Rx 16 Five Tools for Handling Painful and Runaway Emotions

By Dr. S.D. Shanti Copyright ©2020

Excerpted from my book The Time-Starved Woman’s Guide to Emotional Wellbeing.

Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that this information is solely for educational purposes. It is not a substitute for help from a licensed mental health professional or other medical professional.

Your ability to clarify your thoughts can help you untangle yourself from negative emotions. When you act with intention to reduce the number of negative thoughts you have, you are taking deliberate steps toward the healthy side of The Spectrum of Wellbeing.

1. Stop Sign—Putting the Brakes on Runaway Emotions

If you feel your negative emotions careening out of control, visualize a stop sign. Stop the swarm of thoughts in your mind. Then step back, and take a deep breath. Disengage from the situation and return to it when you calm down. It’s that simple—but it works.

2. Hit Your Reset Button—Clearing Your Mind and Committing to Your Priority

When your mind is filled with too many negative thoughts, worries, or self-sabotaging remarks, stop thinking. Silence the chatter. Clear your mind and let it go blank. Then start over fresh and define what is most important in the moment, commit to it, and pursue your priority.

To get rid of negative words and thoughts, try picturing the reset button on a computer and envision yourself pushing it. Then let your thoughts fall away and restart with what is most important. 

Words and thoughts are important. But in excess, they can literally be “too much” and block your flow and feed into distress. Having an onslaught of excessive thoughts is like having too many computer files—text, images, music, and presentations—open at the same time; when they run in parallel, they slow down your computer and frustrate you.

When you hit your Reset Button, clear your mind and open only the most important file! Then, with a focused mind, identify your goal, commit to what needs to get done, and do it.

You can vary the Reset Button metaphor to suit your preference. To get you started, here are a couple of variations on the theme:

  • Picture a chalkboard in a classroom, so full of words and diagrams that the amount of information makes you feel tense. Erase the board. Then write only what is most important.  Commit to that and go forward.
  • Alternatively, you might find the image of a toilet handle helpful. It is graphic but effective. When you feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts and emotions, do a “flush and focus”—flush the handle, let the excess of words and thoughts flow away, then focus on what’s important.

3. Teflon Mind—Letting Upsets Slide Away

This tool, created by Marsha Linehan, a professor and researcher at the University of Washington, has you picturing your upsetting thoughts on a non-stick pan and then letting them slide off, the way eggs or pancakes do. Use this image any time someone upsets you. Tell yourself immediately to do a Teflon Mind so the distress doesn’t stay with you like stuck-on batter. Instead, take deep breaths and let your upsets slide away, and go on with your day.

4. Time Out—Getting Some Space to Gather Your Thoughts

When you find yourself in a tense situation, take a Time Out to get some space and gather your thoughts. This tool allows you to put the brakes on your runaway emotions and keeps you from making potentially damaging or embarrassing remarks.

An ancient Sanskrit proverb says that the spoken word is like an arrow. Once released, you can’t take it back. No matter how you release it, whether in person, by voicemail, or by e-mail, what is said is said, and what is sent is sent—there is no retrieving it.

The next time you feel yourself spiraling into a heated argument, take a Time Out before you say something you’ll regret. Do something to help you disengage from the upsetting situation so you’re more in control of yourself and not flooded with anger or other negative emotions.

Tell the other person you need some space before you can continue the discussion. Go into another room and take deep breaths. Get a drink of water. Go surf the Internet for a few minutes. The point is to do something neutral—anything—to shift your focus and reduce your tension. Then come back to the discussion when you are more grounded.

Caution! Don’t use a Time Out to avoid an issue. Let the other person know that you plan to return to the topic when you are calmer. Time Outs save you lots of heartache and regret.

5. Calming Visualizations—Accessing Peace in Stressful Situations

Let your imagination support you in feeling calm. By visualizing calm scenes, you can access peace in stressful situations.

