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Advice for when you’re feeling overwhelmed with difficult emotions

0 8 months ago

Four therapists share their strategies for calming down and gaining perspective

Challenging events are unavoidable. Daily life can bring arguments with loved ones, nights awake with crying kids, mistakes at work, or bad news about health or finances — and that’s just scratching the surface. But how we handle the resulting feelings of frustration or overwhelm needn’t be inevitable. We can reach for decompression techniques that will help us calm down, gain perspective and act with intention — rather than react on impulse and potentially make our situation worse.

Here, four therapists share strategies for dealing in those moments. Importantly, all emphasized that prevention habits — developing these new patterns through regular practice before stressful situations occur — are key to their effectiveness.

Being patient with ourselves is also key. “We’re going to fail. If we have a history of struggling in stressful situations …. we have to work at [change],” said Toronto psychologist Andrew Shaul. He added that it’s important to “trust in yourself” and think, “I can get this. Even if I didn’t get it today, I can get it tomorrow. I can work on it.”

For those of us not yet practised in these techniques, there’s never a better moment than the present to start.

Reconnect in order to recalibrate

According to Simone Saunders, a trauma therapist and the founder of The Cognitive Corner headquartered in Calgary, the best thing to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed is slow down — despite the tendency to want to speed up and get through the situation quickly.

“Even though it feels counterintuitive in the moment, when we slow down, we actually allow ourselves to recalibrate,” she said. This can look like reconnecting with the body by doing some breathwork, planting the feet firmly on the ground and noticing how it feels to wiggle the toes, or stepping firmly to notice those sensations. The goal is to be able to become present in the moment and then ask, “What is it that I need to do to move forward?”

Saunders notes that this technique may be hard to access in the heat of the moment. During times of overwhelm, we may not remember to self-regulate. “I always say practice coping strategies when you’re not dysregulated because it makes them that much more accessible to you when you are dysregulated.” Practising may simply mean intentionally and regularly trying to recalibrate as feelings arise.

In the midst of high conflict situations with others, recalibrating may require first stepping away. “I always recommend taking a break if you feel like you are overwhelmed,” Saunders added. So, in an argument with a partner, ideally two people would communicate the need to pause, indicate when they’d return, and step away “to go outside, to get a glass of water … so you can come back with a more level head.”

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Practise SOBER

“When people are feeling overwhelmed, it’s usually a sense of not being in control,” said Shaul. He suggests using the mindfulness technique SOBER — an acronym that stands for Stop, Observe, Breathe, Expand and Respond — to find and re-establish control.


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