2011-06-16 / Relationships

When bad things happen, stop, breathe and think before acting


Sue Smith groaned as she looked at the caller ID. It was the umpteenth time that day that Meg (names have been changed) had called to complain that her ex-husband was being a “prick” about money. Sue took pride in being there for her friends, but honestly, Meg’s calls and hysterics were driving her up a wall.

It’s not that Meg was unaware her calls were intrusive. She knew full well she was trying everyone’s patience. But when her emotions took over, she became so overwhelmed she couldn’t stop herself. She called anyone who would listen as a means of settling herself, but even so, there was little relief.

Family history, genetic make-up and life experiences contribute to a person’s emotional stability and ability to face life’s downturns. Most people have learned some valuable skills throughout their lives that may help them settle upset emotions on their own, but in times of stress, many have difficulty identifying and accessing these inner strengths. They may lose confidence that they have the capacity to handle tough situations. Feeling vulnerable and alone, they may alienate those around them as they desperately reach out for emotional support.

Humans have a built in alarm center in the brain called the amygdala that triggers an automatic emotional response of heightened alert when a real (or imagined) danger is perceived. At these times, the fight or flight mechanism is triggered and some of us may act in desperation, spilling our emotions, even though we may be in a situation that is actually in our control. Not having an internal “governor” that helps us to keep inappropriate, off-putting behaviors at bay, compromises our ability to think rationally and to come up with reasonable solutions.

For many people, learningg how to calmly settle their emotions will require professional assistance, but for others, there are steps that can be taken to learn practical strategies on their own. Experts have developed a system of breathing, meditation and exercise regimens that have proven successful in physically helping to release pent-up tension.

Dissipating the physical anxiety may open our capacity to more logically address frustrations and hurts. Instead of trying to ignore, or minimize the upset situation, it can be enormously helpful at these times to show empathy and compassion to ourselvess (in the same way that we wouldld supportively reach out to friends going through a similar situation). It is important to remember that suffering a personal failure is part of a shared human experience, so that we shouldn’t take our own limitations so personally.

Reminding ourselves that we may have gone through a similar situation previously — and survived — is key. It is sometimes easier when we try to put ourselves in another’s shoes and to consider what we would do to be supportive. If Meg could role-play what she would say to a friend going through a similar hardship, she might gain insight into steps she can take to soothe herself.

The goal here is take a pause between the stimulus (perceived threat) and our actions, so thatt we gain the ability to problem solve before acting out or blurting something inappropriately. In other words, we can learn to acknowledge edge our feelings, recognize that we are indeed entitled to be upset, but that we must take measured steps to be self-protective, before acting in ways that undermine our integrity and personal relationships. 

— Linda Lipshutz, M. S., LCSW is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. A Palm Beach Gardens resident, she holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and trained at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan. She can be reached in her Gardens office at 630- 2827, or online at palmbeachfamilytherapy. 

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