September 15, 2015

Quick Trick for Preventing Emotional Meltdowns

image: wikipedia
By Crabby McSlacker

So this is a "Quick Trick" in that it doesn't take too long to implement it, but as usual, I wrote a long-ass blog post to provide some context for it. As regulars know, I am pretty much incapable of getting straight to the point.

And the usual disclaimer applies: this may only work for me and my odd brain.

Plus it's only a shortcut to help you access all the emotional regulation skills you've already mastered as a thoughtful, responsible, adult human. If you don't have them to start with, and you've been blowing off all that personal growth and/or therapy stuff your entire life, it probably ain't gonna work.

It's basically a metaphorical tool I've been using to create an almost instantaneous mindshift in difficult situations. Simplistic and goofy? Sure! But I find it really helps. And there's even a fitness angle too, so I thought I'd pass it along here.

But first, the tedious pre-amble...

God Save the Queen

Basically, the idea is to re-assert your adult, analytical, executive brain, in real time, as the Queen (or King if you're a dude) of your psychological domain.

Queen Victoria, Apparently Not Amused.

Not that I'm advocating Victorian-era repression. Emotions are great! As advisors. They tell you in a memorable way what you love and what you hate and what you fear. But they are primitive and tyrannical and impulsive and they tend to say the same stupid things over and over--all day long if we let them.

Do we hate assholes who cut us off in traffic? Yes we do! But we already knew that, right? Is it useful to still be running it through our heads 10 hours later? Honestly, it's not that often that emotional information is even all that practical; most of our decisions are best guided by logic. Unless you're a character in a Hollywood movie, letting feelings and impulses override your common sense is usually a bone-head move.

Yet we often do it anyway.

But guess what? You're not powerless! It's your brain. You get to control what happens inside it. With the growing discoveries about the power of neuroplasticity, even real scientists and not just new age hucksters are finally cluing in to how much we can do to modify our habitual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Cranky Much?

photo: Harpy Images

It seems almost heretical to admit here at, let's see, Cranky Fitness, but being perpetually pissed off is not all that adaptive.

The feelings you really need to learn to tame and control are the negative ones. Those angry, greedy, self-righteous, jealous, fearful, clingy, hopeless, shame-filled, pouty, party-poopy, bored, resentful, pissy emotions:  They're not only unpleasant, they make really crappy decisions.

Yet somehow we feel entitled to  wallow in our negative emotions because they come so naturally. Even worse, sometimes we let these emotions justify doing or saying things that are totally counterproductive.

But duh, just because these feelings are natural doesn't make them strategic! Our brains and lifestyles have evolved in complexity over the millennia.  In caveman times, if one felt encroached upon, it may have been very adaptive to get all pissed off and club the trespasser over the head to modify their behavior. This strategy doesn't work so well when your teenager borrows your favorite cashmere sweater without asking and spills a Caramel Cocoa Cluster Frappucino all over it.

Bonus: learning to talk yourself down from negative emotions leaves more room for the positive emotions. Let's hear it for gratitude, joy, tranquility, awe, love, compassion, and bliss!

Bottom line: Life generally works best when we can acknowledge emotions, be curious about them, and allow them to inform us. Then let them go rather than let them boss us around.

Easier said than done though, right?

The Trick:

Use a Workout Metaphor to Reframe Reality.

image: pixabay

Remember, I said this was simplistic and goofy?

Basically, when you encounter an emotionally challenging situation in life, you have to recognize it as an Emotional Gym Workout.

Something unexpected happens, and there you are, feeling angry/afraid/hopeless about a situation. This is your cue!

I literally say to myself "emotional gym time!" And yes, I am insane.  But it instantly reframes the situation. Sometimes, I now even find myself grateful for the workout. (Once it's over). A certain amount of frustrating crap is, by the law of averages, going to come around to interrupt everyone's life, and now, guess what? It's my turn. In fact if by some weird quirk everything came easy and nothing challenging ever happened my entire life? Life might not be so interesting. And hell, I might not be so interesting either. And let's pretend "interesting" is a good thing, ok?