Close your eyes and picture an image or a place that gives you a peaceful feeling. Breathe gently and slowly as you let yourself become fully absorbed in your imagination.

Exhale and let your body relax. Conjure up this pleasant image whenever you are feeling stressed or you are about to enter a situation that is outside your comfort zone.

Take a Deep Breath and Relax

By S.D. Shanti, PhD. Originally published in 2001 in HealthAndAge.com; updated and revised March 2020

Introduction

Breathing. It is something you have been doing since you were born and do without a second thought. The interesting thing about breathing is that it is automatic and at the same time, partially within your control.

Proper breathing offers you many health benefits. Awareness and modification of your breath is an effective tool for managing negative motions such as fear and worry.

No matter where you are, or in whatever kind of situation you are in, your breath can serve as an anchor to still your mind when it wants to race in the direction of unwanted thoughts.

Become Aware of Your Breathing

The first step in using your breath as a tool to help manage your emotions, is to pause and reflect on your breath.  Do you generally take slow deep breaths? Or do you tend to breathe in a shallow way?

From this initial awareness, you can move on to observing which parts of your body you are using as you breathe. Are you breathing in a way that your belly actively expands and contracts with each breath?

Next, notice how your breathing pattern changes in response to various situations around you. How is your breathing pattern connected to your thoughts?

Note your answers to these questions as you continue to read this article, and see what might be applicable to your situation.

What Goes on When You Breathe?

Breath and the act of breathing are the basis of life. That is how we get the oxygen we need for our body to survive, and that is also how we eliminate carbon dioxide.

What is Proper Breathing?

You are breathing at your best when the exchange of gasses is occurring to your fullest extent. Proper breathing is also characterized by slow, steady and deep breaths. It is the kind of breathing you do when you are asleep, and involves the diaphragm, a major muscle that sits below the lungs and above the abdomen.

You can tell if you are using your diaphragm fully by looking at what happens as you breathe. Is your belly gently moving in and out as you inhale and exhale? If so, it is likely that you are breathing properly.

What is Improper Breathing?

Improper or inefficient breathing is generally characterized by a shallow pattern that involves the upper part of the chest and shoulders rather than the abdomen and diaphragm. So instead of the abdomen moving, the shoulders and upper chest are more active. In addition, this kind of breathing can be irregular and fast.

Take a look at how you breathe. If you find that you are using your shoulders more than your abdomen, it is likely that you are not breathing as fully as you can.

Why is Proper Breathing Essential to Wellbeing?

When a person does not breathe properly, they are not exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide efficiently. As a result, people with poor breathing could feel tired.

Additionally, poor breathing patterns are associated with anxiety, panic and worries. While poor breathing is not a cause of anxiety, the two are intimately connected with one another.

When a person feels anxious, they may begin to breathe faster than usual without even realizing it. The fast breathing can serves as a signal to the individual that things are not going well. As a result, this may make a person feel even more worried or scared; and this can lead them to keep breathing faster and taking shallow breaths.

Additionally, there is the very real possibility that rapid shallow breathing brings less oxygen to the lungs, making a person feel worse. This serves as a further signal that something is wrong.

In such situations, if a person slows down their breathing at the first sign of anxiety, they will have more control over their negative feelings.

When Can Deep Breathing Help You Cope Better?

Deep breathing is a tool that you always have on hand. It can help you be at your best, no matter what the situation.

Here are some examples that show how deep and steady breathing can be useful when:

  • Finding yourself feeling anxious or worried –  even when you cannot clearly identify the cause of your worry;
  • Dealing with cravings – such as for a particular food item, or for a cigarette;

  • Discussing important matters with a family member, with whom you have a history of conflict;

  • Being assertive and standing up for what you want – be it at home, work or in any other setting;

  • Dealing with invasive medical procedures such as having blood drawn, getting scoped or having an eye exam;

  • Awaiting news such as lab test results.

