I’ve found I can’t do much to prevent the rise of strong negative emotions—anger, panic, fear, anxiety, frustration, sadness, hopelessness, resentment.
Besides, they’re often justifiable, especially in emotionally or physically toxic environments, and on those days when one calamity after another seems to strike.
But ruminating on what caused the feelings or acting impulsively when I’m in the grip of a negative state does nothing to fix the situation and may send me on a downward spiral to a place I don’t want to go.
Midwinter seems to bring on more of these states than other times of year. Below, I share a few tips that help me halt that downward plunge.
I think of them as “calling down the calm.”
Each of my calming strategies begins with noticing the rising feeling, naming it, then intervening quickly to restore emotional balance.
In my experience, calling down the calm is empowering because each technique involves self-awareness and choice. Each of these strategies is available immediately, costs nothing, and takes no training.
Why calm down?
Strong negative feelings evoke a cascade of physiological responses that enable us to respond quickly to genuine threat. But allowed to fester, the same responses endanger our health.
Plus harboring negative emotions makes me feel lousy. It’s no accident our words anger , anxiety, and angst share a common ancient root, which means to narrow, squeeze, or choke. Held onto, negative feelings narrow my perspective, shrink my options, and choke any possible joy from the moment.
- Take a breath (or 10). Breath is one of our greatest psychological and physiological tools. It’s always available, and practiced mindfully it exerts immediate positive effects on both body and mind.
- Count. Mom’s old advice, “Count to ten,” really holds up in moments of great emotional stress. It not only refocuses attention, but its ordering function tends to keep me moving forward with the task at hand, or with a calm and appropriate response to the situation.
- Just stay with the discomfort. Somebody once gave me this valuable advice: “Nobody ever died from a strong feeling. Sometimes just sitting with your discomfort and doing nothing is the most powerful act of all.” This is different from suppression, because I’ve acknowledged the rising feeling and named it. I find naming a powerful psychological tool because it gives me some distance from the focus of my discomfort, so I don’t fully identify with it. I feel angry, but I’m not the anger.
- Stop! Sometimes just interrupting the negative feeling with a stern injunction to quit it works wonders. Because all I have to do to avoid any damage from hanging onto a feelng, really, is just stop it cold
- Move. Intentional physical movement—a quick turn around the parking lot or the driveway, a few jumping jacks—brings the attention to the working muscles instead of the mental chaos.
- Laugh. Laughing, even when you don’t feel like it, measurably reduces stress hormones, and positively affects immune function and cardiovascular systems. Researchers say laughter is contagious and works its magic best in company with others. But laughing alone works, too. Fake laughter works. Even anticipating a humorous experience confers health benefits.
- Groan, shout, or shriek. People instinctively groan in the grip of strong emotion. But I’m talking about groaning intentionally, just to break the grip of a negative emotion. It works wonders for me. I do most of my groaning and shrieking in my car (alone), where I don’t feel self-conscious. Groaning and shrieking encourages deeper, more complete breathing (see above), and sometimes lapses into hilarious laughter (see above).
Finally, when I can remember to, I take the advice of the opening lines from Carl Sandburg's wonderful poem, Joy:
Let a joy keep you
Reach out your hands and take it as it runs by.
After all, nothing describes the corrosive effects of long-held negative feelings than “the little deaths.” I'm for grabbing the next little joy that runs by.