Emotional regulation for stressful situations

By Jessica Forster

No matter how zen and balanced you are, stressful and emotional situations can arise at any moment. Often a lot of time and energy is spent trying to prevent this, which can lead to debilitating anxiety over things that haven’t even happened yet. It is extremely common to feel burdened and consumed by stress; it is one of the most prevalent struggles that my clients come to me with. But it is not something that you have to accept as part of your daily life.

Emotional regulation is the key to managing stress effectively because it allows us to deescalate the stress in overwhelming times, instead of lashing out or breaking down. Anyone can learn it if they are willing to be mindful and patient with themselves. Once you have had enough experiences of effective emotional regulation during difficult times and you have the confidence in yourself to handle whatever comes your way, the anticipation anxiety will gradually lessen.

Notice the signs

Our bodies do an amazing job of giving us warning signs when something isn’t okay. However, it is our job to pay attention. Being overwhelmed with emotions or experiencing extreme stress can cause an array of internal and external reactions. For example, you may experience shaking, uneven breathing, overheating or muscle tension. On the other hand, you might not show any indication on the outside; no one would know that you’re distressed. But despite looking completely calm, you could be experiencing heartburn, stomach cramps, headaches and faintness. Your thinking may become foggy and disconnected or you become extremely irritable.

If you do not take the time to properly process these emotions and regulate yourself back to a calm mental and physical space, then your stress will likely explode out in ways with serious consequences. It can take a toll on your professional and personal life, as well as have a serious impact long term on your health and wellbeing. Chronic unmanaged stress can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system.

It also greatly affects mental health, sometimes leading to anxiety disorders and depression. According to a UK-wide survey conducted by Mental Health Foundation “74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope”. Furthermore, it was found that suicidal feelings resulting from stress were experienced by 32% of adults. Stress is an extremely serious matter and you don’t have to accept it controlling your life. You are strong enough to process it in a healthy and regulated way, it just takes practice and patience. Take note of your experiences during stressful times so that you can recognise when they start to arise in the future.

Identifying triggers

A common cause of overwhelming dysregulated emotions is when stressors and feelings take us by surprise. One minute everything is fine, the next it feels like you need to scream and your heart is beating out of your chest. These reactions are caused by triggers. Taking the time to reflect and identify your greatest triggers can provide the kind of self-awareness and mindful processing that allows you to navigate high-stress situations.

Try to make a list of times that you’ve felt the most overwhelmed in the past year. This includes anything that made you tearful, angry, anxious, frustrated or any difficult and overwhelming emotion. Be specific, aim to identify what exactly it was that made you feel this. For example, you missed a deadline at work and your manager was mad at you. Allow yourself to really sit with your feelings to understand what caused it. Was it the pressure of the deadline? Was it feeling like you failed? Was it having a conflict with an authority figure? Summarising the trigger as “work” not only makes it hard to find solutions to the stressor but also creates anxiety around work in general instead of focusing on the specific difficulties.

Furthermore, the trigger can be exacerbated by other factors. Such as, not sleeping well the night before, being stuck inside for a long time, dehydration or sensory overload. Anything that can put you on edge and make you more susceptible to overwhelming reactions. It can help to keep an ongoing journal to reflect on the root cause of stressful situations that you encounter.

Now that you’ve got your list, you may start to see patterns emerge. The first step for dealing with these is asking yourself if any of these are preventable. Maybe you are more prone to anxiety attacks when you’ve had too much caffeine. If that’s the case then even if you thrive off of coffee, you may need to make one of your goals to limit your intake. After addressing the factors that are within your control, it’s time to prepare for the ones that aren’t; the unavoidable situations or the actions of other people.

