When strong emotions are activated, they strain your nervous system if they are not regulated. Think of the transmission of a car when the speed is too fast for the gear it’s in and you’ve got an apt analogy.
Regulating emotions doesn’t mean cutting off from them. That would be analogous to autopilot. Autopilot might handy for external travel, but it makes for a more dull and dry inner journey as a human.
Another way to think of cutting off from emotions is to imagine driving a car without a speedometer, tachometer, or any other meters and gauges, and without being able to hear the engine. Cutting off from emotions cuts you from a lot of important information about what is going on beneath the “hood” of your body. If you can feel your emotions without getting lost in them and listen to what they are telling you about your needs, and your intuition, then you can better drive to where you want to go.
Sometimes, I’m asked if regulating emotions is the same as calming them. There often is a calming of emotions when regulating. However, I’m cautious with the word “calming” as it reminds me of a “Calm down” response to emotions. The “Calm down” response can easily lead to cutting off from emotions and judging them. With emotional regulation, the goal is to bring the energy of the emotion to a level that allows us to relate well to ourselves and others and make healthy choices.
If your nervous system is pushed hard from fear, there are several things you can do to ease the pressure.
- Long, slow exhales of your breath helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The PNS ( sometimes known as the rest and digest nervous system ) is the part of your autonomic nervous system that helps slow things down.
- Following your breath into your body with loving attention such that you feel into and through the sensations in your body can add to the regulation. If that is difficult, take it in steps: going close with your attention, then pulling back. When you pull your attention back, you can take it to a place that is safe and comforting for you – imagining you’re in a forest or at the beach, etc. Continue pendulating back and forth until your nervous system settles.
If you have the time and appropriate space, another way to work with the breath is to fill up your lungs and through your mouth and then let your chest and belly fall as you exhale out your mouth, repeating as much as necessary. Sighing when you exhale in this way can add to regulation. Again, follow your breath into and through the sensations in your body with loving attention, pendulating if needed.
Adding some movement to either of those types of breathing, such as light bouncing, nodding, or shaking, may add to the regulation. If anger is the emotion, then bigger breath and movement might be more helpful.
The above breathing processes have helped me and others many times, but not always.
I once had great and surprising success calming my fear with anger. I was taking a short flight on a very small plane. As soon as I entered the plane, claustrophobia gripped me. I immediately began the first breathing technique outlined above but it didn’t help. I was preparing myself for a very uncomfortable flight when I remembered a piece on anger and fear that I’d read in the book Healing Developmental Trauma by Laurence Heller and Aline Lapierre. It was a borrowed book, so the exact words are not available to me, but the essence of the piece is that anger can get repressed under fear when the circumstances related to past anger became frightening and unsafe. When current circumstances are similar enough to those past circumstances, the fear that arises can have the repressed anger beneath it. Based on that information, I decided to experiment with anger right there on the plane.
I curled my head down and began to growl low-volume growls of anger, using forceful breathing with a little sound while intentionally cultivating anger. Because no one was directly beside me and the plane was so small and loud, I didn’t need to worry about being concerned about my growling experiment. After a few angry growls, less than two minutes of growling, I stopped and checked my body. The fear was gone. Completely gone. I couldn’t believe it, but there was no denying that I felt relaxed and free of fear. I pulled out a magazine I had with me and had an enjoyable time reading for the rest of the flight.
I’m not exactly sure how the growling helped my nervous system work through the claustrophobia. My guess is that it mobilized my Sympathetic Nervous system in a way that allowed my fear to discharge.
A long exhale, a big sigh, an angry growl, there are several ways to breathe your way to emotional regulation. Whatever type of breath you are experimenting, follow it into and through the sensations in your body with a supportive attention and pendulate if needed. And, as always, find help when the emotions are more than you can regulate on your own. Almost all of us have an emotion or two that we need help with.