How to stay calm when other people lose control

I learned very early on as a parent that it is virtually impossible to look cool when your child is melting down in an epic screaming snotty flailing angry mess on the dirty floor of a public place. Feelings of frustration, shame and loss of control are magnified even more when others are watching in pity and judgment.  I have also learned that when others are aiming intense emotions at me, like anger, sadness and fear, it can be difficult to avoid the impulse to react with my own strong emotions. Personal emotions can be painful, but there is something even more unsettling when we experience the powerful emotions of others, particularly those who we love or whose opinions we highly regard. 

We are highly social beings, and our brains are wired to connect to others (see Social by Matthew Lieberman for an excellent book on this topic). This connection strengthens our chances for survival, for the group is stronger than the individual. Our brains have evolved to be motivated by seeking and maintaining social connection. Approval and acceptance from others activate the same reward centers of the brain that we feel when we get a primary reward such as food, and social rejection activates the same pain centers of the brain that we feel when we are in physical pain. 

There is also evidence to support the idea that emotions are "contagious". Humans and some primates have a mirror system in the brain, which means that when we see another person perform an action, the same area of our brain responsible for doing that action starts firing, even if we are not doing that action. Have you ever seen a child who is heartbroken, lower lip out, face contorted and frowning, and adopted a similar sad face in response? We also have an area of the brain that is specialized in mentalizing, or analyzing what others are thinking. Both the mirror system and the mentalizing system help us to experience empathy so that we can help out our fellow humans who are in distress. 

My point is, there are solid, biological reasons why we have the impulse to experience emotional reactions when people around us are experiencing these powerful emotional storms. However, despite this normal human tendency, we have the ability to attain and remain in a state of calmness in the midst of the emotional hurricanes of others. The act of being in a state of calmness in the midst of pain and chaos is called practicing equanimity. When I teach this concept to children, I say it is making a choice to be like a tree. If it is storming outside and a tree feels sad or angry about getting wet or blown about, it doesn't run around and freak out. It just stands strong, bends in the wind, and waits for the storm to stop.

In this photo, there is a jar with glitter swirling around, representing an intense  emotional storm happening. When we experience anger, we tend to feed it with our attention, and make it grow until it becomes so uncomfortable we explode to release it. When a child is in distress, we want to DO SOMETHING to MAKE IT STOP. However, when we act out of distress or frustration, we are modeling this emotion for the child, and often, it can escalate the emotional storm (like shaking up the jar). If we continue to shake up the jar, we perpetuate the storm. 

The alternative, which goes against our biological wiring, but has enormous benefits to ourselves and others, is to practice equanimity, or to be like a tree and wait for the storm to settle, and the glitter to fall. 

This sounds simple, but it is not easy. It is difficult to experience the uncomfortable emotions of others, because our natural desire is to do something to try to stop them or change them. When we "catch" these emotions from others, it can be hard to refrain from reacting to them with actions that may potentially hurt others (e.g., yelling, making threats), or ourselves (e.g., tension that leads to headache, high blood pressure). 

However, if you can practice this state of equanimity when others are out of control, you will be able to model feelings of peace and calmness for them, and they will be more likely to "catch" these peaceful and positive emotions.

Here are some strategies for staying cool and calm in the heat of an emotional hurricane:

1.  Lean in to the pain, and let it be what it is, because it will not last forever, and will leave on its own. 

Nothing lasts forever, including painful emotions. Emotions are impermanent, meaning they are temporary. However, when emotions like anger and frustration rise up, they carry a huge weight and pressure. We feel like we must explode to relieve the pressure, but an alternative choice is to let it burn off on its own. Pema Chodron uses the term shenpa to describe the urge to act on our emotional impulses to escape pain. When you realize that you are experiencing an uncomfortable emotion, name it objectively (e.g., "this is a feeling of burning anger") and then visualize the jar above with the swirling glitter. Breathe and visualize the glitter settling with the assurance that it will not last, unless you continue to feed it with your thoughts.

2. Starve the emotion of attention, and it will shrink.

Have you ever heard the expression that "pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional"? Painful emotions happen, but we suffer when we dwell on them, and create stories that feed these feelings. Often when we feel anger or distress because someone else is losing it, we start to think about all of the times this has happened in the past (e.g., "he always freaks out every time we have to leave the playground") and even may beat ourselves up about it ("I shouldn't have brought him here so close to nap time, why can't he be like the other kids, what have I done wrong, I am a terrible parent"). This internal dialogue and the focus on the emotion and its resulting uncomfortable feelings cause the emotion to grow. Instead of feeding the emotion, shift your attention to something else, like your breath, and the feeling will begin to dissipate. Because I like tangible and visual strategies, I developed a sensory tool to help with this strategy, which I call an equanimity bracelet:

When you realize that your feelings are escalating in an emotionally charged situation, take hold of the first large bead in the string of beads. Take a breath and slide the bead over. Continue until you work your way to the last small bead, and then hold the anchor bead (the clear bead pictured) and notice whether you have calmed down enough to respond in a way that is kind. Repeat as needed.

3. Shift from feeling negative emotions to feeling compassion.

I remember feeling intense maddening frustration when my three year old had a full blown screaming thrashing tantrum because he wanted it to be Thursday, but it was actually Tuesday. There was nothing I could do to make it be Thursday, or to make him stop being angry about it being Tuesday. Instead of blaming myself for his meltdown ("It is my job to help kids to learn self regulation and my own child can't handle the fact that it is Tuesday"), or getting angry at how utterly ridiculous his reaction was, I had to ride it out, and respect his right to feel what he was feeling, even when it was completely not logical to me. In doing this I was able to shift from agitated annoyance to compassion. Compassion is the ability to notice the suffering of others (logical or not), and to act to help relieve that suffering. In this case, the act involved sitting and breathing calmly and offering up a hug when he was ready. 

Both germs and emotions can be contagious. If we want to stop the spread of germs, we can practice good hygiene. Practicing equanimity is like practicing good mental hygiene. With regular practice, we can learn to be a source of comfort to others, even in the most difficult storms.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them below. 

If you have enjoyed this post and think that it may benefit others, I would be grateful if you would share it via email or Facebook.



1 comment

  • The insight shared in this article is amazing! I look forward to sharing a visual of a tree, to help my students learn equanimity along with the beaded necklace! I’m so thrilled to have found these wonderful resources and information, Dr Monica Jackman! Thank you so much, for sharing your knowledge and creativity in order to help children and adults!

    Lori Swidler

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