Barriers to Proper Breathing

Some people may have a medical problem that prevents them from expanding their abdomen and extending their diaphragm fully. If you have such difficulties, speak with your health care provider, and see what they can advise you.

Many times, even if a person has difficulty with abdominal or belly breathing, chances are there is still room for improvement. For instance, you can learn to be aware of the connection between your breathing patterns and your emotions, and consciously do belly breathing to regulate your breathing pattern when feeling tense.

If you do not have a medical problem, but nevertheless find yourself having difficulty breathing to your fullest capacity, try the following:

Empty your lungs as much as you can, and then take deep breaths. As you breathe out, exhale as fully as possible. Then, focus on your abdomen and push it out, expanding it slowly while you are breathing in.

Some people may be reluctant to breathe fully with their belly, not because of medical reasons, but because they think it makes them look fat. They think a relaxed abdomen is unattractive, and hold in their abdominal muscles tightly. Similarly, tight clothing such as control top pantyhose or undergarments can block your ability to breathe fully.

Remember that fashion does not always dictate what is best for our health. If you choose to keep wearing tight garments, give yourself periods of time during the day when you can enjoy deep and full breathing, without being restricted by tight clothes.

Attend to Your Posture

If you spend long hours at a desk hunched over a key board, it is possible that you are curving your body in a way that prevents you from breathing fully.

As you work on increasing your frequency and technique of deep breathing, be sure to attend to your posture.

Make the necessary corrections if needed, so that you return to a correct position. If you are not sure about your posture while you work, or if you have a tendency to start out straight, but then slump forward the longer you sit at your desk, here are a couple of ways that can help you return to a more ideal posture.

You can observe yourself in a mirror or window pane periodically to make sure that you are on track. You can also use your capacity for self-awareness to observe your posture periodically. When you work long hours, you may consider setting a timer to assist you in checking you posture – for instance, once an hour.

If there are people around you with whom you feel comfortable, you can ask them to periodically take photos of you so you can track how your posture changes over the course of the day, as well as get specific details about what exactly you may need to correct it.

Practice Makes Perfect

Your ability to breathe deeply and regularly can be enhanced through regular practice.

Set aside five to ten minutes a day and practice. Some people find it best to practice in the morning, before starting their day. Others find this more useful as a way to relax after a long day.

Try sitting in a comfortable chair as you practice. Alternatively, you can also lie on your back – on the bed or floor – with your arms and legs comfortably extended.

If you fall asleep while practicing, it is likely that you are tired and need the sleep. Get some rest and practice later when you feeling more awake.

To practice on a regular basis, it is helpful to schedule a specific time of day. You can write it in your calendar or daily planner and set up a “deep breathing appointment.” By putting it into your daily schedule, you are more likely to successfully practice.

Remember, the more often you practice deep regular belly breathing, the better you will become at it; and you can more readily go into a deep and slow breathing pattern when you are responding to difficult situations.

Variations on Practice

You can count your breath in cycles of four if you like. You may find it helpful in terms of keeping a steady rhythm. Upon inhaling each breath, you can number them, “one…two…three…four…” and then return to one, and start over again.

Some people find it helpful to rest the palm of their hand on their abdomen as they are practicing breathing. This is yet another way to draw your attention to your breathing, and not let your mind wander.

Watching your hand rise and fall on your belly gives you an indication of how much you are moving your abdominal muscles. You can also place your other hand on your chest, if you wish to highlight the contrast between deep breathing and shallow breathing.

Breathe Deeply and Reap the Benefits

With regular practice, two things will happen:

  • Your overall level of reactivity to difficult and worrisome situations will be reduced. Fewer things will bother you, so you will have less reason to feel tense or anxious.
  • With practice, you can learn to train yourself to immediately invoke a state of relaxation. You can think of it as a tool that you can use as needed in difficult situations.

Please remember that the above information is educational. If you are experiencing difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, please contact your physician or other healthcare provider as soon as possible.