Are you out of control and reacting in anger? If you are fuming in anger, exploding in rage, shaking in fear, or trembling with anxiety, what can you do? And, what can you do if it is the other person? How can you control your emotions, and what can you do if you are reacting to a friend or colleague who is out of control? There are many useful self-directed approaches and traditional advice, such as, “Count to 10 before you speak”; ”Sleep on it before acting on the decision you have made”; “Practice stress reduction techniques, such as mindfulness meditation”; “Leave the situation”; or “Wait 24 hours before clicking “send” on an angry email response.”
These suggestions are intended to help reduce the strong negative emotions which could cause people to lash out at or totally withdraw from the perceived threat. These techniques allow us to react more cool headed and rationally, and to recognize how our responses would impact other people, preventing future blow back from their excessive emotional response. It could also interrupt an escalating argument. Despite our best efforts, it can be difficult to change our emotional reactions, especially when we feel threatened. We respond in anger to a perceived injustice and continue to worry late at night as we lie restlessly in bed.
Emotional regulation, as described by Professor Gross, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, consists of: 1) awareness that there is a need for an unhelpful emotion to be regulated, such as noticing an increase in heart rate or worry; 2) selecting a strategy to regulate the emotion, such as thinking about positive memories, such as a loving grandparent, or by practicing breathing; 3) implementing and acting on this strategy, which means doing the strategy at that very moment when we do not want to, and all our impulses are saying, “I am right, don’t change”; and 4) constant followup to check if what we are doing is effective, and if not, what needs to be improved.
This approach can be very effective, and may work even better by combining multiple strategies instead of only one technique. As Professor Abraham Maslow pointed out, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." Often we believe that we can have more self-control than we actually have. A psychological behavioral approach may underestimate the role of biological factors such as diet, exhaustion and exercise, which underlie emotional regulation.
Think of a 4-year-old child throwing a temper tantrum. As a parent, it not useful to discuss with the child what is going on. Each suggestion may increase the tantrum. Instead, the parent thinks, “My child is exhausted or hungry.” (How many tantrums do not occur when the child stays up after bedtime, or just before dinner?) The millennial phrase “hangry” is the combination of hunger and anger.
The knowledge that food may prevent or reduce conflict is reflected in the cultural wisdom of most countries except the United States. In the Middle East, you are offered tea and sweets before buying a small rug at the bazaar; in Japan or China, you are invited to a meal before beginning a business transaction. The food will raise your blood glucose levels and encourage digestion, which triggers a physiological state that is the opposite of that triggered by anger or fear. It may also evoke positive feelings associated with eating, such as family gatherings or parties. As the food and drink are a gift, it may allow you to perceive the other person more positively. Thus, it is easier to be collegial and react less negatively in challenging situations.
How to apply this wisdom:
When a person is out of control, see them not as an adult, but as the 4-year-old child who is having a tantrum and probably needs sleep and food. (Most likely their blood sugar is low) Begin in the same way as you would with a 4-year-old.
Take time out, give some food, and let them get some sleep. Then in the clear light of the next day, after having eating a nutritious breakfast — not just a cup of coffee with a muffin — discuss and resolve what happened the evening before that triggered the outburst.
Keep in mind that whatever people have said or did was the only way they could have responded at that moment. They experienced their survival being threatened. Remember, how in a past moment of anger, you said something very hurtful. At the moment when the words left your mouth, you wished you could reel them back, as you realized that it would be almost impossible to repair this damage.
From a biological perspective, you were hijacked by the amygdale, which is part of our emotional brain. The amygdala processes information milliseconds earlier than the rational brain, and it acts protectively before our rational brain, the neocortex, can assess the situation and respond.
Implement the cultural wisdom of eating together first, and then discussing business or challenging issues. Do not send a negative message by email or mail, since that allows the person to react asynchronously without having the social feedback to modulate his/her emotions.
