Ever wonder why it’s so hard to keep your cool and stay calm when you feel a strong emotion like anger or fear?
Biologically speaking, emotions are behavioral heuristics—quick and dirty shortcuts designed by evolution to help us stay alive and safe from threats. When someone insults us or a person we care about, we feel mad and fight back; when something frightening appears out of nowhere, we feel fear and run the other way.
These emotional instincts probably served us well for most of our history as a species. When we were hunter-gatherers out on the Savanna, we were faced with life and death situations on a daily basis. Think of the aggressive neighboring tribe who wanted to plunder our village or the saber-toothed tiger that jumps out of the bushes on a hunt. In situations like this, thinking carefully about a pros/cons list of what to do means you’re dead. Instead, the key is to act quickly to stay alive.
But these days, most of us live in an environment that’s far less dangerous. Which means these old emotional reactions are less useful. And in many cases, they’re actually counterproductive for our long-term wellbeing.
But they still get triggered easily by situations that look and feel dangerous: A coworker making a sarcastic comment about our presentation; or hitting a patch of turbulence on a plane flight.
In order to perform well and maintain our wellbeing in modern life, we need to train our emotional system to be less reactive.
5 simple exercises to help you keep your cool in the face of difficult emotion
Here are five simple exercises you can use to help keep your cool and stay calm in the face of strong emotions and stressful situations.
1. Hit the Pause Button
In Short: Cultivate the habit of using strong emotion as a cue for reflection rather than action. When you’re upset, “hit the pause button” and ask yourself: What’s going on here?
Our emotional system is hard-wired to act quickly and strongly in response to emotion: When we’re angry, we fight back; when we’re afraid, we run.
Luckily, it’s possible to re-wire our responses to strong emotion. But it takes practice and training.
The first step is to condition ourselves to associate strong emotion with non-action rather than reaction. In other words, strong emotion should be a signal to “hit the pause button.” Practically speaking, this means noticing when you’re experiencing strong emotion and then reflecting on what just happened and what’s going on in your own mind before deciding how to act.
They key is to practice in small stakes situations first and then build up to more intense ones. So, for example, trying to hit the pause button on your anxiety while you’re mid-flight, in the middle of a thunderstorm, getting bounced around by a ton of turbulence is going to be tough.
Instead, try hitting the pause button to keep your cool when you see a notification from your boss that she wants to see you later. Instead of reactively worrying about what you did wrong, practice hitting the pause button and asking yourself: “Wait a second, what’s going on here, exactly? What just happened? How do I feel? What were my automatic reactions?”
Remember: If you want to get calm, get curious.
2. Take a Breath. Or five.
In Short: Most strong emotions activate our sympathetic nervous system, a.k.a. the “Fight or Flight” response. You can immediately take the edge off of this uncomfortable physical reaction by taking a few deep breaths, which activates your competing parasympathetic nervous system.
Unless your survival is in immediate danger, you probably don’t need a full-blown fight or flight response to help you make a good decision in the face of a challenging situation and powerful feelings. In fact, all the physical sensations that go along with a fight or flight response—increased heart rate, faster breathing, muscle tightness, especially in your chest, butterflies in your stomach, etc.—can be a source of worry or distraction from handling a tricky situation in the best possible way.
Getting in the habit of taking a deep breath—or better yet, a few of them—does two important things to help you keep your cool in the face of hot emotion:
- It takes the edge off your fight or flight response. Slow, deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposing system to fight or flight (the sympathetic nervous system). As one system increases in intensity, the other decreases. Which means the best way to lower your fight or flight response, is to raise your parasympathetic response, and deep breathing is the fastest way to do that.
- It helps regulate your attention. Perhaps more importantly, though, taking a few breaths and focusing on the sensation of breathing deeply redirects your attention away from unhelpful thinking patterns and negative self-talk—which only intensify your negative emotion—and allows your emotions to dissipate or weaken on their own.
Remember: To find your balance, find your breath.
3. Tell a New Story
In Short: How we feel—including how long difficult emotions last—is a result of how we think. Changing our mental habits and self-talk can dramatically improve our ability to disengage from difficult emotion.
For decades, psychologists and emotion researchers have known that how we feel emotionally is a direct consequence of how we think about and interpret the world around us. Technically, this is known as Cognitive Mediation—how we think mediates the relationship between what we perceive and how we feel emotionally about it. In other words, the stories we tell ourselves about what happens are the real drivers of how we feel.