Anyway, I may have been dealing with the "outside world," and I am probably all caught up in it, but once my emotions kick in, I know my primary task has changed.  It's not about the outcome of the external situation anymore. (Though I'm not an idiot, I do still care what happens).

But once I recognize it's time for an emotional workout, I realize my job is to disengage from the superficial content of my situation.  Instead my job is to master my feelings and thoughts.  I'm acquiring emotional "strength" by practicing new thoughts and feelings and rewiring my brain synapses, just like I might build my glutes or increase my V02 Max during physical exercise.

I am no longer "in a long line at security and if it doesn't go more quickly I may miss my plane." Nope, now, here I am at the emotional gym! Time for a workout focused on replacing anxiety, pessimism and catastrophizing with tranquility, acceptance, and perspective.  Can I rock the workout, or am I going to wimp out and let immature emotions get the best of me?

My imaginary trainer says: "There's nothing you can do to speed this up. This is a perfect time to try mastering your emotions. Let's try a few sets of helpful thoughts! How about "things almost always work out just fine even when they look scary, and I will still probably board on time." Followed by a set of: "even if I don't catch this flight it's not the end of the world. There are other flights."  And a set of: "I have a credit card and a resourceful brain and somehow, I will eventually get to my destination."

But what if my emotions keep screaming: "Oh my God, it's still not going any faster! I'm doomed!"

Well, there is other "equipment" at the emotional gym besides working with thoughts. I might next focus in a curious way on the feeling of panic itself.  Where does it live in my body? Where is it strongest? Where are its borders? Is it moving? Does it have a color? Is there a rotational aspect? If so, can I consciously spin it around in the opposite direction?

I often notice that when emotional bodily sensations are decoupled from thoughts, they aren't even that unpleasant--they don't hurt. They're just weird. It's the thoughts that are unpleasant; the physical manifestations don't have to carry the same negative charge. If you stop feeding them with provocative thoughts, the physical feelings will ebb in a few minutes on their own.

And yes, all this is hard, especially if you don't work on this woo-woo sort of emotional stuff very often.  It's like training for a marathon--you're not going to run 26 miles your first workout. So yeah, often my mind wants to give it up and go back to panicking, or at least stewing and fretting, which feels much more natural. It wants to hop off the treadmill, drop the weights, and head for the locker room.

But just as I learned that there is a payoff to sticking with exercise at the "real" gym, I find that there's an even better payoff for working out at the emotional gym. Over time, this inane "change how you talk to yourself" stuff actually works! Helpful thoughts often show up on their own now, and panic, resentment, hopelessness, frustration, and other unpleasant states of mind don't show up all that often and are much more quickly vanquished.

But when unpleasant emotions do return, I know it's time to hit the gym again.

How about you guys, do you have a useful catchphrase or metaphor or system for dealing with emotional upsets?


  1. "letting feelings and impulses override your common sense": it seems to me that my common sense is mostly compounded of feelings and impulses. Not a particularly logical person here.
    And when emotional negativity overwhelms me, it's nearly always because I'm physically exhausted. This is what it's like being relentlessly cheerful!

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  2. Hi Crabby,
    This is cool! One does need tricks - even if they're small or odd, anything that eases the path to satori. (did I just say that, how pretentious! I must have also been thinking of Queen Victoria, whose reign record was just beaten by Her Majesty Lizzy!).

    I am not always the Paragon of Patience, either. Or even a Pirate of Penzance. I also have a couple tricks. The simplest is to bring a book in situations where boredom or annoyance may happen (airports, DMV, staff meetings). Instant amusement! (although I know mostly everyone now uses their phone for that). Another is to practice guitar in my head, just like athletes visualize stuff for parts of their training. Or play percussion on me. :) If all that fails, Primal Screaming might do the trick.


