A 5-Step Plan To Calm Down When You’re Upset
Whenever I get upset, I wonder if it's just me, since it often seems like everyone else is so cool and collected. But other people must freak out sometimes, right? I mean, how could I be the only one out there who occasionally reaches my limit of patience, trust, and inner peace and just feels like screaming?
I have two daughters under 10, and — believe it or not — I've learned a lot about managing my temper from them. They are losing their cool less and less as they grow up, but it still happens, usually over some sisterly squabble.
I've noticed one remarkable thing that my youngest daughter, Nava, does when she gets upset. She usually starts out by asking for what she wants or needs from her sister, though when she doesn't get it, she gets mad. And when Nava is mad, she either yells, runs into her room and slams the door, or throws something. (And no, that's not the remarkable part.) The remarkable part is that she then emerges, usually within a couple of minutes, with a serene look on her face, and proclaims, "All better!"
As any parent knows, our children are definitely our spiritual teachers. And I was so impressed (and jealous!) of Nava's ability to recover quickly from being upset, that I asked her how she does it. To my surprise, Nava told me that she has a five step plan that she follows (that she invented!) and here it is.
1. Breathe into your discomfort.
"Just breathe" is advice we've all heard over and over. But it turns out this advice is actually scientifically-sound. Breath affects the heart, brain, digestion and the immune system — all parts of the body that are profoundly altered by stress. Research has shown that deep breaths lower levels of stress hormones by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, our body's natural relaxation response.
2. Close your mouth so the sounds can't come out.
I've seen Nava press both of her hands over her mouth when she's upset, and now I know why. What a simple and yet profound step in her plan: allow your body to calm down before you shout something you will regret later. This doesn't mean suppress your emotion, but rather focus on stabilizing your acute stress state so that you can communicate clearly and with purpose.
3. Make up a mantra. And repeat it.
For instance, tell yourself, Feel better, feel better, feel better. These are the words that work for Nava. For me, the mantra would likely be something more like, Everything is going to be OK or You don't have to have all of the answers right this minute. Whatever the mantra, finding the words that soothe you and then repeating them to yourself until you feel relief is the key to this step.
4. Close your eyes.
Closing your eyes takes you immediately away from the upsetting trigger and anchors you in the sensations of your body. It is easier to focus on your breath and internal calming mantra when your eyes are closed and external stimuli is decreased.
5. Shift your vantage point, and focus on something new.
I'm guessing Nava's happy thoughts have something to do with unicorns, but to each his or her own. I have a mental portfolio of happy thoughts I turn to when needed, which run the gamut from happy memories to dreams of future adventures.
Happy thoughts actually decrease the stress hormone cortisol and increase serotonin, the neurotransmitter of well-being: brain research has shown that happy thoughts increase both mental productivity and the ability to analyze; they literally make us think more clearly.
Thinking clearly is really the goal of this five step plan, because when we are upset and defensive, our thoughts can become toxic. As a result, our ability to reason can become greatly suppressed. My daughter Nava may not be a scientist (yet), but she has taught me a valuable method that is helping to keep the peace in our home. And if any of our family members forget the five steps, we have them posted on the refrigerator to remind us.