Grounding techniques

Once you have identified your greatest unavoidable triggers for stress, you want to prepare yourself with skills to handle when they come up. These skills include grounding techniques. This means that when something begins to stress you, you use these techniques to show your body that you’re safe, still your mind and allow you to focus on problem-solving instead of panic. Below are some techniques to ground you during overwhelming situations:

5-4-3-2-1 Technique: Identify five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This grounds you in your surroundings. Forcing your mind to hone in on your senses and pay attention to the details of your environment can stop it from spiralling out of control from stress.

Box Breathing: Inhale slowly through your nose for a count of four, hold for four, exhale through your mouth for four, then hold for four. It can help you to focus by picturing each cycle as a square, following along each line for four seconds. Hyperventilating or holding your breath can be common responses to extreme anxiety and dysregulated breathing makes the panic worse. This is because your body believes you are in danger and triggers your nervous system. Focusing on keeping your breath regular, slowing your heart rate and getting enough oxygen can help to calm your nervous system and allow you to feel safe.

Grounding Objects: Carry a small and comforting grounding object with you. These are tangible items or sensory cues used to anchor and reconnect with the present moment. They can help to regain a sense of control and the more you use them the more your mind will associate them with a sense of calm and familiarity. To use grounding objects effectively, focus your attention on the object’s characteristics, such as its texture, shape, colour or sound. Take slow, deep breaths as you concentrate on every little detail. Examples of grounding objects include a smooth pebble, a piece of textured fabric, a scented sachet, a sour candy or a piece of music.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Focus on one muscle group at a time, tensing it for a few seconds and then releasing the tension. Move through each muscle group, from your toes up to your head, paying attention to the sensations as you do so. This technique helps ground and relax because it promotes body awareness and reduces muscle tension that often accompanies stress.

Temperature Grounding: Hold an ice cube, splash cold water on your face or hold your wrists under cold running water. The sensation can help to redirect your attention away from the panic symptoms of high-stress situations and back into your body. It can also help to lower your temperature if you become flushed and overheated when stressed.

Mindful Reflection: Take the time to question and challenge negative thought patterns that contribute to emotional distress. For example, allowing yourself to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgement while reflecting on whether what you are stressed over is fact or distorted self-criticism. This can also apply to external influences. Always ask yourself the intention of someone’s criticism. Is it valid and to help you? Or is it unjustified and malicious? Well-intentioned, constructive criticism is an opportunity to grow, not something to cause yourself distress over. Whereas, toxic opinions of others do not deserve to cause an overwhelming reaction at all.

Reaching out

Don’t hesitate to seek support from friends, family, or a mental health professional when you’re struggling with overwhelming emotions. Talking to someone you trust can provide perspective, healthy venting and emotional support. Being open regarding stress can allow you to ask for what you need to effectively regulate your emotions. For instance, having space to process information in your own time or setting boundaries during times of conflict. Both of these are reasonable and respectful requests to make to protect your wellbeing.

Having a safe place to share your emotions is a great way to ensure you don’t internalise your stress instead of dealing with it. According to a UK survey in 2021 by CIPHR of 2,000 adults, 79% were stressed at least one day a month, with 1 in 14 expressing they were stressed every single day. You are not alone in your experiences and reaching out for support will not only help you but likely show someone else that they are not alone either.

Remember that your emotions are not a weakness and they don’t have to be a danger. Emotional regulation is a skill that takes time to develop. Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you learn how to navigate your emotions and stress in a way that works for you. With practice and dedication, you can lead a more balanced and peaceful life, even in the face of life’s most stressful situations.

About the author

Jessica Forster is a Holistic Health & Wellness Specialist and Founder of Empowered Health Education. As a licensed yoga teacher with qualifications ranging across nutrition, physical training, mental health and hormone management, Jessica works with her clients to map out and execute a balanced health plan that addresses the full picture. She is dedicated to empowering individuals to take control of their own well-being through education, support and personalised guidance. She specialises in providing a practical, realistic and compassionate approach to health, with an emphasis on understanding and supporting the different needs of an individual, instead of a one-size-fits-all mindset.

Connect with Jessica:

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