Who is in Control: Your Emotions or You?

By Jamie Dalrymple LMHC

“My child doesn’t know how to control his anger.”

“I feel terrible that I lost my patience with my little girl.”

“I regret how I reacted during a conflict with my husband.”

I often hear common concerns such as these when working with families. Whether from our crying baby or disrespectful teenager to high levels of work stress or relational conflict, we can all relate to moments when our emotions seem to control us.

You may be pleased to know that moments when we feel out of control or “flooded” are technically not our faults but rather our brains’. What happens during those times essentially involves the emotional part of our brains (the amygdala) hijacking the rational part (the prefrontal cortex).

The amygdala, which is part of the limbic system or center for emotions, has the job of “detecting and protecting” us.  With any perception of danger, the amydala fires up and prepares the body to “fight or flight” by releasing stress hormones from the brain. While this stress response increases our heart rate and primes our muscles, it also has a negative effect on our ability to process cognitively. Our brain functioning is channeling its efforts to keep us safe which thereby reduces functioning in the prefrontal cortex, the hub of our highest level of cognitive skills. That is why when we get stressed or overwhelmed, we may do or say something irrational or regretful. Likewise, when another person feels flooded (our children included), his or her ability to listen, problem solve, and have a constructive conversation reduces significantly.

However, this bit of knowledge does not remove our responsibility for our behavior. Fortunately, researchers such as Dr. John Gottman, have provided us with a valid method to assist us when we become flooded. The key is recognizing when we feel flooded and being intentional about taking a short break to self-soothe and calm down. Research supports that it takes the average person about 20 minutes to calm down and resume full functioning to the prefrontal cortex.

Many have found these simple steps helpful when overwhelmed with emotion:
1) Recognize you are flooded.
2) Communicate your need to take a break.
3) Take personal time for about 20 minutes.
4) Employ a strategy for coping (walk, pray, read, write, draw, whatever helps you calm down).
5) Reunite to continue conversation with child, spouse, friend, etc.

Children, teens and adults can all apply these steps for taking a break and self-soothing during times of conflict. Each person has his or her own way of calming down. I encourage you to think of yours and help the children in your life come up with their own as well. Even create a fun, personal name to call this process such as, I need to take some “me time” or “ a brain rest,” for example.       Let’s get in control of our emotions.

Less floods=less damage!