- A 3-step process can help us to somatically, cognitively, and creatively navigate anger and intense emotions.
- Anger can be mindfully held, named, explored, and expressed so that it does not become debilitating or damaging to others.
- Affect labeling assists with emotional regulation by acknowledging and validating our experience.
When our physical body is injured and inflamed, rest and ice are part of the standard healing protocol. When our emotions are inflamed and fiery, often, we are told to “cool it.” These words may be more useful than we think.
If feelings of anger and frustration become highly activated and we are not skilled in emotional regulation, we can become like molten lava that either erupts or oozes. Unaddressed emotional stockpiling can become explosive and, often, another person unintentionally gets burned. Other times, unprocessed emotions slowly suffocate joy, opportunity, and anything on a positive, peaceful path. Both of these scenarios can cause fissures in our mental health and our relationships.
So how do we regulate emotions before they reach a boiling point?
According to Dan Segal (1999), author of The Developing Mind, we all have a “window of tolerance” representing the range of emotional arousal that is tolerable. When we are within our individual window, our nervous systems are operating optimally. When we are outside our window of tolerance for stress and overwhelm, we may become either hyper- or hypo-aroused as evidenced by fight, flight, or freeze behavioral responses.
The next time you feel yourself climbing beyond your “window of tolerance,” I suggest you follow these three steps to quite literally, “cool off.” To further melt the heat of all-consuming thoughts and feelings, add intentional breathing with each step. Make each conscious exhale longer than the inhale. With regular practice, we can become more adept at handling all emotions, including anger.
To remember this formula, call in the 1990 Vanilla Ice song, ”Ice Ice Baby.” If you are too young to know this song, it’s worth Googling—it may even make you giggle, which will also mitigate the overload of any difficult experiences.
Step 1: Grab Some Ice.
When anger strikes, head to your nearest freezer and grab some ice (or cold water if you do not have access to ice). While holding the ice in your hand, focus your awareness on the cube(s) as it melts. Ask yourself the following questions: What is the temperature? Texture? Sensation? Color? You may even lick it and see how it feels on your tongue. Engage as many senses as possible. This mindful practice will interrupt the immediate intensity of any situation. TikTok videos are now featuring vagus nerve icing of the face or body as a means for stress relief. Cold temperatures do, in fact, activate the vagus nerve and improve heart rate variability.
If you can identify the place in your body where the emotion seems stuck, place the ice there (gut, throat, etc). The intention with this practice is not to take away the emotion or replace it with something we deem “better.” Instead, the practice is to sit with it mindfully and soften the acute crisis so it is more manageable.
Step 2: “I Can Experience Emotion.”
Often, when we are upset, we judge our feelings and tell ourselves, “I can’t handle this.” But, the truth is, we can.
For this second step, identify, label, and allow your emotions by completing the "ICE" sentence, “I-C-E, I can experience…[fill in the blank]."
Affect labeling assists with emotional regulation by acknowledging and validating our experience. The naming process provides clarity and distance from the internal sensations and the habitual, reactionary responses. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain, Matthew Lieberman and his colleagues (2007) found that affect labeling provided a calming effect on the emotional areas of the brain. With this labeling process, we can have the emotion and not become that emotion.
With my ICE protocol, it’s important to suspend judgment about the emotion. Catch your internal dialogue and reframe statements like, “I should not be feeling…” Instead, restate the ICE phrase, “I can experience…” The goal is to honor and allow all feelings, even rage. The ICE process gives you permission to own your feelings and not resist, deny, or suppress them.
Next, challenge yourself to gain access to the root emotions. Connect with the fear, hurt, inadequacy, shame, or sadness beneath the angry or anxious surface. Again, use the ICE statement to acknowledge these emotional states. For example, you may say to yourself, “I can experience shame.” Then, give the emotion a 10-point scale rating. “I can experience shame, and, right now, my shame is at a 7.” Continue tracking its intensity and imagine it melting as you breathe with intention.
Step 3: “I Can Express Emotion.”
After naming your emotional states, you can proceed to the second "ICE" statement in my “Ice, Ice Baby” formula. This I-C-E stands for “I can express emotion.” Explore ways to release the energy of the emotion so that it has a place to land outside of self...but not on someone else.
We all have a variety of tools available to us at any time to express emotion in healthy ways. I encourage individuals to find what works best for them. Once your ice has melted and you name your state of mind, you can practice expressing your feelings verbally, physically, or creatively. It is best to gather your toolbox and have it ready before emotions become overwhelming.
Here are a few things to have on hand:
- Paper for journaling
- Running shoes for a walk or run
- Punching bag, jump rope
- Paper to shred
- Musical instruments to play
- Open space and music to dance or shake
- Lightweight balls to throw
- Art supplies to paint, sculpt, or draw
- A private place to let out a primal scream
- A trusted friend or counselor to call
All emotions are energy in motion and, just like ice cubes outside of the freezer, they will dissolve with the right conditions. Emotional energy is not static; it wants to move. So, the next time you notice the heat rising beyond your window of tolerance, reach for "ICE, ICE Baby" and follow my steps to connect, allow, identify, and appropriately express your feelings.
Lieberman, M. et al., (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Association for Psychological Science, 18(5), 421–428.
Siegel, D. J. (1999). The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience. New York: Guilford Press.