“It’s like she’s Godzilla and a two-year-old toddler all at once! Full of rage and impossible to reason with!”
“So, what do you do?”
“I tell her I need to go to the bathroom!”
I laughed out loud. I was having a conversation with a friend who was telling me his strategy to surviving his wife’s hormonal rages when she was having her period.
“Works every single time! She just needs a moment to break the escalating rage.”
A light bulb when off in my head. I realized that this was something I already practiced frequently.
So, what was this magic emotional control trick?
It was simply to pause.
Society has conditioned us to think that we have to address every emotion we feel right immediately. Have a headache? Take a pill ASAP. Feel lonely? Join other lonely singles online right now! Feel hangry? Quick, eat a Snickers bar!
But this sense of urgency is unnecessary and often serves only to treat the symptom and not the cause. Not reacting works too, and it’s free from side effects, ghosting, and calories. Sometimes, all your body needs is a break from the escalating vortex of energy, and as soon as the cycle is broken, the emotion will dissipate and leave you.
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes…including you.” — Anne Lamott
Here’s the catch. I said it was simple, but I never said it was easy. Anyone who has ever been on a diet will tell you. Sometimes, not doing is harder than doing. Here are some tips that I’ve found helpful — sorted by how easy they are to apply.
Break the cycle
Whenever you find your emotions snowballing, whether it’s anger, anxiety, or hangriness (I’ve been told many times that this is a real emotion) — simply say to yourself out loud — STOP.
Another tip is to do something silly — like pressing on your nose and saying, “Beep!” out loud. Whatever you choose, create a physical action that helps breaks you out of your current train of thought and actions.
Set a time limit
The inner child in us hates being told there’s something we can’t do. So, it’s easier to appease it by saying that you can do it — just after a few minutes. The amount of time you set should be proportional to the consequence of the action. If you are about to yell at the barista, maybe a one minute time out is sufficient. If you are about to strangle your boss, you might want to wait at least a day.
If you feel your anxiety mounting from constant bombardment of COVID-19 media, just resist the urge to get on that news site. Tell yourself you can do it in 10 minutes.
When you first start applying this pause, doing nothing will seem like an impossible task — which brings me to my next tip.
Create a distraction
I’ve found that the most useful distractions are the ones that remove my ability to react to a situation, which means — no smartphone and no computer access. Going for a run, doing yoga, or having a cold shower are all helpful. Your mind can continue racing, but you can’t take any action.
Write it out
If you must get your emotions out — write. Give yourself full liberty to rant and say all the things you want to say. Just don’t hit send. Sit on it until your predetermined time limit is over. Chances are, you’ll find that you won’t want to send it by then. It may also help you to see that some of the thoughts you have at peak emotional intensity are quite ludicrous.
My next tip is perhaps the most counter-intuitive.
Don’t reach out…yet
Remember that all emotions are energy, and what you are feeling is often not reflective of reality. When you reach out in the heat of those emotions, you are spilling over your unnecessary emotions over to someone else. Not only are you now impacting their peaceful day, but you are also inviting them to add their energy. Drawing someone else in will only lead to an increased escalation of wasted emotional energy.
If there is a real need to reach out, that need will still be there once your emotions have calmed down. No productive decision or discussion can ever be had while you are in that vortex.
This tip does not apply when there is a physical consequence in play — e.g., you are contemplating suicide, you are in physical danger, or if you need to leave a date that is making you anxious.
Change the focus from your mind to your body
If you find that you are experiencing this escalating rage but don’t have the time or space to create the distractions above — here is a tip you can carry out in a few minutes by ducking into the bathroom.
Once you have some privacy — let the thoughts arise in your head and then ask yourself where you feel it in your body. If you feel hurt or anxious, is there a tightness in your chest? Or do you feel it in the pit of your stomach? Take long 6-second inhales, followed by long 6-second exhales, and imagine you are directing your breathe into that part of your body.
This tip works because a lot of our suffering often isn’t from the event itself but from our thoughts around the event. So, just allowing your brain to focus on your body helps release the thoughts.
If you struggle to guide yourself through this, another really simple technique is tapping or the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which boasts high profile advocates like Jack Canfield. I was skeptical at first, but given that you can complete it in under two minutes anywhere and that it’s completely free, there are absolutely zero risks of trying it.
Remind yourself that your emotions are not reality
Most people think that the stronger the emotion, the more informative it is. In fact, the opposite is true. A strong reaction usually means that your reptilian brain has been activated and is completely overriding your rational thoughts.
I came to this paradoxical realization when I started experimenting with cold showers (which I wrote about here) and doing multi-day fasts. I was always hungrier and colder in the initial part than I was at the end. This does not logically make sense. I can’t have had more food or heat at the end than at the beginning but I certainly felt that way.
Still not convinced?
You’ve probably experienced that distortion effect too. Have you ever been exhausted on a Friday afternoon but had your coworkers drag you out to the bar? You meet a cute guy/girl at the bar and hit it off. You’re so excited you forgot to eat dinner. Four hours of dancing and intense flirting later, you’re wide awake and full of energy. Clearly, you didn’t suddenly gain all that energy by not eating and dancing.
The conclusion? Our emotions — particularly strong ones — are bad indicators of reality. Reminding yourself of this fact will make it easier not to react.
Here’s a fun exercise — imagine that your internal dialogue is a separate person and watch it as though you were watching a movie about yourself or sitting next to that person on a couch.
You will quickly realize how annoying, inane, and utterly irrational your internal dialogue can be. If this were a real person, you would have asked them to leave in less than 10 minutes.
Often when I am experiencing intense emotions, this internal dialogue goes from being an annoying adult to an irrational toddler. It just cannot reason with it. Instead of trying to reason with it or soothe it, I try to picture my inner self as a toddler having a massive tantrum. I simply let it cry itself out. More importantly, I don’t judge myself. It is not good or bad that I’m having a tantrum — it just is. Importantly, just as the toddler will always tire eventually, the emotion will always leave you in the end.
“The key is to be quiet. It’s not that your mind has to be quiet. You be quiet. You, the one inside watching the neurotic mind, just relax — Michael Singer”
Why should I?
Here is the most compelling answer — there is so much freedom in knowing that your emotions do not control you. That you can choose to stop feeding them and they will leave you. All emotion is energy. The more energy we give it, the greater it intensifies.
I’m not suggesting that you suppress your emotions or ignore them when they arise. A wise friend of mine often says, “Where there is a strong emotion, there is information.” Anger, anxiety, sadness all have a place in our lives. They serve as a signal to say, “Hey! Pay attention!”
The pause allows you to pay attention to what that emotion is telling you. Maybe it’s telling you to resolve an old trauma or to care less what other people think. Once you have the information, let it go. Its served it’s purpose and there is no additional value to holding on to the emotion.
So, try it today. Just pause. Simple, right?
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response, lies our growth and our freedom — Viktor E. Frankl (Holocaust survivor)