Listen, we all have our moments. Maybe the kids just aren’t listening. Or your brother-in-law is being a bit too himself. Or your co-worker didn’t tell you they were taking a week off and now you need to cover for them. Whatever the case, it’s totally normal to feel like you’re going to succumb to stress and freak out at someone. But losing your cool will only cause more problems. That’s why it’s important to have a few go-to tactics to walk yourself back from the edge.
Now, understanding what’s going on in your mind and body during tense moments is key to calming yourself down. So, it’s important to remember that stress-ridden moments involve the fight-or-flight response. Basically, when you perceive a threat — whether your screaming toddler or your toxic boss — your body ramps up as though it’s about to go head-to-head with a snarling forest beast who’s been nosing around your food. Being upset, then, isn’t just an emotional experience, but a physical one, notes Lori Ryland, PhD, a psychotherapist and chief clinical officer at Pinnacle Treatment Centers. In other words? When you’re about to freak out, it’s just as important to soothe your body as it is to calm your mind.
So, when you’re about to hit your breaking point, here are six simple, expert-backed suggestions to help you maybe, just maybe, help you hit the reset button.
1. Take a Deep Breath
As trite as it sounds, taking a deep breath is an important way to signal to your body that while the threat may feel overwhelming, you’re actually safe. Psychotherapist Lesley Smith recommends a quick exercise called a 4-6-8 breath. First, breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of six, exhale for a count of eight, then repeat. “When you exhale longer than you inhale, it cues to your body that everything is calmer,” Smith says. Counting, she adds, can also distract you from what’s stressing you out.
2. Ground Yourself With Your Five Senses
Using your five senses is another simple-but-impactful way to remind your nervous system that, in spite of the surrounding stressors, your body doesn’t need to fire on all cylinders. Molly Dutter-Ansari, PhD, an assistant professor at Bradley University’s Online Masters of Counseling Program, says engaging each of your five senses can bring your body back to the present moment, where it’s easier to see reality for what it is (and make logical decisions instead of freaking out).
Dutter-Ansari suggests a simple exercise where you name one thing you can see, smell, touch, taste, and hear. “Take a second or two and engage each sense,” she says. While you’re at it, take a few deep breaths. As you become more aware of your surroundings, your body should get the message that the situation’s not as dire as you thought — and you’ll find it easier to talk yourself out of the stress.
3. Move Your Body
When you’re on the edge of losing your cool, your body is holding on to a lot of energy. One way to release that excess energy? Yep, you guessed it: Move your body. Whether you bang out a few jumping jacks or take a brisk walk around the block, physically blowing off steam can keep you from emotionally exploding in the moment. Plus, psychotherapist Heather Kent points out that because exercise releases stress-busting hormones like endorphins, it can help improve your mood.
4. Crack a joke
It may seem counterintuitive to make light of a situation that’s causing you major stress, but Kent says finding humor in a situation is a good way to help your brain shift gears. So if you have it in you, make a joke to your partner about your preschooler’s bad attitude or the fact they won’t eat a vegetable. “Making a joke about what’s going on, depending on the situation, can be quite effective in lightening the mood of the room, which then makes it easier to focus on solutions,” Kent says.
5. Debate Your Own Thoughts
Parenting (and life) can be tough. It’s easy to focus on the hard stuff, especially when you’re already stressed out in general. The problem is, letting your thoughts trail off unchecked can add to your sense of overwhelm. If you find yourself on the edge of losing your cool, Dutter-Ansari says it’s important to check in with your thoughts. Are you catastrophizing something that could be managed, or being overly black and white about the situation you’re facing? If so, it may be time to infuse some logic into your irrational thinking.
For example, if your kid has been acting up way more than usual, you may be entertaining thoughts that parenting is miserable, and you’ll never enjoy being with your kid. Or if your marriage has been tough lately, you may find yourself thinking your relationship is destined to end.
While those things may feel real, chances are, you’ve gotten way ahead of yourself. Once you identify thoughts that are contributing to your stress, work on replacing them with more realistic ones — for instance, this moment is hard, but you’ll work through it like you always have. “Tell yourself why those thoughts are untrue, and be a support or cheerleader to yourself,” Dutter-Ansari says.
6. Enlist Some Support
Preparation is a huge part of being able to get yourself off an emotional cliff. Once you work your way through the initial moment of stress, focus on reducing the effects of stress in your life. Getting enough sleep, eating a nutritious diet, exercising when you can, and taking time for yourself regularly can help you tolerate stress more so you’ll be less likely to freak out when tough moments inevitably hit.
And if you find yourself stressed out persistently or you’re struggling with anxiety that impairs your functioning, reach out to a therapist or talk to your doctor. Life is stressful, but you shouldn’t have to cope alone.