Gimme a brake (for my emotions)
January 12, 2011 7:20 PM   Subscribe

How can I instantly calm myself down when I have to deal with a situation without walking away? I need a way to defuse quickly.

Lately I've noticed something about myself, and I think it's at the root of a lot of undesirable behaviors, so solving this would solve a lot of things for me.

I realized that I have a really hard time controlling my instant reactions to things. For example, I procrastinate things because I know that they're going to provoke a certain emotional reaction in me. I loathe checking my work email when I'm not at work (which, unfortunately, is a necessity) because I know that a lot of the time there is something in there that's going to elicit a feeling of frustration. And so I put it off to avoid that, but eventually I have to log in and face it. But it's difficult to deal with responding to emails when I'm completely riled up. My mind starts going a mile a minute, and I'm reacting emotionally by getting angry or frustrated, and I start sweating, feeling shaky, and even get lightheaded. I can walk away and try to deal with it later, but then the whole thing begins again. One of the worst parts is, the feeling will persist, long after dealing with whatever needs to be dealt with. Yes, I know a need a new job that doesn't cause me so much stress, but in the

This also comes up interpersonally. When a friend or significant other and I talk about things that I might need to change (in other words, realizing that I am not infallible and have flaws, which is totally fine and a good thing to know about myself), I find myself getting hugely defensive, emotional, and lashing out. And once I get started, I can't stop. I need a way to just pull the plug and be able to listen calmly and not get the crazy train started.

These are usually situations where I can't walk away from them, or I have to deal with them eventually, so taking a time-out by walking away or going and doing something else isn't what I'm looking for. Meditation seems like it might be a solution, but a lot of what I've seen is less immediate and not the instant brake on things that I'm looking for. I've tried deep breaths and counting to ten and some other classic relaxation techniques, but nothing is working. Please help me chill out and deal with things more productively!
posted by Fuego to Human Relations (17 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you have some kind of anxiety triggered panic attacks. Perhaps a good first step would be to see a psychiatrist to get started on a small dose of Prozac or a similar drug. If these thoughts come with such quickness and intensity, it could be something beyond your biological control.
posted by msk1985 at 7:42 PM on January 12, 2011

my mum keeps a rubber band around her wrist that she snaps to her skin in the exact type of situation. this trick is to derail the mind train. if you need something more hardcore, maybe one of those hand buzzer things? you know, that joke thing where you shake someone's hand wearing them and get shocked? something along those lines.
posted by assasinatdbeauty at 8:04 PM on January 12, 2011

ps. yes, what you're having are panic attacks. so yes, getting medication to control your anxiety is probably a good thing. that way, you won't need to worry about that type of an emotional response/crazy thought train to begin with. but you're looking for immediate things, and i totally get that.
posted by assasinatdbeauty at 8:05 PM on January 12, 2011

Response by poster: I really don't think these are to the scale of panic attacks. I've had a panic attack in the past--these are nowhere close to that level, and I'm sorry if I misleadingly gave the impression that they were. I'm also loathe to go on meds just for this. It's pretty situation-specific, so I'd like to be able to deal with it in a more cognitive-behavioral manner instead of potentially killing a mosquito with a cannon by going on Prozac or Xanax or the like.
posted by Fuego at 8:19 PM on January 12, 2011

For me, and I have anxiety, and I take medication and I have seen a therapist and basically it will never go away completely.

In terms of not externally showing emotion: practice. Practice a calm exterior. Practice waiting. Practice a quiet voice, and think about your goal - not to win, but to resolve a situation. Gently bite your tongue so you can concentrate on the pain, rather than your emotion.

Not feeling anxiety - sorry, can't help.
posted by b33j at 8:20 PM on January 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Since you can't walk away in the moment, can you do it beforehand? I find that when I feel really strong emotions, and let myself (behind closed doors) rage, throw tantrums, think horrible thoughts, rehearse horrible things I want to tell people, etc, eventually I get to the point where I wear myself out and I don't have any fight left in me, and I just have to laugh. If you spent half an hour kicking a punching bag while thinking of your frustrating work emails awaiting you, and the difficult things your friend is going to tell you about yourself, by the time you were done, I think you might not care about those things anymore.
posted by Ashley801 at 8:30 PM on January 12, 2011

Best answer: Try focusing for a second or two on the connection between your feet and the floor, then take a not-too-quick inventory of the objects in the room you happen to be in.
posted by facetious at 8:36 PM on January 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts. -Buddha

Take three deep breaths and really think about the truth and meaning behind the above statement, and how it applies to your situation. Repeat as often as necessary.
posted by invisible ink at 8:50 PM on January 12, 2011 [10 favorites]

I read somewhere that touching your own lips is helpful.
posted by mareli at 9:58 PM on January 12, 2011

Best answer: I teach test preparation (SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, etc.), and I've seen how a little frustration can snowball into a breakdown for my students. This is particularly bad on the GRE and the GMAT, in which test takers can't skip questions - they need to put in an answer in order to see the next question. In those tests, if a student can't diffuse frustration with a single problem (and can't just move on, because they need to put in an answer in order to do so), it can lead to a disaster.

