What Can You Do When Emotions Hijack Your Mind?

3 steps to recovering from sudden, reactive emotions.

Posted Jun 06, 2020

This post was written by Naomi Parrella.

Jr Korpa/Unsplash
Source: Jr Korpa/Unsplash

When there is uncertainty, mixed messaging and highly reactive emotions swirling around, it is easy for extreme feelings to be overpowering and hijack your mind.

In these times, to be effective, it is helpful to develop a way to get back in control of what we can control: our mind.

The good news is that there are simple concepts and tools that can help you understand your mind and re-establish your focus to where you can function at your best and that can help you do what you need to do next.

The concept I will use today was first introduced to me by Dr. Leonard Marcus, one of the authors of the book, You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most. He is also one of the Founding Co-Directors at the Harvard National Preparedness Initiative. It has been adapted for use now.

First, think of your mind as a building with three levels. The Top Floor is the penthouse where there are rooms all around and you have a great view! When your mind operates here, you have a 360 degree view of everything, you have good perspective, you are in full control of thinking, and you can see all the options.

The level below that is the Ground Level. This is the workroom of the brain and mind. It's where we are when we solve problems and get things done. This is where our training, experience, and skills are automatically and easily accessible. Most of our time is spent on the ground level, and most other people will be here.

When your mind operates in one of these top two levels, things typically run smoothly and effectively. This is what most of us would consider a “Good Day.”

Stella Tzertseveli/Unsplash
Source: Stella Tzertseveli/Unsplash

But below these two levels is the Basement, the place where your mind goes when you are very upset, scared, anxious or angry. A crisis can throw someone into the Basement instantaneously from any of the top two floors.

When someone is in the Basement, it is dark and scary. There is limited visibility and it is hard to see options. The heart rate may increase, and that person may feel sweaty or have an upset stomach.

While people try to avoid falling into the Basement, we all end up there sometimes. However, going to the Basement is not the problem. Our body has normal reactions that help us survive when we are there. The problem is the getting stuck in the Basement. When you do, the mind has been hijacked and it has difficulties thinking and operating clearly. It reacts in natural, yet primitive ways.

Fortunately, there are three things you can do to walk yourself up from the Basement and get back on a path that puts your mind in control so you can do what you need to do next. With regular practice of these three skills, you can get out of the Basement faster.

3 Steps to Get Out of the Basement:

1. Recognize when you or someone else is in the Basement.

This is perhaps the most important step. When you realize you are there, then you can also know that you need to get out of the Basement so that your mind can function better and see more options.

At times, you will recognize someone else is in the Basement. They may be furious or panicking or somehow seeming irrational. They can drag others into the Basement with them.  We’ve all been there, no need to judge.

When you recognize someone else is in the Basement, you know that you can avoid getting dragged into it and even help to bring them up with you.

Remember that falling into the Basement is natural. It is not the problem. The problem is getting stuck in there. But, you have the ability to walk yourself out of the Basement.

2. Follow a protocol that includes a script.

Pause and take a slow, deep belly breath.

Repeat to yourself:

“I can do this.”

“I have successfully managed challenges in the past.” (Visualize a time when you were wildly successful with something that felt almost impossible and you felt very proud and impressed with yourself.)

“Big picture: [State a fact that is true, i.e., "This is temporary. I am strong and capable. I have the skills to handle unexpected events."]

“We are all in this together.” [Statement that links you to others]

“We can do this.”

Now you have walked yourself up from the Basement and can re-engage.

3. Do what you need to do next.

To clarify, many people try to avoid going to the Basement. Sometimes, this is unavoidable. Unexpected things happen that can throw us down there. However, the key is to limit the time spent there and avoid getting dragged in by others. When you recognize you or someone else is in the Basement, you will now have the tools to allow you to get yourself and others out. With practice, your ability to get out of the Basement will get faster and faster until it becomes a reflex.

By using this simple concept and tool to get out of the Basement quickly, you can get back into the Ground Level workroom where you will be able to manage your mind and function at your best.