I have a hard time controlling my emotions because I feel things deeply. Do you have any advice for helping me calm my reactions and get control of myself? Also, how can I teach my children to get control of themselves so they don’t inherit my bad habit of throwing a fit over things?
I’m so glad you asked this because many of the techniques I teach in these articles involve thinking your way out of reactions.
The problem is when you get upset and triggered into a fear-based reaction, you are functioning in fight-or-flight mode.
Research has shown when people go into fight-or-flight mode, they don’t have access to their frontal lobe, which is the rational, thinking part of the brain. So you are not capable of choosing your way out of these upset reactions — at least until you calm your body down, get out of fight-or-flight and get your frontal lobe back online.
Learning to calm yourself down is a skill everyone needs to learn and teach their children. Children and teens who learn how to calm their nervous system have less anxiety and stress and are more emotionally intelligent, studies have shown. They also have more capacity to choose their mindset in any situation.
It is very normal to get upset and emotional when you feel mistreated, insulted, criticized or threatened, and it’s normal to have strong emotional reactions to these situations. These reactions are kind of like riptides — they are strong and fast, and can pull you into dangerous water — in this case, bad behavior that sabotages your relationships — before you even consciously know what’s happening.
Understanding real riptides can help you learn to escape emotional reactions. A riptide is often misunderstood because it does not pull a swimmer under water — it simply carries the swimmer away from the shore.
Many people who get caught in riptides do not understand this and they try to swim against it. The danger here is they can exhaust themselves and drown.
But if they were educated on how riptides work, they would know they can easily exit the riptide by swimming at an angle to it. If they swim sideways, parallel to the shore, they can easily exit the current and return safely to land, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website.
Experts recommend this approach if you get caught in a riptide:
1. Don’t fight the current.
2. Stay calm to conserve your energy and think clearly.
3. Think of it like a treadmill — it cannot be turned off, but you can easily step to the side and get off. Swim sideways following the shoreline and when out of the current swim for the shore.
You can calm down your upset emotions the same way. Here is a simple procedure you can practice when experiencing strong emotional reactions to calm yourself down and choose a better response:
1. Don’t fight the feelings of anger or hurt. Just sit with them for a minute and don’t do anything yet. Each emotion is an interesting dimension of the human experience and feeling them can teach you things. Make note of how your ego (the reactive, selfish part of you) wants to respond. Can you feel how much your ego wants to respond with selfishness, defensiveness or anger?
These are strong feelings, but the more you sit in them, you will see they are not your only option. Feeling this upset is a choice. But you can always choose to change the story you are telling yourself around this, see the situation in a different way, and choose a calmer, more mature and unselfish response.
2. Stay calm. Take a step back from the event and do some calming exercises. We recommend learning diaphragmatic breathing or engaging your peripheral vision by focusing on seeing the two sides of the room at the same time. This may sound weird, but you can’t activate your peripheral vision and stay in fight-or-flight at the same time. Read more about why this works in this Panicyl blog post.
3. Think your way through it. Ask yourself, "What am I really upset about? What am I afraid of here? Why do I feel threatened? Am I applying meaning here that may not be accurate? What will happen if I choose to be upset? Is that what I want? Is being upset a choice? Is there any other way I could choose to feel in this moment?"
4. Exit the reactive current. This is where you get to step to the side or exit the reactive current by choosing a mindset that runs parallel to principles of truth — principles that provide solid ground and safety, like the shore. If the fear reaction is the riptide, you can choose thoughts based in trust and love, and you can step right out. Choose to trust these principles of truth instead of embracing fear in any moment:
It will take some work to master this, but you can do it!
I love your radio show. It is the only reason I am not completely a mess right now. I could use some help though on a specific challenge I am going through. I feel like I need some tools to deal with disappointment. My husband’s job sent us away to live in another country and I’m miserable. I do not like living here at all. I am really struggling as I hate everything about this experience. It has meant putting my education on hold and I’m totally out of my comfort zone. There was a job opening back home and I got so excited that we could move back, and then my husband didn’t get it, which has just shattered my mental well-being. How can I cope with all of this better?
Life can be miserable, disappointing and frustrating at times, but a part of our suffering over these disappointments may be self-inflicted. Even though you cannot change the situation, we believe you can change the way you see and experience it.
The answer to lessening your suffering lies in changing your perspective about the nature of life altogether. We are going to help you do that by recommending you adopt a new policy about the nature of life: It is what it is.
If it was supposed to be something else, it would be.
If you look at the universe and the planet we live on, you will see perfect order everywhere. Everything from the smallest insect to the largest planet in the galaxy — they do what they do, when they do it, for a reason. The entire universe is perfect order, beauty and purpose. Can you see that?
Do you really think your life is an exception? Is your life really a bunch of bad luck accidents that mean nothing and serve no purpose?
There is no way to know for sure. There is no absolute, provable truth on whether there is order in your journey or it’s all just random bad luck. This means you can choose a perspective for yourself.
You can choose to believe there is perfect order in the universe and everything happens for a reason.
With this mindset you will spend your time looking for the lessons and the blessings, instead of complaining about, resisting and regretting that things aren’t different. But you are also going to have to change your expectations, which are nothing but thoughts and illusions you make up and become overly attached to. They aren’t real. You must let go of your expectations so you can make peace with life as it is.
