Freaking out, overreacting, spinning, losing it. It happens to the most seemingly serene of people (although it is seldom advertised). Freaking out most definitely pre-dates any form of rational thought or more sophisticated abstractions of the mind. That's because of this:
Essentially, we're all just nervous systems walking around with fancy clothes on. And when we freak out, it is the limbic system, particularly the amygdala, that has grabbed the reins, emotionally reacting to the perception of threat. Perception is the key term here, because the amygdala is suffering from a bit of an imperfect operating system. Its fight, flight or freeze mechanism is marvellously effective when we really need it to react to threat (a car speeding toward us, for example), but because it doesn't distinguish actual threat from perceived threat, it leads to some powerful reactions in situations that, while stressful and challenging, do not really require an emergency response (bumping into an ex at a party, being in a job interview). When you combine this with memories of painful past events in life, which get stored in the hippocampus (another key component of the limbic system), being caught off guard can put us in a perfect storm.
The net effect: at times, we respond to disappointing or stressful but not emergency events far more intensely than the situation warrants. While this is part of the package deal of being human, it's hard to deny that we're better off when we can intercept - or even prevent - a freaking out episode before it hurts other people caught in the fray. Additionally, extreme reactions can get in the way of actually effectively dealing with the original issue (dare I say - problem solving?).
It begins with a trigger. It could be dramatic and obvious (your child has a screaming protest to putting her shoes on at the exact moment you need to be leaving the house) or it could be subtle enough that we can't believe how bothered we are (your colleague yawned when you were speaking to him; your spouse didn't call to check in; someone took a parking spot you were coveting). Your body, meanwhile, is silently keeping the score. Maybe it starts with heat creeping up your face. Perhaps your jaw clenches, or your stomach bottoms out. There's a faint throbbing behind your eyelids. The dominoes start tumbling over one another. "I can't handle this," you might say to yourself. "Nobody cares about me." "Why bother?" If those vulnerable primary emotions - fear, sadness, inadequacy - feel overwhelming, they might morph into rage, which at least gives us the illusion of control. Then comes our reaction. Maybe we shut down and disconnect from others - an internalised form of freaking out (a 'loud silence'). Maybe you yell at people, burst into tears, or become biting and sarcastic. You come across as mean or frantic or dramatic, but the truth is that you probably feel quite helpless in such moments.
Perhaps your reaction is occurring in the midst of a stressful week or a fragile emotional period, or perhaps it is just another expression of a deeply grooved pattern. Our emotional reaction and resulting behaviour that follows being triggered is heavily influenced by context, personality, and our inner fortitude - in other words, how much tolerance we have to our own emotions, and how solidly we are able to weather the sometimes turbulent nature of our lives.
Counselling can be quite helpful if you find that you are having episodes like this more frequently than you want to be, or if they are sufficiently intense that they are compromising relationships and functioning. There could be underlying issues that are coming out in these outbursts, and professional therapists can help draw these out and address the roots, which is ultimately much better than continuously doing damage control in the aftermath of losing it.
That said, it's always helpful to look at some of the things that help tether our emotions within coping range. These include:
- Meaningful connections with other people - when we have good people in our life who truly care, we're more likely to believe that we've got what it takes to cope.
- Sleep is the new black . When we don't get enough of it, things get to us more.
- Enjoyable exercise is its own type of medicine. Our nervous systems rely on regular physical exertion to be more balanced, alert, and healthy.
- Down time. Whether it is a creative hobby, unstructured romping around, or reading a good book, playing restores the soul.
- Nature soothes us - this is a fact. Get out into the green and blue parts of your world more often.
- Feed yourself well. The term "hangry" exists for a reason.
And if you have found yourself going from 0 to 60 and vibrating? It's never too late to de-escalate. Try one, some or all of these strategies:
- Breathe full breaths into your belly. There is science behind this: oxygen intake lets that reactive limbic system know that there's no true emergency, and allows it to calm down.
Leave the situation, if only for long enough to breathe and ground yourself. Walk around the block, go to a different room, even a washroom if you need time to yourself.
- Tell yourself something that grounds you. "I've got this." "I'm doing the best I can." "This will pass." Make sure you buy into it.
- Validate the emotion but question the assumptions and your reaction ("it makes sense that I would be so rattled right now! But does the fact that my child is screaming in public really mean that I'm an incompetent parent? I need to find a way to look after myself for the next moment so that I don't yell at the kids.")
- Go for a sensory distraction. Listen to a song that uplifts or calms you (have it downloaded and ready to go). Watch a YouTube video or movie clip that makes you laugh or soothes you.
- Call a friend - I'm not just stealing this one from that game show! It's a good one for a multitude of situations.
Also, sometimes we don't know exactly what we are feeling and why - we just know that we feel 'off.' This cheat sheet, while in dire risk of being rendered obsolete by emoticons, gets the job done and can be an on ramp into deeper reflection.
Keep in mind that the goal here is not to be completely relaxed and Zen at all times, it's finding effective ways to ride the waves during life's curve balls.