It’s easy to stay calm when things are under control. But, sometimes, life happens. A deadline is moved up. Your train is cancelled. Your luggage gets lost. Then, your heartbeat goes faster. You can feel the tension in your muscles. Your breathing accelerates. You’re stressed.
Read on for three simple steps to get these unwanted emotions under control.
1. Identify the emotion
When we’re stressed because of external factors, this can translate into anger, disappointment, or resentment. The first step is to pinpoint exactly what emotional state you’re in and to remind yourself that this is just a state, which means that you have the power to alter it.
In his book The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, author and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explains how the relationship between the body and the mind shapes our conscious experience. More specifically, what we identify as emotions are just patterns in our body, such as our rate of breathing, our blood flow, or constriction in our gut.
Here are the five main categories of negative emotions:
- Anxiety: worry, fear, nervosity, panic, etc.
- Anger: irritation, frustration, rage, etc.
- Guilt: culpability, remorse, etc.
- Sadness: despair, hopelessness, etc.
- Shame: embarrassment, humiliation, etc.
Try and find the closest word possible to describe how you feel. This is not about judging the emotion, just identifying it.
2. Analyse the trigger
The trigger may seem obvious to you, but the second step consists in going deeper to understand the underlying mechanics. It requires to be extremely honest with yourself.
What are the things that you feel you’re not getting? What is the need that isn’t met?
Here is a list of the most common emotional triggers according to Dr. Marcia Reynolds, author of Outsmart Your Brain:
- Be in control
- Be liked
- Be needed
- Be right
- Be treated fairly
- Be understood
- Be valued
- Feel included
- New challenges
Dr. Reynolds recommends to choose three unmet needs from this list. These unmet needs, when combined together, are your emotional trigger.
3. Shift your emotional state
Now that you’ve recognised your emotional state and analysed the emotional trigger, you can actively shift your emotional state. This step is about choosing to feel something different.
Depending on where you are, you can use one of the following exercises to effectively change your mood:
- Short mindfulness practice: breath to relax your body and clear your mind, focus your awareness on the center of your body, and focus on one word which represents how you want to feel. Keep breathing in and out while visualising the word.
- Power posing: choose one of the power poses created by social psychologist Amy Cuddy, which include the Wonder Woman (hands on hips, feet apart, chest open, shoulders back) and the Victory Stance (arms up in the victory salute). [edit, October 2019: in the spirit of continuous learning, a new study found that power posing doesn’t work. Leaving this here as this is good to know when strategies have been debunked]
- Gratitude practice: think about three things you’re grateful for. I expanded more on the science behind this one in my article about building a mental gym.
Other techniques include massaging your stomach, going for a walk, or patting a dog if you have one handy. Try different techniques and see which ones work best for you.
It may sound cheesy, but it boils down to one belief: that you’re not in control of these stressful external events, but you can be in control of your emotions.
- An Evolutionary Anatomy of Affect: Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on How and Why We Feel What We Feel (Brain Pickings)
- Your body language may shape who you are (TED)
- The BARES Model of Shifting Emotions (University of Minnesota)