Beyond Talk Therapy

Towards Emotional Self-Regulation

Ideally, each of us can regulate our emotions, even under stress.  At times though, any of us can simply “lose it.”  Emotional breakdowns can be as varied as we are.  Some of us yell, some sulk, some drink to excess, some punch walls, some cry.  Terrible as the emotional mayhem may be and much as we may hate ourselves for it, chances are there will be a repeat performance unless we learn to self-regulate.

It may help to know that there are reasons WHY our emotions go haywire.  And actually, there are some pretty simple things you can do to soothe yourself when you’re on the verge of a breakdown.  In fact, practicing basic self-soothing is to emotional hygiene what taking a shower or brushing your teeth is for physical hygiene.  I’ll be teaching some of those tools for emotional regulation at a workshop on “Taking the ’Nervous’ out of the Nervous System” (see for details and registration)

First, let’s acknowledge our human nervous system’s awesome design for regulating the body and mind.  This exquisitely complex system consists of the Central Nervous System (CNS)-the brain and spinal cord – which processes information from all parts of our body, the Peripheral Nervous System which contains all the nerves outside of the CNS, both the Somatic Nervous System that carries sensory information to and from the CNS and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), responsible for regulating INVOLUNTARY body functions, such as blood flow, heartbeat, digestion and breathing.

Once we get familiar with how our Autonomic Nervous System works, we’re on our way towards emotional self-regulation.  The ANS derives its name from its automatic functioning.  The ANS has two parts:  the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System.  When things are going smoothly, those two systems are in balance.  The Sympathetic System responds automatically to anything that threatens or SEEMS to threaten our survival.  The Parasympathetic System promotes rest and healing when we are out of danger.

Fortunately, a quick reaction in case of a fire, an assault, an attack by a wild animal or any genuine danger is exactly what our ANS knows how to do well.  The commonly known “fight or flight” reaction is the body-mind’s way of saving its life.  Unfortunately, we may perceive danger because of past experience and conditioning when ‘it ain’t necessarily so.’

The good news is that even though our ANS is designed to respond at warp speed to protect us, we can moderate that instantaneous reaction when it’s a false alarm.  When the amygdala – the alarm system in our emotional brain – fires, it triggers a cascade of physiological changes in the body.  If we are not in physical danger, there are things we can DO to reverse those stress signals and activate the parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation response.

Here’s a simple 1, 2, 3 formula you can use to de-stress and move towards emotional regulation:

  1. Breathe deeply, inflating the belly and releasing the breath slowly and with control.   Repeat for 10 breath cycles  or more.
  2. Place your right hand into your left armpit and your left hand on your right shoulder.
  3. Talk to yourself gently with your own calming message, such as, “You’re safe.” “This too shall pass.”

Next time you feel close to “losing it,” stop, breathe, hold onto yourself and give yourself the message to “Calm down.  Everything is OK!!!

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