Managing strong emotions
The end of a school year can be a very stressful time for educators and students. Busy schedules and looming deadlines add to everyday stresses. As stress levels increase, so does the difficulty of managing emotional responses. Emotions are neither good nor bad. They are an important part of the body’s communication system. However, like an avalanche, emotions can start out small but gain power and momentum over time, snowballing out of control, impairing daily functioning. Another word for this is dysregulation. Taking time to step back, breathe, and notice our bodies helps us move from the emotional part of our brain to our thinking brain. Practicing simple awareness and breathing exercises can help slow the momentum of the emotional snowball.
Children are often in a state of dysregulation, lacking the physiological maturity and coping skills to manage strong feelings. It is up to adults to teach the skills they need to express emotions in a healthy way and to act as “emotional thermostats.” L. R. Knost wrote, “When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” When adults are emotionally regulated, dysregulated children are able to “borrow their calm” through a process of co-regulation, helping them reduce the intensity of emotion.
In order to be at their best for themselves and others what can adults do to manage their own intense feelings—whether brought on by a crisis situation or a build up of stressful emotions over time (emotional avalanche)? When emotions are out of control, you can use TIPP skills to bring down the intensity. There are four TIPP skills described in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Using them in a crisis can calm things to the point that we can then use other coping skills.
Changing our body temperature is one way to quickly decrease the intensity of an emotion. In order to be capable of processing information, we must find a way to “reset” the nervous system. Fortunately, all mammals have something called the “mammalian diving reflex” that forces the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) to kick in, which functions to relax us and calm us down. This reflex is activated by icy cold water (i.e., not freezing) on the face. Dip your face in cold water (not less than 50 degrees) and hold your breath. Try to hold it there for 30 to 60 seconds. (Do not attempt this TIPP skill if you have cardiac problems.) If that’s not feasible for you, try an ice pack or cold washcloth on your face around your eyes and cheeks.
Engaging in intense cardio/aerobic exercise will serve to de-escalate intense emotions. In addition, doing an intense activity to match your feelings can help give an outlet to excess anxious energy. This might include running around the block, doing jumping jacks until you are worn out, or running up and down some stairs. Increasing oxygen flow in your body helps decrease stress levels. Aim to exercise 20 minutes or more, if possible, keeping your heart rate at 70 percent of its capacity (calculator).
Slow, deep breathing soothes the nervous system and increases oxygen flow. The goal is to try to slow your breathing down to five or six breaths per minute. This means that your inbreath and outbreath put together should take 10 to 12 seconds. One way to do this is to breathe out longer than you are breathing in. Using the 4-7-8 breathing technique can help to trigger the relaxation response in your brain.
Paired Muscle Relaxation
When you tighten a muscle and then allow it to rest, it will be more relaxed than it was before you tightened it. Relaxed muscles require less oxygen, so your heart rate and breathing will naturally slow down. Muscle relaxation also helps with being mindfully aware of your body. Practice tensing your muscles as you breathe in for five to six seconds. Notice that feeling. Then relax them as you breathe out, paying attention to how that feels as you do it. Notice the difference between the feeling of tension and the feeling of relaxation. Go through each muscle group in the body (list can be found below) and tense then relax each one. As you relax a muscle group, say to yourself, “relax.” (Paired Muscle Relaxation script)
Stress and emotional responses are part of the human experience. It is important to understand that there are proven methods we can employ to regulate our emotions in demanding or difficult situations. Mentally selecting and practicing these techniques before finding yourself in a dysregulated emotional state will make it quicker and easier to use these strategies when your “emotional brain” is overriding your “thinking brain.”
Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Manual, 2nd edition. Guilford Press. New York