How to Keep from Driving Off the Ledge

You feel that sense of worry, foreboding or doubt. Your mind slips into negative self talk, “Life is against me,” “Why me?” or “I really don’t need this right now!” Then, your fight-or-flight response increases. Anxiety. Stress. Panic. You are having a full-blown “Good grief, Charlie Brown” moment.

My least favorite thing to hear is, “Calm down.” Most of us, particularly those who despise being scrutinized, rail against the prescriptive notion of being told how to respond. Worse yet, introverts least want to be noticed when they are most out of control. Then, the same well-meaning friend says, “Just breathe.” I have seen this scenario play out poorly despite every selfless intention. Why?

Well, consider that we have our logical brain (a.k.a. analytic brain) and our emotional brain (a.k.a. animal brain) centers. Each is like a car on a shared one-lane road. Let’s say the logical brain is using the road for processing a problem, language or creating a strategy. The emotional brain may be running but is pulled off to the side of the road.

Driving with LogicOn the other hand, if the emotional brain is using the road (perhaps speeding and swerving), then the logical brain may have difficulty speeding up enough to make the next onramp. In tough situations, it is crucial to get the logical brain on that road without making the emotional brain fishtail.

Here are fabulous tips my friend’s husband, who has a degree in psychology, offered for their son:

  1. Acknowledge the meltdown – know the signs of someone slipping into an emotional state
  2. Remain calm yourself – assess by listening and being present before saying anything
  3. Offer comfort and security – if the individual is willing, initiate supportive physical contact
  4. Focus on logic not instruction – simply get the person counting or validating rational points

Now, nothing is foolproof. Keep in mind that the emotional brain operates like a souped up, turbo-charged, sports car with NOS and racing tires. The logical brain is more like a sedan—sensible, great handling and room for thought. So, what do you do when you see a winding road and your own cruise control is set to, “I’m freaking out?”

Some of the same techniques can be used internally without anyone knowing otherwise. For example, when you feel your blood boiling or your panic growing, try the following:

  1. Recognize your signals – shaking hands, tense jaw, tears welling up . . . whatever applies
  2. Be conscious of your breathing – while being told to breathe may seem condescending when you are frustrated, it is crucial to pull air in through your nose down into your abdomen (not just your lungs) and out slowly through your mouth; you should see your belly push out
  3. Honor yourself – if tears flow, if you blush or if you need to leave the room, that is totally okay
  4. Count, recite a memorized verse or spell your full name slowly to yourself – the key is to shift the situation from speeding emotion to accelerating logic
  5. Visualize your happy place – it’s helpful to build a space in your heart that only you know about where you can retreat in your thoughts for a moment of zen, comfort and reflection

Another tip worth mentioning, particularly for couples, is also brought to you by my friend’s husband. When they disagree and both begin to raise their voices, one of them has to be the first person to make a goofy, can’t-help-but-laugh face to let the air out of the tires and slow the emotional speedster.

Years of my career have been spent in crisis communications, problem resolution and interpersonal negotiation. I still constantly practice the above and have not mastered composure 100 percent of the time. It’s a road we travel our entire lives. I simply hope to see more of us pulling off to scenic spots than veering toward ledges.

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