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Emotion Regulation

3 Steps for Navigating Life's Daily, Unexpected "Storms"

How to handle hassles and challenges without getting swept away.

Key points

  • Daily stressors can be perceived as "threat" by our nervous system and can trigger unwanted, intense emotions.
  • Instead of being consumed by our emotions, there are strategies that can help steady us.
  • Dropping an anchor, standing at the helm of the ship, and keeping the beacon in sight can help us navigate.
Image courtesy of No-longer-here from Pixabay
Source: Image courtesy of No-longer-here from Pixabay

The day the giant piece of glass (for a display case that my husband was building) shattered into thousands of pieces all over the living room Berber carpet and the kitchen floor, was not one of my best. Once I was certain my husband was not badly injured (only a minor cut on his hand), my mind went to the daunting task of how we would ever clean this all up and be assured that we removed every tiny shard of glass from the carpet in which it was embedded and hidden. My nervous system, feeling the major “threat” of having to spend the next several hours cleaning this up (it took two and a half), and the fear of how we would make the room safe again, was enough to throw me into a combination of fight-or-flight (anxious and frustrated) and freeze (initially immobilized out of overwhelm).

Having had recent practice in the middle of the night navigating unwanted wakings at 3 a.m. and simply being awake for hours, I remembered a few strategies to help me navigate the unexpected “storms” of anxiety and intense emotions that come with some of life’s daily challenges.

What do we do when we encounter frustrating external situations out of our control? We can let irritability and anxiety consume us (I’ve been there), or we can turn to some strategies to steady us amidst the storms. Here’s what I’ve found helpful.

When you encounter unexpected, stormy seas, you can:

1. Drop your anchor. When your nervous system reacts to a perceived threat by throwing your body into a fight-or-flight response, it is best, as a first step, to drop your anchor. Rather than being blown out to sea, dropping an anchor means bringing some safety and stability to the body as a way to help calm the nervous system. When our nervous system is more regulated, we can think and see with greater clarity and perspective.

When the glass shattered, after I assessed there were no actual emergencies, I sat (or more, sank) in a glass-free corner and started steadying my breathing. I allowed my breath to come in naturally and deeply, and I slowed down my exhalations to make them longer than my inhalations. This sends calming messages to the nervous system. Other ways of “dropping your anchor” might include: bringing awareness to the feeling of the ground underneath your feet or the support underneath your body if you are seated or lying down; intentionally bringing awareness to and softening muscle tension; or bringing awareness to any or all the five senses as experienced through the body. Mindful attention to inner body signals can provide cues of safety to the nervous system and help invite in some more regulating energy.

2. Remember that you can still navigate the ship (even though you can’t stop the storm). Ask yourself, “What can I choose in this moment? Where can I rest my attention?" (even if I have to keep redirecting it again and again). Remind yourself that while you can’t always change or control the external circumstances, you can choose your internal mindset and focus.

In the middle of the night, when my mind is racing, I remind myself that I can navigate my attention to thoughts, images and sensations that are soothing and comforting rather than let my mind run completely away with worried thoughts (this is a continual practice and sometimes is more difficult to do than other times). With the glass situation, I chose to make the vacuuming a meditative experience, bringing my attention to the back-and-forth rhythm and motion as I systematically covered one piece of carpet at a time. Rather than focusing on the daunting task ahead of me, I tried to focus on what was right in front of me.

3. Keep the beacon in view (and set your compass in the direction you want to go). The beacon (like a beacon of light guiding ships to safe harbor) is a metaphor I use for connecting with one’s deepest values and intentions. When we can focus on what really matters to us, what we most care about (even in the midst of our challenges) this helps us to make choices that are more aligned with these values and choose behaviors that serve our long-term well-being.

During the glass incident, the beacon I tried to hold in view was wanting to be supportive for my husband and not have my negativity and frustration make him feel worse than he already felt (even though the situation was not his fault but a defect in the glass). I wanted to find the best version of myself to manage this minor calamity (rather than letting it bring out the worst in me). I was at least somewhat successful at this, thanks to keeping the beacon in view.

The daily and unexpected storms of life will surely throw us off course, but when they do, it is helpful to know there are some tools that can help us navigate with a little more ease. Remembering to drop your anchor, stand at the helm of your ship, and keep the beacon in sight can help you find your way back to safe and stable waters.

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