Practically speaking, this means that we can dramatically change the way we feel by learning to think differently during or after an emotionally difficult event. In other words, if we change our storytelling, we can change our moods and improve the ability to keep your cool during big emotions.
There are two basic ways to do this:
- Change what you think. Begin to observe how you talk to yourself about what happens to you. What types of things do you tend to tell yourself when you’re angry, afraid, or sad? How accurate or realistic are those stories? What’s your inner tone of voice like? Most of us have surprisingly harsh self-talk about ourselves and our own emotional reactions. Learning to be flexible in how you talk to yourself is key to regulating your emotions better.
- Change how you think. Did you know it’s possible to be aware of a situation (both in the world and in our own mind) and not think about it? Often during an emotionally hot time, the best way to keep your cool and let the emotion dissipate is to stop feeding it with thoughts of any kind. By their nature, emotions are intense but short-lived. Which means that if you can cultivate the ability to stop thinking about what’s happening (problem-solving, fixing, judging, analyzing, predicting, etc.) and simply observe, the emotion will decrease faster than you imagine. Mindfulness is the best way to cultivate this ability.
Remember: How we habitually feel is a consequence of how we habitually think.
4. Validate Your Feelings
In Short: The best way to build long-term emotional stability and balance is to get in the habit of validating your emotions, which means the willingness to acknowledge and be with them rather than attacking or trying to escape from them.
Most of our difficulty managing emotions is the result of our brains being afraid of our emotion. In addition to just feeling bad, we end up feeling extra bad because we feel bad for feeling bad!
This happens because the way we tend to “deal with” difficult emotion is some version of make it go away or run away. The problem is, whatever you fight or run away from, your brain’s fear center learns to be more afraid of. So when we try to escape from or get rid of our own feelings, we teach our brain to be afraid of our own emotions. In the long run, this leads to us becoming increasingly reactive emotionally.
The alternative to this “fight or flight” strategy of dealing with difficult emotion is validation. Validation means acknowledging that our emotions are valid however uncomfortable or painful and being willing to have them despite their discomfort.
So how do we validate our emotions, exactly? Emotional labeling is a good start. Get in the habit of describing your emotions in plain language. Instead of I’m so stressed, I just can’t handle this anymore. Try I’m feeling really nervous and mad right now, but that makes sense given how much I’ve got going on.
Remember: Feelings, like friends, don’t respond well to being treated like problems.
5. Clarify Your Values
In Short: Remind yourself that keeping your cool in the face of hot emotions isn’t about self-control or stoicism; it’s about doing what’s in your own best interest by acting on your long-term values rather than short-term feelings.
At the end of the day, staying cool in the face of difficult emotions is a matter of priorities:
Is your highest priority to not feel so anxious right now? Or is it to visit your daughter and new grandson, even if it means taking a plane flight of which you’re terrified?
Is your highest priority to feel important and competent at your job? Or is it to do great work?
Is your highest priority to feel happy and content? Or is it to become the best version of yourself?
Emotions are powerful because they’re immediate, physical, and intense. And because of our evolutionary heritage, our default is to pursue whatever our emotions push us toward. But consider this: Just because it’s our default doesn’t mean it has to be our final decision.
Ultimately, the best way to navigate difficult emotions and moods is to stay mindful of your highest values, goals, and aspirations. Strong though they may be, a single emotion can never compete with a genuine, well-articulated value.
The task is to get in the habit of reminding ourselves of what our values really are and affirming them. When you’re in the heat of the moment, can you find the space to ask yourself: What do I value most in the present situation and what actions will move me closer toward that?
Remember: Your performance and wellbeing both depend on choosing your values over your feelings.
The ability to keep your cool is a skill you can improve if you’re willing to practice.
To sum up, difficult emotions tend to get the best of us because that’s what they evolved to do—push us in a certain direction of action quickly and without much thought. And while that may have been helpful at one time in our history as a species, when life was far more dangerous, an emotion-driven life is mostly counterproductive today.
But we can all train our brains to be less emotionally reactive if we take the time to be mindful of what’s happening during emotionally intense situations and let our values rather than our feelings guide our choices.
Nick Wignall is a clinical psychologist and writer interested in practical psychology for meaningful personal growth. You can find more of his writing at NickWignall.com.
Image courtesy of sean Kong.