We recommend that you get some paper and write down all the expectations you had for your life (write every small thing you expected to be different than it is). Then tie that paper to a balloon and let it float away up into the sky and let those expectations all go.
Decide to embrace what your life is right now as perfect. This doesn’t mean you give up working to make things better, though. You can keep working on improving things and finding another job in the states, while at the same time understanding that you are where you are for a reason. There is some beautiful lesson you are meant to learn by being exactly where you are right now.
Here are four more things you can do to change how you feel about your life:
1. Accept responsibility for creating the expectation that your life should be different than it is. You created this illusion so you can uncreate it. Choose a mindset based in truth about the nature of the journey. This will produce less self-pity and suffering. Live in optimism that things will get better, but also in trust that what is — is perfect, for some reason.
2. Practice gratitude. If you are going to compare your life with other people’s — at least make sure you compare yourself with those who have less or have it worse than you, not just those who have more or better. There are plenty on both sides. Choose gratitude for what you do have and count your blessings daily.
3. Accept there is meaning and purpose behind every experience. See if you can list 10 positives that the hard situation in your life has created. Look for how your experience could be improving you. Choose to focus on being a better person.
4. Understand that your journey doesn’t define you or have any effect on your value.Your current experience is just a location on your journey. It is a class you were signed up for, but it doesn’t have any bearing on who you are or your value. We believe you aren't being punished with these experiences but you are being blessed by them. You just don’t know why or how yet.
5. Forgive life for disappointing you. You might want to write a letter and vent about your disappointments. Write that you aren’t happy, but you don’t want to live in bitterness, regret, rejection, resentment, judgment, criticism and pain any longer. Choose to embrace what is — and live in love, trust, acceptance, forgiveness and peace instead.
Every moment of every day you must consciously make this choice. Some days when things are rough we live five minutes at a time. Decide for the next five minutes you will accept your situation as a blessing and choose some form of joy. The anger and sadness might creep back in, but you have the power to choose again. As you practice this it gets easier and lasts longer.
We know it’s not easy, but it is that simple.
You can do it.
"I am a 29-year-old single man, living in Utah with no family and I am often lonely. I adopted a dog three years ago and she has helped me tremendously, but still at times I get down. What advice can you give to those that are looking to be able to enjoy life to the fullest without yearning to be in a relationship? What could I do to live a more mentally healthy life and turn off the empty feeling that without a relationship, my life isn’t good enough? I see your advice tends to be more towards couples, but I hope to hear your take on this."
The idea your life isn’t complete without a relationship is just belief. Even if your religion emphasizes marriage, the truth is that many people, besides you, don’t have families and are undertaking a solo journey.
There is no universal law that states "Happiness can only happen in a relationship and being by yourself is lonely or sad." That is not truth — it’s just a belief.
How you feel about every situation in your life is dependent on your beliefs and perspectives about it. You can tell yourself that being single is sad and be depressed every day, or you can tell yourself another story. You can choose a story that focuses on the upsides to the solo journey — and there are many.
There are pros and cons to being in a relationship, and there are pros and cons to being single. One is not necessarily better, easier or worse than the other.
You could choose a story about how wonderful it is to have freedom and time to take care of yourself and do things you like to do. You can always choose to focus on the positives. You could also choose to believe you have the exact same value as every other human being on the planet, in a relationship or out.
One life outlook can make you miserable and one can make you feel better. How do you want to live?
Here are 10 other ways to increase your happiness as a single person:
1. Stay away from media that depicts happy couples, families, romance and relationships and shows they all as blissful. It’s not reality. Being in a relationship is just as hard (or harder) than being alone. It just has a different set of challenges. Be realistic about how challenging relationships can be and appreciate the good parts of having some freedom and alone time.
2. Remember you aren’t really ever alone. There are people all around you. You may not have a romantic partner, but you have friends, co-workers, family and other humans you could put effort into spending time with. Make more friends and build your circle of support.
3. Start a bucket list. But don’t stop with 10 things. Write a list of at least 150 things you would like to do, see, learn, eat or experience before you die. With a list that long you will have to get started today making your life full, interesting and fulfilling.
4. Plan trips and travel alone or invite friends to join you. Getting out and seeing the world enriches your life in ways a stable relationship never could. One isn’t better or worse they are just different.
5. Join meet up groups and take classes. Learn new things, make new friends and take on passion projects or service opportunities.
6. Get more exercise. I often ask clients to imagine their family disappeared and they were all alone in the world, what would they be doing with their time. On the top of everyone’s list is more exercise. Those are the things you need to be doing now. Spend all the time you would be putting into a relationship, taking care of yourself.
7. Eat better, be healthy and make self-care a priority. Did you know singles are more likely to be fit and healthy than people in relationships? They eat better and get more exercise. One study showed singles gained an average of 14 or more pounds when they started a relationship and singles get more sleep too.
8. Focus on what you do have. Practice gratitude daily. See the magic and beauty in the small things of life.
9. Work on your home space and make it your own. Decorate and create a space where you love to be.
10. Remember that nothing lasts forever. Every chapter of your life changes eventually. When life is dark you can count on it — the next light chapter is coming because nothing lasts.
Claim your power to choose your attitude moment by moment each day. Choose joy, choose to focus on the good in your life and count the small blessings. Even if it means choosing joy for just five minutes at a time.
You can do this.
Kimberly Giles and Nicole Cunningham are the human behavior experts behind www.12.shapes.com. They host a weekly Relationship Radio show
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.