Emotional Flooding: 5 Ways to Calm Down
Updated: Oct 29, 2021
"Calm Down" might be the most triggering, angering thing a partner can say to you during an argument, but even more infuriating is that they might be right. It's important to know how to deescalate your emotions when you're upset, and here's how.
I know that you've had someone tell you to "calm down" during an argument and that it made you want to throw a chair through the window. The phrase "calm down" invalidates your feelings in that moment, when you really need someone to empathize with you. However, It's not that you don't need to calm down, because you might benefit from returning to your emotional baseline.
During bad arguments with our loved ones, it's easy to get upset and overwhelmed, also known as a state of emotional flooding, which I discussed in my previous blog post. Once you're in this escalated state, it's very difficult (as in, impossible) to have a reasonable conversation and work through the issue. It's usually at this point when your partner tells you to relax, and that sends you further into your emotional spiral.
Instead of letting yourself sink further into the feelings, make an effort to stop the emotional flood.
Remember that being emotionally flooded triggers the fight or flight response, which puts your body into survival mode. In order to return to baseline, you'll need to convince your body that it does not need to prepare for attack.
Here are 5 ways to do this:
1 Take a Break
You need time and space in order to calm down during a fight. Breaks are essential. Once you can feel your heart racing and the pressure rising in your chest, it's time to take a break. All the other strategies are more effective if you do them during a break.
How to do it:
Tell your partner you need a break. It doesn't help to storm out of the room (fleeing) or emotionally disappear (what Gottman calls stonewalling). You need to communicate that you're upset ("I'm feeling really upset") and that you need a break before you keep talking ("I could use a break before we keep talking"). Simple as that.
If your partner says no, then stand your ground. You are allowed to take a break from a fight. Kindly but firmly continue to express that you're too upset to keep talking and you won't be effective if the conversation continues.
Next, decide when you'll pick things back up. You can set a length of time for the break ("In 30 minutes let's try again") or decide on a certain day/time to keep talking ("How about we talk about it more this afternoon when we're back from the barbecue").
I know, I know, you hear this one all the time. But there's a reason why the first recommendation is to take deep breaths!
Engaging in slow, deep breathing introduces more oxygen into your body and activates our parasympathetic nervous system. This system (unlike it's sibling, the sympathetic nervous system) tells our bodies to calm down. It reduces our heart rates, lowers blood pressure, and prepares our bodies to "rest and digest."
How to do it:
Put your right hand on your heart and your left y on your stomach- the goal will be to feel your right hand move as your breath and for your left hand to be still
Slowly inhale a long breath through your nose, filling your lungs with air
Feel your right hand rise and fall as your stomach expands and contracts with each breathe, this ensures your lungs are filling to capacity and that you're not taking shallow breaths
Exhale slowly, elongating the breathe as long as you can
Pause for a moment
Repeat the process as many times as necessary before you feel calm
3. Go For a Walk
It is incredibly helpful to get out of your current environment when you're upset. The tunnel vision and emotional distress can make it feel like we're trapped. Don't stay in the same room stewing about the argument, that will only make you more upset and further entrench you into your perspective and feelings (in an unhelpful way).
How to do it:
Go for a walk around your neighborhood. Go sit on your front stoop or back porch. Go find a park and sit on a bench for a while. If you're me, go looking for birds to watch.
Take in your surroundings. Breathe deeply (here it is again!) as you notice the air temperature, the ground beneath your feet, what smells are in the air, what animals you see.
Be mindful of the present moment. Use all 5 senses to take in your environment.
Exercise is one of the absolute best, most effective ways of returning to your emotional baseline. It uses up the energy accumulated during the fight or flight response, tricking your your brain into thinking that you survived the lion and can resume normal bodily functioning.
How to do it:
There are endless ways, but here are some ideas-
Go for a long or fast paced walk.
Go for a run.
Do a circuit at home (squats, jumping jacks, push ups, lunges, you name it)
Take a yoga or pilates class
Walk your dog
Clean your house/apartment with a passion
Garden and pull out weeds like it's a race
Take a hike
5. Journal, Color, or Anything Else
If there's another activity that soothes you, go ahead and do it! Some people find it helpful to journal their feelings, others like to use coloring books or mandalas, but maybe you look to cook, or play the piano, or build miniature models. If you have a hobby you love, then see if that helps. Anything to focus your attention and give your heart rate a chance to return to baseline will help.
If you tried all the strategies listed above and nothing helped, that doesn't mean they will never work.
If none of these strategies helped, it means one of three things:
1. Maybe you didn't do it for long enough. Your body needs time to return to baseline, keep breathing/journaling/etc. until you feel yourself calming down.
2. You may need to practice these skills more and strengthen the muscle of calming yourself down.
3. You might benefit from additional support. Some people have very strong feelings and need help learning these skills. Don't be afraid to seek out support- be it therapy, a meditation/mindfulness guide, trainer, or coach.