When emotions take over

DBT, dialectical behavior therapy, emotional hijacking, coping skills

Yesterday I was late for a meeting and I got stuck in traffic.  For those of you who live in the Bay Area, you know how frustrating that can be.  I felt like yelling at the cars around me and honking my horn, but none of that would help.  I had no choice but sit there, get angry and feel helpless.  And it just made it worse.

Emotions are confusing and complicated, and sometimes they take over our lives.  This is called being "hijacked".  When emotions hijack your life, you quite literally can't think - the part of your brain that is reasonable shuts down and you're left with the part that feels like the Tasmanian Devil on a bad day.  You are screaming inside with thoughts like "this is the worst thing ever", "I am worthless" or "I can't take it and I'm falling apart" and the part of your brain that might be able to help talk you down is taking a walk on a beach in Hawaii.  This can become systemic - it's like having road rage frequently, in many different aspects of your life.  So what do you do right at this moment?  

There are coping skills you can use to bring the emotions back in check just enough that you can think again.  It won't make the emotions go away, but it will give you a leg up over the hump of being hijacked.

1. Take a step back.  Remind yourself that you have no power to change the situation in this moment. Your job right now is to not make it worse by letting your out-of-control emotions drive you to make a bad decision (like honking you car horn or getting into an accident).

2. Breathe.  Put your right hand over your heart and your left hand over your belly.  Relax.  Take 10 deep, slow breaths.  Notice what happens inside.  Do you feel more or less agitated?

3. Do something nice for a stranger.  When I am stuck in traffic and feel myself getting upset, sometimes I will make a point of letting someone in (even though I feel like cutting them off).  The person is grateful and I feel better.  Another easy way to do this is smile and say hello to the person at the checkout at the grocery store, or where ever you are.

4. Hold ice.  This is one of my favorites.  Try getting a single piece of ice from the freezer and hold it in your hand.  Do nothing else but watch it melt and notice how it feels in your hands.  Don't try to speed it up, just be there as it melts slowly.  I promise you, you will feel differently after it's gone.  Don't believe me?  Try it out one day...

5. Smile.  Relax your face muscles.  Smile just a tiny bit, just enough that you can feel it but not so much that people think you're the Cheshire cat.  Like the smile on the Mona Lisa.  Gently hold that smile and breathe.  Do this for at least 5 min, or until you feel the slightest change in your emotions.  This is called a "half-smile".

Try a couple of these tips and see what what works for you.  Step back, breathe, be nice, hold ice, and half smile your way to a calmer you.  If you find one you like, I'd love to hear about it!

Using coping skills is a first step.  If you find yourself feeling hijacked frequently, you might need to look at more lasting solutions, like therapy.