making, planning and reasoning occurs. This is also where you process and think about your emotions. You can then manage these emotions and determine a logical response.  

The part of you emotional brain called amygdala acts as an alarm system and constantly scans the environment for signs of danger. When you sense danger is present, your amygdala wants to automatically activate the fight-or-flight response immediately. However, at the same time, your prefrontal cortex is processing the information to determine if danger is really present and what is the most logical response to it.

When the perceived threat is mild, the prefrontal cortex can override the amygdala, and you can respond in a rational way. The prefrontal cortex is supposed to manage the amygdala. However, when the perceived threat is strong, the amygdala automatically triggers the fight-or-flight response. We get flooded with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, that give us energy to fight or flee.

Nowadays, there are relatively few real physical threats to your life. However, modern life is full of daily stressors that can activate us psychologically. We often feel this psychological stress when we see or hear bad news, get stuck in traffic, receive harsh criticism from our boss, or when things simply don’t go according to our expectations. Your amygdala can respond to this daily life stressors as if they are a physical threat to you. This overreaction is not helpful and can have negative impact to your physical and mental health, wellbeing, and relationships

child in sunglasses driving a car

When threat is perceived, amygdala immediately shuts down the neural pathways to your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. So, your ability to think rationally and recall facts accurately is compromised. Your executive brain functions are shut off altogether and all energy and resources are directed to preparing your body to handle the perceived threat, even if the threat is not real and there is no real danger to your life and health. With prefrontal cortex offline, you can’t think clearly, make rational decisions, or control your responses. Control has been hijacked by the amygdala.

Now, your emotional brain - the 5-year old is at the wheel of you car and is making decisions for you.

The good news is research shows that you can train your brain to be less reactive during potentially emotionally triggering events through increasing your Emotional Intelligence & practicing mindfulness.

When you practice mindfulness, you can learn to down-regulate your amygdala and bring the thinking brain back online faster. 

How to Stop a 5-year-old from wracking your car?

So, how can you stop an amygdala hijack?

When you notice the fight-or-flight response has been activated, your goal is to calm down your 5-year-old and take control of the steering wheel.

  • Remind yourself that what you’re feeling is an automatic response, not necessarily the best or most logical one.
  • Remember, being reactive is something that just happens. You don’t sit back, think about it, and decide to be reactive and hurt someone else's feelings. It’s your natural self-defense mechanism, you automatic unconscious response. You experience yourself in that moment as having no choice but to react in that way.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way!

"Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In that response lies our growth and freedom" ` Victor Frankl

When you are mindful and self-aware, you create a gap between the triggering event and your response. Instead of just letting the mischievous 5-year-old making decisions for you, you can pause, have a moment of reflection, and consciously choose how you would like to proceed. This mindful approach allows your response to be more appropriate for the situation and the outcomes that you want to achieve. It allows you to understand the bigger picture, considers alternatives, and choose behaviors that won't create anger or hurt in yourself and the people you interact with.

So, before you let your 5-year old drive and see what happens. Try to implement the mindful exercise below anytime you start feeling irritated, frustrated, angry or pissed off. This will help to bring your thinking brain back online so you can chose how you would like to respond, instead of being swept away by emotions and feeling like you have no other choice but react.

STOP Mindfulness Exercise

Follow these steps: 

Step 1. Slow you breathing

Take a few deep breaths, and mindfully observe the breath flowing in and flowing out. Inhale on a count of 4, and exhale on a count of 8.   This will help to anchor you in the present.  

Step 2. Take Note

Take note of your experience in this moment. Notice what you are thinking. Notice what you are feeling. Notice what you are doing. Notice how your thoughts and feelings are swirling around, and can easily carry you away if you allow them.

Step 3. Open Up

Open up around your feelings. Breathe into them and make room for them. Open up to your thoughts too: take a step back and give them some room to move, without holding onto them or trying to push them away. See them for what they are and give them space, rather than fusing with them.

Step 4. Pursue what's important ( needs and values)

Once you’ve done the above three steps, you will be in a mental state of mindfulness. The next step is to respond to a situation consciously by connecting with your needs first and values second

Focusing on what matter most to you will release oxytocin and help you shift and bring the rational brain back online.

To connect with your needs, ask yourself, "what do I need to do to take care of myself in this moment as I'm dealing with this situation?" 

To connect with your values, ask yourself: What do I want to be about, in the face of this challenge?  How would I like to act, so that I can look back years from now and feel proud of my response?’

Once you understand and become self-aware about your biological reactions in high-stress situations you have the power to make a conscious choice. You can choose to follow the urges of the 5-year-old  –  regret your actions – become overwhelmed by emotion - repeat the cycle. Or, you can choose to take personal responsibility for how you respond to triggers and choose behaviors aligned with who you want to be at your best. The choice you make between automatically reacting vs consciously responding, is often the difference between the amount of success & satisfaction  you will experience in your personal life and relationships.

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