  3. Well, I'm looking at being laid-off and generally I'm good with it but I don't know when it is coming. I will get the meeting and then the escort out of the building like a thief some Thursday soon. I have told family and friends and I am pretty happy with my reaction except the deadly "I feel sorry for you" eye contact. AHhhhh! I can't spend the rest of the month looking at the floor trying to avoid it but it will definitely be coming in a big way during and after that meeting.
    How do you turn that one into something else? I need to imagine the people have something in their eye? Ohh maybe their constipated! That's what the look is! I have friends who will practice with me. That might work!

  4. Your approach makes sense to me! I do cognitive therapy on myself prn. Letting go of the anger, etc is the only way to be free unless you can just punch the perp in the face. I remind myself that hurting myself does not help me nor hurt the offender.

  5. What a great approach! Basically, you are coming up with something persuasive enough to take yourself somewhere else - to a place where you can take a logical look at what's bugging you and decide what (if anything) you can do about it, and taking it from there. I've always liked this bit out of P.G. Wodehouse: ' The true philosopher is the man who says "All right," and goes to sleep in his arm-chair. One's attitude towards Life's Little Difficulties should be that of the gentleman in the fable, who sat down on an acorn one day and happened to doze. The warmth of his body caused the acorn to germinate, and it grew so rapidly that, when he awoke, he found himself sitting in the fork of an oak sixty feet from the ground. He thought he would go home, but, finding this impossible, he altered his plans. "Well, well," he said, "if I cannot compel circumstances to my will, I can at least adapt my will to circumstances. I decide to remain here." Which he did, and had a not unpleasant time. The oak lacked some of the comforts of home, but the air was splendid and the view excellent.'

    That guy would have made short work of the security line anxiety. I try to remember him whenever I am in some equivalent of your long line.

  6. I am so good in the gym physically but outside - UGH! GREAT POST Jan! Now to get myself to implement! :)

  7. Wow, i like this! There are occasions when i really need more than just deep breathing, as good as that is.

  8. Going to have to try this out next time my 5 year old has a melt down (which at times...turns me into a 5 year old).

  9. Thanks for this, Crabby. I've been working on the "change how you talk to yourself" thing for awhile but sometimes (lately!) I go back to good old fashioned repression. I have this image of boxes stacked and tied with ribbons in the closet of my brain (the boxes are pretty though!). Unfortunately, sometimes those dang ribbons untie themselves.
    Thanks for the reminder that a more positive dialog with those pesky emotions are much better than boxes flying off the shelves!

  10. AM I huge believer in positive thinking. Too often the things that stress us out are not worth all the emotional energy we spend on them. Great article.

  11. Great post, Crabby. Yes, primitive emotions have always proven to be the gateway to self-sabotage for me. Nice to know I'm not the only one.

  12. Do I have system for dealing with emotional upsets? Does maturity count? When I CAN deal with upsets, I feel like I am being more mature. In all seriousness though, I have had to really do internal talking to myself to not let my emotions run rampant. It is an ongoing process. I like yours too though. Maybe I will give that a try. :)

  13. Very well said. Positivity really is important. If you are optimistic, it will reflect your environment too. Just breath, relax and let go.

  14. Yup. Sometimes when this happens and I think about it, I turn the situation over and tickle its tummy. Lets me see a different perspective.

  15. I have so so so many mantras these days it is like a FULL ON CONVO IN MY HEAD.
    And sadly Im not kidding :-)

  16. I just try not to leave the house anymore! ;)

  17. Dont forget when using a photographers work(the red image of the angry bird flipping teen) to credit.
    thank you
    Meg Gaiger/Harpyimages

    1. So sorry Meg! When I do a CC search I usually try to credit at least the site it comes from and link to it, but I seem to have spaced it this time. Thanks for catching my omission. And thanks for taking such a great shot!


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