Self-regulation of unhelpful emotions is very challenging, because negative emotions trigger the body’s defense reactions which prepare it for flight and fight. At that point, it is more and more difficult to perceive the long term consequences of our action, since our only desire is to survive and win. We are hijacked by our amygdale, and all of our body’s processes are mobilized for immediate self-protection and survival. Even our cognitions change, and we tend to interpret any information more negatively, and may assume that there is a harmful intent. As we are more captured by our emotions, it becomes more and more challenging to implement emotional regulation strategies.
One useful approach is to recognize that once the defense reaction has been activated, it is not the time to resolve conflict. In working with couples by Dr. Gottman and colleagues at their Seattle Love lab, they discovered that when couples argued and their heart rate went over 100, a possible biological marker of sympathetic activation, that if that person spontaneously took a time-out and did self-soothing and then returned to resolve the issue, those couples had a lower divorce rate and higher marital happiness than the couples who continued the arguments.
One of the quickest ways to begin emotional regulation is to complete the fight/flight defense reaction. This means interrupting whatever you are doing, and as one option, exercise vigorously in a workout where you push yourself to capture all your attention. After you have done a vigorous workout, emotional regulation is much easier, as the ruminating thoughts have decreased or stopped.
How to use this approach:
When you are upset, or the person with whom you are talking is upset or angry, take a break. Take a time out and do exercise to complete the fight/flight response that was activated by the negative emotions. This is not always possible in a business or social gathering. Instead, excuse yourself with a white lie such as, “I am sorry I need to go to the bathroom.” In the bathroom, do the following 5-minute exercise that was that was taught by Rinpoche Tarthang Tulku of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism as an approach to stop ruminating thoughts, as shown in the photo below.
Stand on your toes with the heels touching each other and raised up from the floor with the knees bent. Place your hands on your sides, and breathe slowly and deeply. Do this next to a wall you can reach with your hand to steady you if you lose your balance. Stay in this position for as long as five minutes. Do not straighten up; keep squatting.
In a very short time, your attention will be drawn and captured by the burning sensation in your thighs. Continue. After five minutes stop, shake your legs and relax.
After this exercise, your thoughts have stopped; continue with the more cognitive approach of emotional self-regulation, or return to the meeting. Warming: Do not do this if you have hip, knee or ankle difficulty.
Wear a heart monitor. When your heart rate increases 20?30 beats above your personal baseline rate during a discussion or conflict, the wearable monitor can signal you to stop and take time out. Then implement self-regulation practices, such as exercise, breathing or meditation, to allow your arousal to decrease. When feeling more peaceful, return to the meeting.
These simple practices are powerful tools to augment emotional self-regulation and health. In my research with Lena Stampfli, an undergraduate student, we have observed that many students miss meals or have an unhealthy diet, and do not take the time to exercise. When San Francisco State University students implemented a 4-week self-healing project as part of a class experience, those students who choose to change their eating behavior — eating breakfast; not skipping meals; reducing caffeine and simple carbohydrates; and increasing proteins, fats and fresh vegetables; and implementing daily physical exercise, such as yoga, jogging or dancing — reported significant improvements in their subjective energy level, fewer emotional outbursts and improved quality of life. This was exemplified by the following three university student reports.
“I thought I did not particularly like exercising and eating healthy, but when it is over I feel like I am on cloud nine!... I started to look forward to doing my exercises.” – A.M.
“I started to eat breakfast; I started biking to work and did a few [meditation] exercises before bed… I felt happier. I had a good outlook on life and more energy to get through the day.” – C.B.
"I have learned that letting go of what no longer serves me allows room for healing and opportunities for growth... I can only imagine what years of healthy living could do for my wellbeing.”– K.S.
My thanks to Pardis Miri, PhD, for her constructive comments.
Erik Peper, PhD, is a professor for the Institute of Holistic Health Studies in the Department of Health Education at San Francisco State University. He can be contacted at by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
. His blog link is http://www.peperperspective.com
, and his website is http://www.biofeedbackhealth.org