Updated: Oct 14, 2022
Even though it may seem impossible to control how we feel, especially when we're emotionally upset about a particular situation or person (and our nervous system is activated), I have some good news: we do have the power over our upsets and we get to decide how fast or slow we want to let go of them. It can be a matter of minutes or we can hold on to them for days, even weeks.
Now, there's absolutely nothing wrong with getting upset & triggered (in fact, it's one of the most universal things!), it's just when we hold on to that energy and it becomes draining for us and our relationships that we want to come up with a new way of overcoming it.
It's normal to have an emotional reaction
All of us get triggered and emotionally upset all the time, it's just that sometimes the upset is smaller and sometimes bigger, sometimes it's more processed and other times it's very raw.
But people impact us and we impact them, so having an emotional reaction is one of the most normal human experiences.
But it’s also true that we process emotions and cope with emotional upsets differently:
Men process emotions much faster than women. One study (McRae et al. 2008) implies that men regulate their emotions "in a quicker, more automatic way"
Some people pull their energy in and become less expressive (shut down, withdraw, detach, or avoid contact and attention) → minimizers
Some people push their energy out and become more expressive (crying, whining, pursuing, or clinging to draw attention) → maximizers
It’s good to know how you process your emotions so that you can regulate yourself accordingly and also have more understanding of the other person.
Our default upset behavior is our childhood defense strategy
In the course of our lives and in particular, during our childhood, we've all developed strategies that help us feel better when we're upset or triggered by something (defending, pursuing, yelling, withdrawing, sulking, eating, binging series - hello Netflix and co. 😁 - etc.).
These are all ways we used to soothe ourselves as little kids because back then we just didn't know what else to do to feel better and more often than not, our parents didn't have the tools either.
Think about it. If you go back to the last time you were upset:
How long did the upset last?
How did you treat yourself and the other person?
How did you deal with it?
Unless we've done deeper work around our defense strategies, we'll be reacting in the present moment from our innocent 6-year-old self.
👑 Here's a client story to illustrate this a bit better.
One of my client's defense mechanisms was sulking, which was becoming a problem in her marriage because it was putting distance between her and her husband. Whenever they had a fight, she would withdraw and sulk for days if necessary. This didn't bring her any relief and it hurt her and her husband. During our work together we discovered that as a little child that was the only way she was able to survive the hurt she felt when her parents would leave her alone for hours. The sulking protected her because it put a wall between her and the other person (if they can't come close, they can't hurt me) and made her feel safe at the time, but it wasn't helping her in her marriage.
I hope you can see that there's nothing wrong with these strategies and they served us at the time, but as adults, it's helpful to understand how to shortcut our upsets so that we can feel better sooner (and not days on end) and navigate them more skillfully so they don't put a strain on our relationship and bring us closer together vs further apart.
They just need to be updated in order for us to have more fulfilling, healthy, and safe relationships - with ourselves and with others.
It's all about moving the energy
Since emotions are big bursts of energy in our body (the Latin word "emotere" literally means energy in motion), we want to allow that energy to move through so it doesn’t get stuck. If we let it compound without a release, it can lead to stress, mental and physical health problems, unhappiness... I can't stress enough how important it is to get into the habit of releasing our emotions as soon as they come up.
Here's what an upset/trigger typically feels like:
You experience some sort of an emotional reaction (you're not neutral), whether that’s getting upset, angry, sad, withdrawn, worried, anxious, etc.
In your body, it manifests as tightness in your belly, chest, or throat; shallow breathing; faster heartbeat
Emotions really aren't bad, even the "negative" ones (all emotions just are, we're the ones that label them as positive or negative), it's just that we never properly learned how to deal with them, especially the "negative" ones.
In fact, every emotion is communicating something valuable to us. So it's more about listening and letting it pass through than trying to get rid of it.
And if you've ever tried getting rid of fear for example (which most of us do on a regular basis, ignore or reject), you will know that the more you try to push it away, the bigger it gets. And the more upset you get in the process.
4 proven ways of dealing with emotional upsets
This is something you can use right after you get activated or when you feel that the energy is still present in your body & you're still upset with the other person or the situation.
Depending on how upset you are, you can go through one or all of the steps.