One of the best methods I've devised for dealing with these situations is the 10-second vacation. Think of your favorite place in the entire world, then close your eyes and go there for 10 or 15 seconds. Don't just pay, uh, eye-service to the idea, though - actually imagine yourself in that place, doing whatever it is that you love doing there. I've found this does wonders for flash-clearing the mind of immediate emotional reactions, and allows my students to resume looking at the problem they're stuck on in a slightly calmer fashion.
posted by TheRoach at 12:34 AM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your amygdala is hijacking the rest of your brain - you are having a major "fight or flight" reaction. When your brain perceives a threat to you, the stimuli bypasses your cortex and goes directly to your amygdala, where a massive hormone dump into your body begins and it prepares itself to defend or run away.

Since you can't punch the person who is speaking to you, or throw your computer/pda into a lake, you are taking the civilized way of fighting and running away - lashing out verbally at the persons you are interacting with and procrastinating with the technology.

Here are some suggestions:

Be honest - if you are having an emotional reaction, tell the person you are interacting with. "I am going to take a moment to process what you've said to me. Thanks for being patient". And then really think about what they've said. Take deep, slow breaths and go to your favorite place as TheRoach suggested. Then respond. Give yourself a good 10 to 20 seconds to get your physical reactions under control.

When dealing with hated email, start with 5 minutes of mindfulness or meditation (or both!). Concentrate on your breathing, your heartbeat, the thoughts going through your head. When you feel centered, set a timer (I'd start with 10 minutes) and allow yourself to read the email. Go away and do something else for awhile, preferably something you can do on automatic, like load the dishwasher, fold laundry, get a cup of coffee. Then back to your email for another set amount of time, to respond to it. Let your emotional reaction happen, but give your body time to "reset", before you can ramp up and start a cycle of stress.

To find out more about how to control the reactions you are having, look up the phrase "Emotional Intelligence". There are many, many books about flight or fight syndrome, but EI discussions will give you tools on how to deal with it, and improve your response.
posted by lootie777 at 4:15 AM on January 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Find a "safe place".

Right now, while you're calm, think of a location in your past where you felt safe, at ease, and really pleased with the situation. For example, on the beach during a past vacation where you were really relaxed.

Keep that place and time in your memory. Call this your "safe place".

Whenever you realize that you are about to have one of those freak-out moments, imagine yourself to be at the "safe place" for a few seconds. Remember how you felt back then.

This should derail your train of thoughts enough to allow you to keep your cool.
posted by DreamerFi at 5:25 AM on January 13, 2011

Best answer: You mention cognitive behavior. A CBT therapist recommended that I read ... um, some famous book, and there was a 'trick' in there that I'm sure other CBT therapists advise: Start asking yourself questions, and answering them. For example, I get mad when people are loud on the commuter train when a lot of us (most importantly, me) are trying to read. This practice would start with me asking myself "Why am I upset?" I answer, "Because that lady's talking loud on her cell, and it's distracting me from reading." Then I would ask myself a follow-up -- say, "Does she necessarily know she's talking so loudly?" or "Why might she be doing it?" or "Does she have less of a right to talk than I do to read?" My take was that the goal is to ask and answer enough questions to come to an understanding that helps you see things from a less egocentric place; "There's no such thing as 'should' except in science," the therapist told me. But even if you don't end up seeing someone else's side of the issue, you can accomplish the same thing that touching your lips, breathing deeply, and everything else you hear suggested are supposed to accomplish: distracting you from what got you emotional.
posted by troywestfield at 7:11 AM on January 13, 2011 [7 favorites]

This may be out of left field, but do you drink a lot of coffee?

I get somewhat similar reactions to things somtimes, and I've noticed that on the days which I am over-caffeinated I have a tendency to freak out more.

Therefore, I'm not allowed more than one cup of coffee a day.


Also, when I'm really stressed and overreact-y, I repeat the phrase, "Haste makes waste" in my head. If I rush into a reaction or read an email too quickly just to get through it, it sooner or later makes everything worse. And then I'd have to deal with that "worse."

Haste. Makes. Waste.
posted by functionequalsform at 7:42 AM on January 13, 2011

Best answer: I just finished reading 'Buddha's Brain'..... you should check it out, because it addresses your issue exactly, and has exercises on how to minimize that kind of stress. (Breathing and meditation, mostly.)
posted by onceisnotenough at 8:52 AM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

listen to Tara Brach's podcasts. She is amazing and full of insight on how to effectively pause.
posted by dmbfan93 at 9:42 AM on January 13, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone. I checked my email at home today (I'm a professor, still on winter break for another week) and for the first time in months I didn't turn into Rage Guy upon opening it.

invisible ink's quote really resonated with me. I found that it even calmed intrusive thoughts when I'm trying to go to sleep or at other times when they tend to creep in. I now have this awesome visual that I call up instead--my brain protected in a castle, with guards, surrounded by a lake of fire deep in a volcano, with dragons swirling around above. Ain't nobody getting through that.

Everyone else's techniques are also helpful. So far I've applied what I've learned to only one situation, but I will work on this and keep what you've said in mind. And I plan on giving Buddha's Brain a read.

Thanks for the support, Metafilter. Judging from the number of favorites this question got, I'm not the only one who's had this problem. I'm glad we could help each other out.
posted by Fuego at 11:55 AM on January 13, 2011

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