Picture this. You’re driving your car and the low tire pressure light comes on. It’s cold outside so this is very common and the solution is to stop at a service center and put air in your tires. You worked all day and you’re tired, so you decide to go home and deal with it later. The next time you drive your car, the light remains on and you continue to ignore the warning. While you’re on the highway, you pull over and realize you have a flat tire.
How does this relate to psychology? Like the low tire pressure light, our minds often give warning signs when something needs attention. And like the motorist in this parable, we don’t always take action to alleviate further distress. The mind and body communicate to help us better regulate our emotions and remain in control. And as with the flat tire example, you are aware of the solution, but sometimes we put it off or ignore doing it altogether because we haven’t taken the time to process or understand it.
What is emotional overload?
I call this next part “emotional overload.” It’s that moment when someone asks if you’re OK when you are not. That’s when you notice your tire going flat. Your heart rate increases, your lip quivers, and tears form in your eyes. It’s incredible how much we hold onto, and a simple “are you OK?” is when we realize those emotions were trapped.
OK, so what can do to avoid the tire going completely flat? Tap into the mind/body connection.
3 tips to alleviate emotional distress
Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), promotes emotional well-being through skill usage which can be applied every day and when in a crisis. Let’s start with every day.
The ABC PLEASE skill
“ABC PLEASE” is an acronym and one of my favorite skills to teach clients. Our emotional toolbox is filled with ways to find balance and make it less likely for emotional overload to occur.
(A)ccumulate positive emotions by doing what we love! With all life’s responsibilities, it is easy to forget what makes us happy and do them consistently. This could be a phone call to a loved one or engaging in a hobby.
(B)uild mastery in the things you enjoy. Boost your confidence by doing something every day that makes you feel competent. The more you do it, the more confident you’ll feel.
(C)ope ahead by rehearing a plan should you find yourself distressed.
The “PLEASE” portion of this skill promotes a healthy mind by balancing sleep, meals, and exercise.
This is another helpful acronym for reducing emotional overload. Sometimes our feelings become trapped in our bodies at the worst times. This could be while driving a car, at work, or with friends or family. To prevent projecting emotions, TIPP is a skill to reconnect the mind and body.
(T)ip the temperature! When in distress, the feeling of cold water is encouraged. Examples of this could be going outside for a second, using a washcloth on your forehead, or holding an ice pack or ice cube.
(I)ntense exercise. This one may not apply to all circumstances but is proven to work for a quick release. Take a deck of cards, for example, and each one you flip over would be the number of pushups or jumping jacks you do. I’ve found this part of TIPP to be beneficial when having trouble sleeping due to racing thoughts or just to get that emotional energy out.
(P)rogessive muscle relaxation and (P)aced breathing are recommended to notice when we’re holding onto physical sensations. Research out of Finland looked into mapping emotions on the body and people were asked to identify bodily sensations experienced by depression. The results indicate that depression was felt in the arms, legs, and head. Danger and fear triggered strong sensations in the chest area and anger was activated in the arms. These two techniques are often seen in meditations to feel less stress (i.e. unclenching eyebrows and fists) and inhale/exhale by counting numbers.
This skill is recommended when we begin to feel emotions consuming our minds and bodies. Opposite action teaches us to fight the urge that comes with a distressing emotion. When sad, one may isolate and have little motivation to engage with others. Opposite action looks like going for that run when you feel sad or meeting friends out for dinner to ultimately trick the body into the opposite emotion. It’s not an easy one, but it works!
These are just a few of the many tools we can use when feeling trapped in an emotional vortex. We are in control of what we do with our feelings even when we don’t think we are. So, check that tire pressure light in your car regularly and remember to recognize that all feelings are temporary!