Updated: Jan 12
Meet Marla. Marla is having a conversation with a good friend. While sharing, her friend interrupts and redirects the conversation to something else. This royally ticks Marla off. Marla, feeling angry, hangs up the phone, swearing to never share with her friend again.
She then replays her friend's behavior. And as she's replaying, she's crafting a narrative of how rude her friend is. How her friend has no time for her. How her friend is selfish and not interested in anyone but herself.
Each time she replays the event and the story she's crafted, she gets angrier and angrier. (Side note: This repeated reaction is creating a solid neural pathway in Marla's brain).
So, the next time Marla's friend calls, Marla immediately feels angry. (Hello, neural pathway). And because she's angry, she forgets the well-crafted "speech" she's prepared, and instead, her words come out in a jumbled mess.
Have you ever had that happen, where an event sparks a strong reaction that renders you unable to make a coherent sentence?
OUR BRAINS ON STRONG EMOTION
I always wondered why I couldn't think straight and why I sounded like a bumbling fool when I felt angry. And then I started to geek out on all sorts of brain-related books and articles. Come to find out, when we're feeling a strong emotion, like anger, fear, or anxiety, the thinking part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) goes offline. Yep, it just shuts down.
Understanding this has helped me to also understand why when we're in a place of intense emotions, using logic to calm down doesn't often work.
The reason; we aren't speaking the current language of our brains to calm down. (1)
HOW TO UNDERSTAND THE BRAIN'S LANGUAGE
As a result of the geeking out, I've discovered a simple way to tell which part of my brain is "speaking" so I can employ the appropriate calming technique. (See the mindset hacks below.)
Feeling/Emotional State > Urge to react = The brain's limbic area where emotions and memories are processed.
Thinking State > Response = Prefrontal Cortex where we process thoughts and actions
Say I'm "what if-ing" a situation. "What if this happens or that happens?" My brain's letting me know I'm using my prefrontal cortex, even if my thoughts create some worry or fear. That tells me I need to use a thought-based exercise to derail my "what if-ing."
But say I'm feeling really anxious without a clue as to why. My brain's indicating that I'm processing from the limbic area. (2) Which is why using a logic-based exercise isn't going to work as well as maybe a deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation technique. (See below)
In short, to get to a calm and more grounded space, we have to speak the language of our brains.
MATCHING MINDSET HACKS TO CALM DOWN
Experimenting with any of the following mindset hacks helps us calm down our brains. Each mindset hack is labeled for ease of use, so you know which hack speaks effectively with your brain. In doing so, you not only create a calm, peaceful mind, but you create a new, more proactive neural pathway. Try one, try them all to find the ones that work best for you.
Feeling/Emotional States (Awesome exercises for when you're feeling fear, anxiety, nervousness, anger, or stress.)
Slow breath in, slow breath out. Take a deep breath slowly through your nose, and release it slowly out your nose. Do this breathing technique a few times.
Square breathing. Take a deep breath to a 4 count, hold to a 4 count, release to a 4 count, hold to a 4 count. Repeat.
Oxytocin breathing. Oxytocin is a "feel good" chemical, and to release it, take a really deep breath in, filling your belly with air. Then forcefully release it out of your mouth while loudly saying "HA!" Click this link to watch a video demonstration.
Shift your posture. Stand/sit up straight. Shoulders back and down, with your head, tilted up slightly. This is great for when you're feeling nervous.
Shorter inhale, longer exhale. If you take a deep breath in for a count of 4, you'll want to exhale to an 8 count. This is a great technique to use when you're in a state of fight or flight, as it lets your amygdala know that all is OK.
Get a hug. Getting a hug from someone or even yourself helps release some "feel good" chemicals in your brain, which has a calming effect.
Progressive muscle relaxation. This requires tensing and releasing each muscle group. For more detailed instructions, click here.
Move. Pacing is a great way to get your brain back online.
Thinking State (These exercises are great for when we're rehashing/replaying an event, worrying, in the space of analysis paralysis, or what if-ing.) The key is to stop the thought and replace it with any of the following.
Expressing gratitude. Taking a look around, express gratitude for all the things you see.
Engage your senses. Excellent exercise when you're worrying about something that has yet to happen or rehashing something that's happened already. Answer these questions; what do I see right now? What do I feel on my skin right now? What am I hearing? What am I smelling? What am I tasting?
Redirect. Yep, that's it. Stop the thought and redirect your thoughts onto something else.
Ask the magic question. What would I see/feel if I didn't see/feel ______________?
Go quiet. For 5-10 minutes, turn off all the noise and distractions.
Play. Do something fun for a few minutes. Whether that's watching a funny video, doing a puzzle, or playing a game.
Dance or sing. Or just turn on some great, uplifting music.
Just notice. Just notice the thought instead of engaging it. I like to say something like, "Oh look, how interesting. There's that negative thought."
Gain a different perspective. Download The Clarity Wheel to help ease the stress and create empowering options for any situation. When we're in an empowered state, we're more calm and able to think clearly.
Whatever you decide to experiment with, I want to leave you with one final thought. Feelings and thoughts are just data, and we get to decide what to do with that data.
Pittman, C. M., & Karle, E. M. (2019). Rewire your anxious brain: How to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic, & worry. Echo Point Books & Media.