1. Allow and breathe into the emotion
Harvard brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor found that it only takes 90 seconds for an emotion to dissipate and integrate back into our nervous system if we identify it, label it, and observe it without trying to change it.
We do this by dropping into our body, noticing where the energy / the contraction is stored, and breathing into it for at least 90 seconds.
The key here is acceptance. We want to give it permission to be here and stretch our capacity of being with it.
2. Do breathwork
When we're upset our bodies go into fight, flight, freeze or hide mode, our sympathetic nervous system gets activated, our heart rate goes up, and our breathing turns shallow.
One of the ways to regulate our emotions, stabilize our heart rate, and relax our body is by doing any type of breathwork.
The most simple form of breathwork is to take big deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth for a few minutes, filling our lungs with oxygen.
Studies on breathwork have shown that slow breathing has positive effects on the parasympathetic nervous system and has several benefits, such as lower stress levels, better sleep, and greater focus.
"Developing calmness through breathing also brings emotional benefits such as a centered mind. Some addiction recovery groups use breathwork to help clients stop the mental cycles that lead to relapse. Research shows that focusing on breathing rather than anxious thoughts can reduce negativity and depressive cycles." (Source)
3. Move your body
Another great way to move the emotions through your body is by movement. This can be as little as jumping around or shaking your whole body for a few minutes or doing some sort of exercise. If you can move while you're in the fresh air, even better!
Yoga is another fantastic practice because it puts a lot of focus on combining conscious breathing and movement.
It's scientifically proven that exercise produces "changes in autonomic nervous system activation (e.g., increased heart rate) and in metabolic processes, which generate a myriad of physiological changes (e.g., alterations in the levels of hormones, neurotransmitters, trophic factors, endocannabinoids, immune system function) that both elevate mood and contribute to the reduction of stress, anxiety, and depression." (Shafir, 2016)
4. Express it
There are two great ways of expressing your emotions:
a) Journaling about it
Again, this allows for the energy to move through your body and onto the page. It will help your heart and mind feel lighter.
You can do this by expressing and describing what happened, and how you felt. You can also try to understand why you had this reaction, what was the trigger etc. This is a great way of building self-awareness and understanding why you got upset, so you'll be able to recognize and readjust your response next time.
You can read more about the benefits of journaling and how to use it to process emotions here.
b) Sharing it with a friend, coach, therapist, or with the person you were triggered by
All of your emotions are wonderful and valid, whether that's hurt, sadness, frustration or happiness, joy, or love. And if no one ever said this to you before, let me be the first: You are allowed to have emotions and to express & share them. Your emotions matter.
Not only that, sharing vulnerably about what caused the upset gives the other person a window into our soul and the gift of getting to know us better. And if that person can hold space for us and accept all the colors of our rainbow, something deeply healing happens in us. We all just want to be accepted for who we are, with aaaaaaaall our shadows.
Sharing our upset out loud is also a way of letting it go, letting it out of our mind / body into the space, which frees us up.
You can share with:
a friend that you trust: preferably someone who is more accepting and can hold space for your upset
a coach / therapist: in this type of relationship you get to be more intentional with emotional work and healing. When we have activated energy, that’s an opportunity for us to work with it on a deeper level, so it gets cleared from the root. That way it has a lesser hold on us and we're able to come back faster.
the person you were triggered by: I recommend only sharing with them right away if they can hold space and not take your upset personally. Otherwise, work through it first until you are neutral about it, that way you can share from your power.
There you go. What was your one main takeaway from this article?
I would also love to know in the comments whether you tried this out and how you felt afterward. 👇
With all my love & gratitude
McRae K, Ochsner KN, Mauss IB, Gabrieli JJD, Gross JJ. Gender Differences in Emotion Regulation: An fMRI Study of Cognitive Reappraisal. Group Process Intergroup Relat. 2008 Apr;11(2):143-162.
Keeping The Love You Find Materials, Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., Revised December 1999, November 2007; current revision February 2010.
Shafir Tal, Using Movement to Regulate Emotion: Neurophysiological Findings and Their Application in Psychotherapy. Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 7, 2016.
Article, Breathwork: Science, Types, and Benefits of Breathing Exercises, 2022 (https://thehumancondition.com/breathwork-science-types-benefits/, 21.July 2022)