Lucy often found it hard to wind down after a date. A cocktail of attraction, anxiety, excitement, stimulating conversation, fear of running out of things to say and all the accompanying chemicals can take many hours to subside.
Mahesh found his emotions escalating very quickly when arguing with his lover. He wasn’t able to bring them down to a level where he could process information or contribute productively, and after the argument he took days to recover.
Learning to calm your emotions without repressing them (what we call emotion regulation) is quite a skill for all of us, and especially for many of us under the neurodivergent umbrella, such as highly sensitive people, those on the autistic spectrum or with ADHD.
The six steps illustrated below can be a useful way to help regulate our emotions – in other words, to bring them back down to a manageable level, where our nervous system is in a calm and safe state. Then we will be able to recover from setbacks or excitement more quickly – including going to sleep after a stimulating evening or not feeling anxious or depressed for days. The six steps can help us grieve in a healthy way, too.
First you’ll need to prepare your body, to anchor yourself in the present. This could be done with some slow, gentle breathing. Savour every nuance of the breath and become curious and grateful about your breathing, as if it is a precious gift. Notice the sound, temperature and pitch of the breathing.
Some of us neurodivergents find focusing on the breathing doesn’t work. If so, experiment with other ways. For example, try noticing your feet on the floor. Which parts are heavier/warmer? How do your socks/shoes feel? What is the texture? How does each toe feel? How does the floor feel? Can you sink into the ground a little more? What happens when you wiggle your toes?
Now let’s move onto the six steps:
1. Notice and name your emotions
Begin to notice your emotions and sensations in the body. One theory of emotions proposes that they are just our interpretation of those bodily sensations, nothing more. Describe them and name them (while trying not to be anxious or despondent about them). Perhaps you feel a tightness or churning in the stomach, or your heart is beating faster, you might lack energy, or feel tension in your neck and shoulders. Notice where in your body you feel those things. And are there part of your body that are unaffected?
A lot of what’s overwhelming about emotions is the emotions about the emotions, especially anxiety about anxiety – as well as accompanying thoughts like “Will I ever stop feeling anxious?” and “What’s wrong with me?”. So the principle here is to stay as relaxed as you can about the emotions.
2. Be curious about the bodily sensations
Be curious about the sensations and emotions, as if you were a therapist or a researcher. Ask questions, such as “How often do I feel this?” and “When did this start?” and “Is it different in one shoulder/foot/leg than the other?” and “Is this as strong as the sensation gets? Can I make it stronger/weaker?”
By noticing and naming the sensations in a curious, non-judgmental way, you are showing that you are able to step outside them and not identify with them completely. This means you don’t need to be overwhelmed by any negative emotions that you might be feeling.
You can say to yourself, lovingly and tenderly: “Part of me feels hopeless, but part of me does not. Part of me feels anxious, but part of me does not.” Substitute whatever emotion you are feeling: “Part of me feels ……, but part of me does not.”
3. Be accepting, kind and compassionate towards yourself
Allow yourself to feel these sensations without judgment. Don’t fight them, repress them, dismiss them, feel ashamed of or anxious about them. Listen to them with compassion and tenderness, and keep breathing through them, like you would through pain.
Be compassionate towards yourself, say something like: “Poor you, I’m so sorry you are feeling this. I’m here for you. It’s ok for you to feel this.” Validate yourself, saying: “It makes sense that you’d feel like this.”
If this is hard, ask yourself how you would respond to a child who was experiencing distress, sadness, anxiety, anger, etc. Hopefully you’d instinctively validate their feelings and empathise rather than trying to shut them down. If you can do it for a child, you can learn to do it for yourself.
(Of course, there may be beliefs such as “I don’t deserve compassion” or “I should be able to cope with this without any empathy” – and these need to be explored, perhaps with the help of a coach or counsellor.)
4. Soothe yourself
Pick the ones that work for you – don’t try and make yourself do something that doesn’t feel safe.
Slow down your breathing and make it more tender and loving.
Smile – this begins to change the nervous system state to one of calm and safety without the involvement of any conscious processes.
Stroke your head, face and hands very slowly, gently and tenderly.
Do some stretching, slow walking, rhythmical tapping on the face, shoulder and arms.
5. Imagine a future, wiser you by your side. What would they say?
Begin to think about what the observing part of you might be feeling, the part from step 2 that has stepped outside you, that is observing, the wise you, the part that doesn’t feel hopeless. What would their perspective on your situation be? How do you see them – as an older sibling, aunt or uncle, another parent, a kind therapist or a loving God?
What might they say? Perhaps something like this: “I love you. I accept you exactly as you are, I don’t care about your achievements or your appearance, your status or your setbacks, your regrets or mistakes, none of that matters, I’m so proud of you. Nothing can make me love you any more, and nothing can make me love you any less. I believe in you and I trust you.”
Allow yourself to receive these words and be loved. Keep breathing, slowly and gently.
6. Co-regulate with safe others: laugh, sing, dance with friends!
Research shows that smiling communicates safety to the nervous system – even if it’s smiling at yourself!
Being with friends we feel comfortable with also helps move us into a different state, where things seem more hopeful. Singing and dancing help to regulate our breathing and our emotions, as well as making us feel more connected.
Sometimes a pet or a soft toy can fulfil this function, if we don’t feel up to being sociable, or even watching others having fun, in a comedy sitcom or on a podcast or chat show.
Our relationship with our emotions is deeply embedded
These six steps work best when we have worked through the origin of our emotions, especially if we have recurring emotional patterns, such as withdrawing, getting angry, suffering from chronic anxiety or feeling unable to move forward in our lives. What we were taught as children about emotions is often something worth exploring with a trusted coach or counsellor.
Through coaching, Lucy learnt that her emotions had been dismissed or shut down by her caregivers, preventing her from learning the skills to regulate her emotions and internalising a belief that emotions were shameful, a sign of weakness, not important or not to be talked about. Mahesh had little experience of regulating his emotions with a loved one (by being soothed through, for example, safe touch and social interaction) – a process we call co-regulation, which is essential to healthy development in babies. Once they had worked through these developmental hitches, the six steps began to work.
It takes time to change our emotional patterns
It’s also worth noting that the six steps won’t completely remove your emotions or reduce them permanently! To start with, you might be a little less overwhelmed for a short period of time, and then your body will go back to its old, default state. If you’ve been stuck in an emotional pattern all your life, it will take many repetitions of the six steps before your body starts to remember this as a new pattern that it can activate under challenging circumstances. And such circumstances are not just negative ones: most social situations are a mix of positive and negative emotions, such as a date, an argument with a loved one, a holiday with family or a party. Social connection is risky, it’s hard work – especially for those of us under the umbrella – but it’s essential for our physical and mental health – so don’t avoid it altogether!