Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Meet Your Freak-Outs With Understanding and Self-Compassion

How to calm intense emotions—Part 2.

 Soup Stock / Adobe Stock
Source: Soup Stock / Adobe Stock

Every moment of every day, your emotional capacities are transforming, for better or worse, whether you know it or not, and whether you like it or not.

When you are routinely triggered, reactive and flooded with intense emotion, if you are like most people in the way you react, you are just training yourself to be more reactive. You are constantly becoming more of what you routinely experience. You may react to the trigger and respond in a way you are sorry for later, you might try and suppress it and think it is not damaging, or you might shame, blame or otherwise judge yourself for feeling it in the first place. From a psycho-physiological standpoint, or the way your mind and body work together, none of these approaches work and are actually training you to be more reactive.

How does this happen? Every moment of every day carries a physiological imprint of everything you are thinking, feeling, worrying or stressing about, including all your perceptions, reactions, and emotional triggers or “freak-outs.” The neural networks in your body and brain are consistently firing with every experience, and, because you are a ‘system of adaptation’, the more they fire, the more efficient they get at repeating that pattern. They soon become your typical operating system. It is like exercise, riding a bike or learning a math problem. The neural nets in your emotional system are similar.

It is extremely important to note here that they are forming to your authentic experience so, even if you are suppressing or masking your reactions, your body/mind complex is molding to the truth of your experience.

The all-important question then becomes, what do you do when you are triggered, flooded with intense emotion or “freaking out”? In Part 1 of this three-part series you learned why you get triggered or freak out in the first place; why, when you are seemingly grounded, behaving from a clear and coherent emotional state, you might get hijacked with the ‘whoosh’ of an intense emotion and lose all semblance of emotional balance. For reference to this blog see "Why you Freak Out."

In a nutshell, you get triggered or freak out because you get programmed to react that way by your deep brain. Simply, your amygdala, located there, records every experience you’ve ever had and stores it by emotional significance. When something in your present looks sufficiently similar to something in your past that has hurt or threatened you, it immediately sends an all-out alarm through your whole body/mind complex. It is not a rational process; it is subconscious, instantaneous and designed to get you to evaluate your present through the lens of your past—without your conscious knowledge.

It is an ancient mechanism, and from an evolutionary standpoint was designed to keep you safe from extreme danger. However, given our current culture and the stresses you face every day, it is likely way over-performing its job. Your job is to notice the alarm, and from an emotionally grounded space discern appropriate action.

But how do you do that when your system is flooded with intense emotion that colors everything you are perceiving in that moment? As described in Part 1, The first step is to disengage from your reactivity and add a clearer lens to whatever is activating you. The second step is to provide a different, and authentic, experience all-together.

 1STunningART / Adobe Stock
Source: 1STunningART / Adobe Stock

But first, let’s look a little deeper at your typical responses and why they don’t work. First, you may over-react. Remember your system is designed to get you to act quickly and believe the flood of emotions consuming you. You may let the emotion takeover, never realizing it is your own personal alarm system only meant to get your attention. You may lash out, scream, yell, accuse, condemn, cry, walk away, eat, drink or engage in a myriad of behaviors that are not helpful. Worse, you may have damaged relationships with others—and yourself– as a result.

Second, you might try and suppress them. Suppressing doesn’t work because a key point to remember is that your neural nets– the wiring I talked about earlier– mold to your authentic experience. You mold to the truth of what you are feeling, not to the suppression. Even if you pretend not to be bothered, but are seething with anger (or shame, or anxiety, or embarrassment, or feelings of devastation, etc.) underneath, that is what you will create a greater capacity for, because that is the truth of your experience.

Third, you may blame, shame, judge or otherwise berate yourself for your emotional reaction in the first place. If you were the calm, centered person you think you should be, you wouldn’t be feeling those things, right? Again, that doesn’t work because now you are training your system to feel more of those berating emotions on top of the original destabilizing ones, and the original ones are still there as well.

If these approaches don’t work, what is the solution to these intense emotions and how might you effectively manage them? The only way to effectively deal with intense emotions, in the moment and in the long run, is to give yourself a different, authentic and stabilizing experience altogether.

 theaphotography / Adobe Stock
Source: theaphotography / Adobe Stock

It is helpful to know at this point that you have one of two psycho-physiological systems that dominate your body/mind complex at any given point in time. These are your "Fear Response System," and your "Calm and Connection System." Both drives or systems needed to be there for us to survive as a species and only one can be dominant at a time. When dominant, these systems color everything you perceive and react to, and the one you rest in most often becomes the operating system of your life.

Additionally, each of these systems are driven by clusters of emotion inherent to the system. Triggering emotions drive your fear response; calm, loving and compassionate emotions drive your calm and connection response. To function optimally and re-calibrate your system as a whole, it is not enough to just reduce your fear response, you must actively cultivate your ‘calm and connection’ response. It is not just about reducing de-stabilizing emotions, it is about intentionally creating stabilizing ones.

When you feel the hijack of an intense emotion and can 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, you calm your fear response.

bensconewille / adobe stock
Source: bensconewille / adobe stock

Then, instead of reacting, suppressing, blaming, shaming, judging or otherwise berating yourself, if you can genuinely meet the moment with self-understanding, and compassion—as you would a best friend struggling with the same triggers—you engage your Calm and Connection system. Often, you can be compassionate towards a best friend's triggers yet not your own. When you can meet your own triggers with self-compassion everything has the potential to shift and you literally re-wire a different way of responding.

The programming of your deep brain is a process meant to keep you safe. Sometimes it has gotten out of balance for what is appropriate for you here and now, and needs to be re-calibrated. Holding yourself, and your triggers in a deep state of understanding and self-compassion for the way it was programmed in the first place, without necessarily validating its current response, moves you from a fear dominated response to a calm and connected response.

Self-compassion—even for your intense emotional reactions—changes everything.

More from Alane K. Daugherty Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Alane K. Daugherty Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today