When we have BIG feelings like anxiety, anger, and sadness, or when we are just feeling overwhelmed, we tend to get stuck in our head. Our fight or flight reactions are triggered and we start to narrowly focus on whatever caused the problem or the pain.
This can be a healthy reaction to things if the problem is we are being physically attacked, but thankfully modern life is not as often like that. Instead the best thing we can do is come out of that mental state, so we can think with a clear head again.
The 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Method (not my invention) can be helpful with this. It involves using all five of our senses to reconnect us with the world outside of our head. And of course if you lack one or more of these senses, feel free to adapt it how you see fit.
The idea is to acknowledge 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. If I am in a position where there is not much around me to see or smell (such as laying in bed) I will think about things I encountered that day.
The benefit of this technique is to remind you that the rest of the world exists, and that it isn't falling apart. It also takes time to run thru the process, giving our mind-body a chance to slow down the release of those nasty hormone chemicals.
(More about those chemicals here!)
I like to not only name the object I can sense, but also think about the object. For example if I see a chair, I like to think about why the chair is shaped the way it is, who could have designed it, what I like about it, why we have chairs at all, etc. By the time I am done with this I am curious about the world again, and not lost in my own problems.
Ever catch yourself feeling angry and wish you could just shut it right off? If only it were that easy.
When something makes us angry, our amygdala -the almond shaped mass in our brain responsible for fight or flight- says "my time is now." Before we have a moment to think it over, the amygdala commands our body to produce and rapidly fire chemicals such as adrenaline throughout our body.
Unless we are in the rare position of actually fighting off a real attacker, this is not a mental state we want to be in. Prolonged anger can lead to health problems like heart disease and significant damage to relationships.
(Click here for more on couples counseling)
Ideally we would stop anger like stepping on a car's brake. At the size of a common vehicle we can go from 60 to 0 pretty rapidly. But anger is not like that. Anger is like a 100-car train flying down the tracks. In the cab of the train's locomotive the engineer pulls the brake lever to stop. The brakes are applied, but that of course does not stop the train 'in its tracks'. With all that weight behind it, it can take a large train well over a mile to stop.
Adrenaline is like that. Once you notice it moving in your head, the brake lever needs to be thrown immediately to head off disaster. The force of the adrenaline will want to keep the train moving. That is why it is important to not let up on the brake when the adrenaline urges you to.
Whatever method you use to calm - breathing, mindfulness, walking away - do it and stick to it as soon as you notice the nasty chemicals flowing.