Even on good days we can experience a range of emotions from positive to negative. But on these days, just like a well-designed ocean liner, we can ride the waves and right our thinking and actions. Researchers refer to this quality of self-balancing in humans as “resiliency” and have identified this as an important factor in success in academic, professional, and personal life.
Yet in moments of stress and tension we can become “flooded” with emotions- overwhelmed by a wave of feelings, thoughts, and memories. We can literally feel like we are drowning in our internal experiences. We may despair and panic and question whether we can even can go on living. Our sense of balance becomes completely lost.
The challenge of these moments can be that the more we try to correct for the roll and pitch the more out of control we feel. Thoughts and memories may intrude that undermine whatever progress we feel that we are making. Old failures and mistakes may surface taunting our efforts to improve our situation. The more our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors storm the harder we fight to control and the more we are flooded. We become locked in a vicious carousel of anger and despair.
Breaking free of these cycles requires a recognition that a) our best efforts to ‘think and feel’ our way through these situations have become self-defeating and b) that the first step in correcting our course may have to be learning to ‘ride with’ the problem rather than resisting it. Like the ocean liner we may have to turn into the wave and allow it to wash over us rather than acting as if we can control it. Seven skills can be critical in allowing us to reduce the panic as we release self-defeating “control” and restore our balance and resilience
1) Breathe: In moments of intense stress and emotion a natural and unconscious reflex can be to breathe in a low, shallow manner. At times we may even stop breathing unawares. Using slowed, focused breathing will restore calm through providing much needed oxygen as well as refocusing your thoughts. A calming breath should take 5 seconds to inhale through the nose and ten seconds to breathe out through the mouth.
2) Reorient: Because our brains do not differentiate between stress and actual threats to our well-being, our senses narrow and our focus is geared toward survival. Time may seem to stand still and we may not notice cold, heat, or other physical sensations. Reorienting ourselves to our current location, time, and situation by carefully looking, listening, and smelling can help reorient us to the present.
3) Stretch/move: The brain’s response to stress releases a series of hormones and neurotransmitters that cause our bodies to tense and shrink in preparation for a fight or flight response. This ‘freeze’ response can be protective but can induce its own panic response if not released. Walking, stretching, even yawning allows you to naturally purge the overabundance of stress chemicals in our body.
4) Recognize boredom: Because our thoughts and perceptions become intensely narrowed during periods of stress they can also become extremely repetitious and tedious. The ensuing boredom can trigger its own type of panic as the mind struggles to find new avenues. Stimulate and challenge the brain- read a book, do a puzzle, work sudokus- provide fresh information and opportunities.
5) Self-talk: In periods of panic our reactions often become instinctual and nonverbal. We are reacting versus thinking and acting. We lappowerful experience toward reducing overwhelming loneliness.se into actions driven by the most primitive parts of our brain. Reestablishing a link to the higher functions of the frontal cortex can be achieved by using self-talk. Force yourself to put words to your thoughts and actions, even internally, to slow your thoughts and reactions. It can also be an important opportunity to use prayers, affirmations, and other positive statements to redirect our thinking.
6) Reconnect: Retreat and hiding are natural, instinctual responses to perceptions of threat and stress. Yet these actions often result in isolation which becomes overwhelming in and of itself. Without supports or connections we may become cut off from resources, even life essentials. Making eye contact or speaking to even one other person can be a powerful experience in reducing overwhelming loneliness.
7) Honor your body: A natural response in periods of intense stress is to ignore, even shut down, awareness of body sensations including: pain, fatigue, hunger, and tension. This instinctual response could serve to keep us alive if we are physically threatened. Yet in periods of extended mental and emotional stress they become amplifying factors in our sense of stress and panic. Paying attention to and addressing these needs as they appear will ensure that we can physically manage the challenges we face.
Intense emotions can come crashing over us in storms of panic. Seven skills can provide a simple, initial framework for redirecting us out of fighting the storm and into steering our way through to the life we desire. Begin the process of developing your skills for steering free from emotional storms and charting a course for living.