Dealing with Difficult Times

Techniques to regulate emotions help us find balance.

Posted Jul 31, 2020

Source: vainodesositis/Pixabay

Examples of unexpected crises abound. A child falls from a jungle gym, clutching a limp arm. A loved one becomes ill with a fatal disease. A spouse loses a job two months after you lost your own. You witness a serious car accident. A hurricane approaches your location.

Events like these sound our internal alarm bells, signaling a threat that requires attention. We may — or may not — have some control over the level of urgency of the demand, but, regardless, we know that we will need to rearrange any plans we had for the near future to accommodate a suddenly changed situation. And we will need to respond to a threat that affects ourselves or someone else.

The new information provokes a hormone response, increasing cortisol and adrenaline, heart rate and blood pressure, and shifts muscle tone while we slip into our go-to flight, fight or freeze stress response. How we initially react to a perceived trauma echoes our response from the first time we felt acute danger, which is intimately related to our stage of development when we first felt a challenge of survival proportions. The alacrity with which we can move beyond the initial response (which may or may not be useful in the circumstances) and get ourselves back into a level-headed problem-solving mode is important. Sometimes our emotions highjack our judgment; we get distracted from what we can or must do in the midst of an immediate or longer-term crisis. 

The first step is to evaluate the situation. What, if anything, must be done immediately? Do you have the resources to respond or will you need help? What decisions need to be made? Do you need more information to take action? Are there other people who should be contacted immediately? Are you aware of any lapses in your ability to process information effectively? If you need physical, emotional, cognitive, or logistical help, who can best provide assistance, and are they more likely to help the situation or hurt it?

Our emotions in a crisis situation — most often negative ones, like anger or fear or worry or grief or even shame or guilt — can flood our bodies with chemicals. What can we do to neutralize them so that we can act with thoughtfulness and intention? Deep breaths can send sorely needed oxygen to your brain and muscles. A drink of water can help rebalance your dehydrated body. Often a calm presence, human or animal, can help refocus. 

What if the situation is indeed not urgent? Or what happens after the immediate crisis has been addressed and a longer-term adaptation is called for? Perhaps the greatest source of weightiness stems from conditions that do not urgently require a response but need a longer-term perspective of ways to deal with pain and negativity. Like a marathon runner, we need to pace ourselves, practice balance.   

As Dr. Herbert Benson documented as early as 1975, if you remain in a state of high alert, your body will deplete its reserves. You can become unable to fend off illness, lose strength and cellular integrity, and show other signs of breakdown. If the natural autonomic nervous system cycle gets stuck on the arousal side, our sympathetic nervous system continues to produce adrenaline and cortisol, increasing our blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar, muscle tension and vigilance. Balance from the parasympathetic system, that allows us to relax, process food, drink, and information, and show compassionate and empathetic (as opposed to self-protective) responses, can shut down.

We need to learn to walk the tightrope between arousal and relaxation so that we can avoid the chronic immersion in toxic stress when cortisol skyrockets and negative emotions run rampant. Skill in regulating our nervous system to master this balancing act is one way of thinking about “resilience.” We can find room for the excitement of challenges, the arousal to address them in energetic ways, or we can step back to recover our stores of energy, compassion, and perspective. 

What helps us engage our parasympathetic system when we need to rebalance? 

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Conscious breathing. Meditation. Yoga. Nature. Relaxing music and other sounds, like the ocean or birds singing. Rhythmic activity that restores a slow predictability to our responses. Soothing and nourishing activities can help activate the calming parasympathetic side of our autonomic nervous system responses. Read James Nestor’s new book, Breath, for a deeper appreciation of the ways our breathing affects our well-being.

In addition, the value of touch cannot be overestimated. In these times of a viral pandemic, however, safe touch can be hard to come by unless one lives within a “family pod” of people who are “safe.” One interesting and effective alternative can be a responsive and affectionate dog. Research I did with Maki Nokota showed that living with a dog or cat is associated with significantly fewer depressive symptoms in single women than living without a pet.

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Even better, today we now know that the animal does not need to be a “live-in,” requiring care and exercise and attention that a living creature needs. During the COVID-19 crisis, Mount Sinai Children’s Hospital in New York creatively expanded the use of its therapy dogs to soothe and comfort the healthcare workers who were so overwhelmed at the height of the COVID-19 crisis. You can witness a bit of their efficacy in this video

Be mindful of the importance of balance in your life. Practice engaging your parasympathetic system, whether through meditation, yoga, nature, sounds, rhythm, long baths, or any other activities that work for you in training then reminding your body how to “let go,” so that, when circumstances beyond your control seem most bleak and draining, you will be able to consciously engage the natural healing side of your autonomic nervous system to regain balance and promote recovery.

Copyright 2020 Roni Beth Tower


Riley, KE & Park, CL (2015) How does yoga reduce stress? A systematic review of mechanisms of change and guide to future inquiry, Health Psychology Review, 9:3, 379-396, DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2014.981778

Pascoe, MC, Bauer IE. A systematic review of randomised control trials on the effects of yoga on stress measures and mood. Journal of Psychiatric Research. 2015;68:270-282. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.07.013

Tower, RB & Nokota, M. (2006) Pet companionship and depression: Results from a United States Internet sample, Anthrozoös, 19:1, 50-64, DOI: 10.2752/089279306785593874