How to Control Your Emotions in Stressful Situations
Feelings are a part of the human experience, and they can be both painful and overwhelming. As such, it's common to wonder how to control your emotions. Life comes with its highs and lows, but how you choose to react to stressful situations can make all the difference.
Emotions are not a choice. They are instead an instant reaction to your environment or current situation. They also tend to be short-lived, but actions that are taken on account of these feelings may have negative and long-lasting side effects.
So how do you learn how to control your emotions and avoid saying or doing something that you will regret?
Understanding how Stressful Situations Affect Our Brain
Before you can learn how to control your emotions in stressful situations, you need to understand how your brain works.
Our brains are large computers that are constantly taking in data and deciding what is important, what isn’t, and how we should react to new information with its prime motivation being to keep us safe and healthy. When you are relaxed, a part of your body called the Parasympathetic Nervous System is making sure everything is stable such as rest and food digestion. When we find ourselves in a stressful situation the brain and a part of our body called the Sympathetic Nervous System work together to divert the energy of your body’s normal processes to what’s needed to get you out of that situation AKA our fight or flight response.
Some of the symptoms you may experience when your fight or flight response in action are:
- Increased heart rate
- Large pupils
- Release of adrenaline and cortisol resulting in feelings of anger, anxiety, and fear
Now, if we were cavemen in the wild dealing with a Sabre-toothed Tiger attack, these symptoms would actually be helpful! The increased heart rate means more blood is rushing to our muscles allowing us to punch harder or run quicker. Larger pupils allow us to see more, especially in the dark and the shaking means our muscles are tensed and ready for action.
Unfortunately, when dealing with stressful situations related to work, your family or love-life, running away or attacking someone isn’t very appropriate. The life of cavemen and a modern-day human is extremely different but the way our bodies respond to stress is very much the same! So, in order to know how to control your emotions in a stressful situation, you’re really asking how do you control your Sympathetic Nervous System?
Below we are going to discuss what can be done before, during, and after a stressful situation to help make controlling, and understanding your emotions easier.
Build a Healthy Foundation for Your Mind and Body, Before a Stressful Situation Occurs:
People who are constantly stressed are triggering their sympathetic nervous system regularly which isn’t healthy and will make dealing with stressful situations when they occur even harder.
Here are some healthy habits that should be a part of your daily life and will allow you to cope easier:
Now, we all know that eating well is a key part of living a healthy lifestyle, but it also has an effect on our feelings too! You’ve probably heard the terms “hangry,” and “eating your feelings.” When you don’t have enough food in your system, it results in a stress response in your body which makes you more irritable. In the opposite way, certain foods can destress you or even make you happy! It’s important to make sure you eat regularly and have a balanced diet. Being hangry could be the reason a stressful situation becomes a catastrophic one. It’s also important to eat regularly so you have the fuel to be able to do your day-to-day tasks and exercise but to avoid overeating as it can result in lethargy and other health issues.
One of the best ways to de-stress is exercising! When you exercise your brain releases chemicals called endorphins that make you happy and calm. Studies show that regular physical activity can help with anxiety and depression but anaerobic exercises specifically have a greater effect on emotional well being. Some examples of anaerobic exercises are activities like swimming, weight lifting, and running. Anaerobic exercises are quick bursts where you use up all your energy in a short amount of time. Another important aspect of exercising is the fact that it helps use up any excess energy you may have, making sure you are able to get a good night’s sleep.
Did you know that sleep can help your memory and concentration? Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night to function at their best. As you lay in bed and allow your body to rest, this gives your mind the opportunity to organize your thoughts and experiences. Without a good night’s rest, a person can be forgetful, slow, and sensitive. To make sure that you are more able to control your emotions when stressful situations arise, prioritize keeping a regular sleep schedule. Avoid looking at digital screens like television or your phone at least 90 minutes before your bedtime to fall asleep quicker.
Caffeine and Alcohol
While caffeine and alcohol have become a regular part of North American society, it's no surprise that anxiety has too. As mentioned previously, what you put into your body has an effect on your mood. Remember “flight or fight?” Well, drinking caffeine, pretty much triggers that response in your body. It makes your brain release adrenaline, and if you drink coffee you know that you can quickly build a tolerance. Though it makes you feel like you think faster and are more productive, after a while many people who rely on caffeine experience burnout, anxiety, and depression. It may be hard, but to avoid this, try to limit your caffeine intake.
