The Art of Calming Down

We all have those moments when we come unglued. We’ve probably had a few more of those than usual this past year. This time period has tested us in entirely new ways, and more likely than not, we can all recount a recent example of flipping our lid. For some, it was that second month of quarantine while we were stress-washing a freshly delivered jar of peanut butter. For others, it’s followed a critical comment from our partner or a stubborn fit from our kids. The point is, we all get activated, and we can’t necessarily control the flood of emotion that overcomes us. What we can control is our response to it.

Calming down is an exercise in patience and self-compassion. It is a skill we can hone by understanding what’s going on in our brains when we feel overwhelmed and by taking actions to help ourselves get our cerebral cortex and the higher functions of our brain back online. When a person flips their lid, their emotions are firing out of control; they may even feel as if they’re in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. They’ve lost connection to their prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that typically, in essence, “hugs” their limbic system and helps them stay attuned, flexible, balanced, and regulated emotionally. When triggered in moments of stress, our limbic system, the emotional center of our brains, perceives a threat and overrides our prefrontal cortex. When this occurs, people lose the balance and regulation that helps them stay calm, flexible, and attuned.

Think of that split second when you slammed the door on your partner, snapped at your kid, burnt out in a meeting, or panicked at a parade of thoughts marching into your head as you tried to fall asleep. These can all be examples of “flipped lid” moments. Making ourselves aware of what’s going on in our brains can help us hit the breaks and calm down, rather than reacting in ways that hurt us or we later regret.

The best thing to do in these heightened moments of stress is take pause and do something rhythmical and predictable like going for a walk or breathing. When we breathe in, we are going to breathe out. When we put one foot down, we pick up the other. The breathing practice of 4-7-8 is one very simple exercise we can try. The idea is to breathe in through our nose for four seconds, hold the breath for seven seconds, and breath out through our mouths for eight seconds. Doing this five times in a row helps our brain reintegrate and our nervous system calm.

When we get activated by intense emotions in a given moment, our reactions are sometimes out of sync with what’s actually going on in the present. We react in a big way, but later, when those prefrontal cortex functions are back in place, we regret how we reacted and often hold a more balanced perspective. We may have insight into how we took our partner’s words out of context in an argument. We may realize that our kid was feeling overwhelmed when they acted unreasonably, and our response to them arose from our own feelings of inadequacy or frustration. We may start to see how a persistent feeling of being behind or “not good enough” at work finally got to us. And we may definitely realize how our overactive minds can transform into our biggest critics the minute we have time to sit and think.

In truth, many of our heightened emotional reactions are triggered or intensified by an old feeling or implicit memory and not simply the events we’re facing in the moment. A specific word our partner uses to describe us can tap into an old feeling of insecurity and set off an ocean of self-attacks. A certain tone in our child’s whine can trigger memories of painful moments in our own childhood or a feeling we struggle to handle in ourselves.

Because these momentary reactions are like rivers running into old reserves of untapped emotion, we can use what Dr. Daniel Siegel calls “Mindsight” to step back and create a barrier between what we’re experiencing and how we react. Mindsight describes our “capacity to label, analyze and clarify our internal emotional world and how it responds to the world around us.” We can cultivate this capacity by using mindfulness skills.

Mindfulness allows us to see our thoughts and feelings like ships passing on the horizon. We can watch each silhouette sail by, but we don’t need to hop aboard and get carried away. So many of our thoughts and feelings overpower us and take the wheel when it comes to our behavior. By using techniques like meditation and simple breathing exercises, we can notice these thoughts and feelings with compassion and curiosity, but we can bring our attention back to our breath, which helps us to not over-identify with these thoughts or assign them too much meaning.

Every wave of emotion rises and falls. If we can help guide ourselves through these instances of intensity, we can return to a calmer state. The trick is to give ourselves permission to pause. If we can recognize two things, first, that our brains are overwhelmed and not functioning at their strongest capacity to regulate, and second, that our reaction probably has to do with a deeper wound or vulnerability within us, we can meet our uncomfortable emotions with patience, compassion, and perspective.

Giving ourselves this time and space to calm down is a productive action. It helps us reconnect to those nine wonderful functions of our prefrontal cortex. It helps improve our communication with our partner and model resilience for our children. It allows us to be curious about why we feel the intense ways we do at times, unlocking memories from our history that impacted us in ways of which we might not otherwise be aware. Finally, it allows us to act with integrity and care in how we treat others and how we treat ourselves.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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One Comment

christina lizarraga

my son get these out burst and i’m not sure how to walk him out and calm him down. he is an adult. he is getting better but its still happening…
pls. help me/us what steps to take. thank you so much. i appreciate any help or suggestions. thx!

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