Why You Freak Out

How to calm intense emotions, part 1.

Posted Jan 23, 2020

Cepren Wnmahobn4 / Adobe Stock
Source: Cepren Wnmahobn4 / Adobe Stock

Why, when you are seemingly grounded and going about your day, are you sometimes overcome with the ‘whoosh’ of intense emotion? The trigger could be something somebody says that you find offensive, judgmental, shaming or anxiety-producing; a behavior that hits a ‘bruised bone’ of yours; an overwhelming fear that you have been trying to suppress; a person, place, or thing that brings up a feeling of shame or fear—really anything that your deep brain deems as a threat.  

Then comes the emotional hijack. Your whole mind-body complex responds to color that moment through the perceptual lens of the trigger. Everything you see and feel validates the trigger and you react as if it is the only truth. You may scream, cry, shut down, or worse. Further, you may feel overcome with a racing heart, a shot of adrenalin, a punch in the gut, or hot with rage or shame; discerning appropriate action from this state is virtually impossible. You may say or do something you regret later. You may even look back at the situation after you have calmed down and wonder what happened to you. How can an emotional reaction so easily knock you off your balance?

Intense emotions are designed to be destabilizing; they are designed to get your attention. They are like the fire alarm in your mind-body complex. All too often, however, you may be so overcome with these emotions that you react as if this alarm to get your attention is a full-fledged out-of-control fire and let these emotions consume you, cloud your judgment, and cause you to behave in regretful ways. These emotions are inherently destabilizing and the best way to reduce their havoc is to understand them, stabilize your mind and body when they arise, and ultimately rewire a different response altogether. 

That is the focus of this three-part series. Each part is a stand-alone piece to equip you with skills to help you calm intense emotions step-by-step. The information in this first part empowers you to take a giant leap forward in calming the hijack of intense emotion. Understanding their origin is the first and foundational piece. I often say that if I could give everyone in the world one piece of information this would be it.  

Before you can begin to appropriately deal with intense emotions it is important to know where they come from. All intense emotions come from your immediate perception and evaluation of whatever is upsetting you, this evaluation may be way off base, and it is mainly beyond your conscious thought. In other words, without your knowledge, your ‘emotional evaluation system’ kicks in, floods you with overwhelming reactions and hijacks your mind and body.  Most people have no idea how or why this process occurs, they just feel the ‘whoosh’ of the emotion, think it is warranted, and, usually, respond to its hijack. 

Also, it is important to know that the triggering impetus could be an external circumstance, an internal feeling, a thought, a memory, a worry—anything your subconscious brain has been programmed to identify as a threat. You get flooded with the result of your fear response system in over-drive which makes proceeding with clarity and taking appropriate action almost impossible.

How does this programming happen? Deep in your brain is a structure called the amygdala that is beyond conscious awareness, records every experience you’ve ever had, and records it in terms of emotional significance. 

agsandrew / Adobe Stock
Source: agsandrew / Adobe Stock

This programming is done by creating neural wiring consistent with the emotional tone of each past experience. The stronger the experiences, the stronger the wiring. In its fear response role, the amygdala’s job is to keep you safe by constantly scanning everything in your external and internal environment, look for matches of something that ‘looks’ similar to that which has hurt you before and send an all-out alarm response through your body and brain. Again, it is not meant to be a conscious process as, evolutionarily, humans needed to be capable of pre-thought reactivity. 

We needed to be able to immediately evaluate threat and react to danger. If a tiger mauled my friend yesterday, I needed to have an instantaneous fear response to a lion today without the slow conscious discerning if the lion carried the same threat as a tiger. My system needed to be flooded with a fear response of intense emotion immediately, instilling in me the fear of yesterday’s tiger with today’s lion, and immediately react accordingly.  It is an important, and potentially life-saving process.

Unfortunately, in today’s world your amygdala may be over-doing its job. It is associating all your past emotional experiences, and attaching them to today’s events, without your awareness, and you may be experiencing bouts of uncontrollable or intense emotion. These intense emotions may be way out of context for the situation, or they may consume you so much that you cannot react appropriately in the current situation or both. The stronger they are programmed in your amygdala (by the original experience), the stronger you will react to whatever triggers that emotion in the present.  

These emotions may appear as anger, overwhelming anxiety, crushing shame, embarrassment, abandonment, extreme jealousy or insecurity, and the list goes on. Basically, any emotion that you have experienced in the past as a hurtful or difficult experience can re-surface in an immediate form now to get your attention. The trigger may be a form of the original emotion or a learned emotional reaction you have cultivated to negotiate the more difficult emotion. For example, you might get intensely angry to mask the hurt underneath.

Sergey Nivens / Adobe Stock
Source: Sergey Nivens / Adobe Stock

When you are hijacked by an intense emotion, remember, in that moment, that it is your system’s way of trying to get your attention and protect you, and not necessarily the absolute truth of the situation. It is your deep brain’s way of trying to alert you that something in your current environment ‘looks’ similar to something that has hurt or threatened you before.  

You can recognize the alarm without having to be overcome by it, disengage from its reactivity, take a deep breath and better discern appropriate action. Armed with the information that your freakouts are just an internal alarm system and not necessarily a truthful evaluation of the circumstance, step back, breathe deeply, and join me for the next two parts of How to Calm Intense Emotions.

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