On the other hand, there is alcohol. Most would agree drinking alcohol makes them feel relaxed and allows them to give their brain a bit of a break. They aren’t wrong in believing this, but like coffee, it's quite easy to build a tolerance to alcohol. This means you’ll need to drink more to experience the same effects. Excessive and regular use of alcohol does more harm than good. It can result in memory blackouts and once you sober up you will probably feel more anxious than you did before you drank. Another problem with drinking is that people tend to be more emotional and reckless after alcohol intake, so if a stressful situation occurs when you are drunk or hungover you may find it more difficult to know how to control your emotions.
Meditation doesn’t necessarily always mean sitting cross-legged and deep breathing. In this case, we are talking more about thinking about your past and experiences and practicing mindfulness. Understanding what has happened in your past will allow you to understand the way your mind thinks, and how it might react in certain situations. This deeper acknowledgment of who you are will let you decide which behaviors are acceptable to the person you wish to be, and which aren’t. With this in mind, you will be better able to know how to control your emotions. Meditation can come in the form of writing, art, and even exercise. Some even seek help via psychedelics or professional led psychedelic therapy.
How To Control Your Emotions During A Stressful Situation
Keeping a healthy mind and body allows you to be in the best state to handle stressful situations correctly but sometimes that isn’t enough. Here are some ways to get yourself out of a potentially damaging headspace and to control your emotions while the situation is happening.
If you feel that “flight or fight response” starting to kick in, focusing on your breathing can actually help reverse the effects and slow down your heartbeat. Try deep breathing by inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. If you are able to get some privacy you may want to try the 4 squared breathing technique. To do this, inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds and then rest for 4 seconds. Repeat this process 4 times, or as many times needed until you feel calmer.
2) Positive Words Or Memory
Sometimes focusing and repeating a positive word such as “Peace” can help center a person during a crisis. This is a common method used during mediation. Another option is to try to focus on a positive memory.
3) Acknowledge And Label Your Feelings
If you start to feel angry, or sad or any other negatively charged emotion, acknowledge that you feel that way, and call it what it is. Remind yourself that it is only temporary. Repressing your feelings may, later on, result in even more emotional strife.
4) Take A Break And Reframe Your Thoughts
If you can remove yourself from the situation even temporarily, do so, and take a break. Change your perspective on the situation by reframing your thoughts.
Ie: Change “Your partner is breaking up with you and now you’ll have nobody”
“To your partner is breaking up with you and now you’ll both be able to find the right person for yourselves”
5) Communicate Your Feelings
If you are in a stressful situation with other people, explain how you are feeling to them. Being able to vent and feel heard may help alleviate your stress. It will also help you feel more grounded within that space and help avoid an emotional outpour.
After a stressful situation
When you go through anything stressful, there needs to be a period of aftercare. Even with the best techniques and foundation, being in control of your emotions can be extremely hard. The only way to get better at controlling your emotions is to practice and evaluate what you need to work on. Here are some ways you can learn from your experiences:
1) Keep A Mood Journal
Take a record of times when you feel or show intense emotion. Explore the situations that trigger these feelings, examine your state of mind and body before the situation. Were you hungry or hormonal? Was there a particular word or phrase that triggered you? Who was involved and what role did they play? How could the situation be better dealt with or avoided? Did this situation get magnified because of something that has happened in your past? By keeping a journal, you’ll be better able to keep track of patterns and find solutions to these issues.
2) Went To A Friend Or A Therapist
Talking to someone about what happened to you and getting an outsider’s perspective is a great way to organize your thoughts and observe behaviour patterns. Sometimes just being heard is enough to make a person feel better. If a situation is private or you just don’t want to involve a loved one, a professional mental healthcare provider will be able to help and maintain your confidentiality.
3) Be Aware of Negative Coping Methods
After going through trauma, it’s easy and sometimes comforting to cope in unhealthy ways. Try switching these bad habits with good ones, like exercising, art, hanging out with loved ones, and other forms of self-care. This is easier said than done, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you find yourself occasionally slipping. Keep in mind that every step in the right direction still counts!
As you can see, learning how to control your emotions in a stressful situation isn’t as simple as a few techniques which you can use in the moment. For best results, a person must take a holistic approach. Emotional health starts at the core of who you are; the more you work on being the best you, the better you will be able to handle whatever life may throw at you. So take a deep breath and remember you are doing the best you can at this time, and every other human is trying their best to do the same.