To say emotions are big is an understatement. Although shame, fear, sadness, and anger can sometimes be overpowering in a counselling session, I believe that sitting with people as they experience their emotions can be healing. But I also know that clients sometimes feel overwhelmed by their feelings. They want to regain control so they can carry on with the focus of their work and make use of the session.
The whole purpose of bringing down big emotions is to work with them in a way that feels safe and manageable. There are several ways I work with people in the therapy room that help bring down big emotions. I encourage clients to practice with the following skills both in session and at home:
1. Engage the Dive Reflex With Cold Water
Intense emotions activate our sympathetic nervous system and can cause us to move into the panic modes of fight, flight, or freeze. This is also a common trauma response. Clients may start to panic, cry rapidly, or show signs that they are shutting down or starting to dissociate.
To help a client who is struggling to manage difficult emotions, get them to engage their dive reflex. All mammals have this reflex, which is triggered by diving into cold water. Our heart rate is slowed, our brain begins to refocus, and our parasympathetic nervous system is engaged to help us settle down the heightened arousal.
We can engage our own dive reflex by putting our faces in a big bowl of cold water with a few ice cubes. Research says to repeat four times, for as long as possible (about 15-30 seconds). In my office, I also have some frozen gel packs that can be placed under the eye sockets to help engage the dive reflex. Sometimes people look at me funny when I tell them about this skill, and I love seeing reactions when they try it out and say, “Wow, that really worked!”
Engaging our senses helps open up our awareness and expands our perception beyond the emotion.
2. Engage in Exercise
Getting our heart rate up when emotions are high is another great way to help us move out the stress inducing hormones that are released when we are in a state of intense distress. Most people know that regular exercise is helpful for our mental well-being and state of balance. A spontaneous burst of jumping jacks, sit-ups, running the stairs at work, or whatever exercise you can do for approximately 20 minutes will also help manage an emotional surge.
3. Take Deep Breaths
A deep belly breath works wonders and is a portable skill you can always access. When we inhale deeply and breathe out slowly, we engage the diaphragm and also engage the parasympathetic nervous system to calm us down.
If a person cannot start with deep breathes due to anxiety, box breathing (in for 2-4 seconds, hold for 2-4 seconds, out for 2-4 seconds, hold for 2-4 seconds, etc.) can help the individual work up to breathing more deeply. Teaching this skill by doing it together is helpful for both client and helper when we need to bring the emotion down in session.
4. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
A person cannot be both tensed and relaxed at the same time. This exercise involves tensing and holding isolated muscle groups for approximately five seconds and letting go quickly. This allows our brains to focus on the sensation of tension, then the release.
There are several examples of progressive muscle relaxation on YouTube. This exercise can be really helpful if you can’t sleep. Use caution regarding injuries, pain, and when there is a history of trauma, which can make focus on the body difficult.
The whole purpose of bringing down big emotions is to work with them in a way that feels safe and manageable.
5. Grounding Exercises
In times of high distress, grounding helps bring focus back to one’s body and surroundings. It brings us into the here and now and away from the ruminating thoughts and panicked sensations that accompany any big surge of emotion.
A shift in body position like standing up and transferring weight back and forth can be grounding. Activities that involve focus and concentration can help reset as well. These can be anything from counting together (backwards from 50 by 2’s) to playing the alphabet game from A-Z (pick a category such as fruits and veggies or capital cities). A favorite grounding exercise of mine is to observe and describe a picture on the wall, as if you want someone else to draw it but can’t say what it is.
6. Involve the Senses
Sensory awareness helps soothe our active nervous system. When we’re emotionally flooded, our focus is narrow and the information we take in is limited. Engaging our senses helps open up our awareness and expands our perception beyond the emotion.
You can attend to your senses with an activity like naming five things you see, five things you hear, five things you sense or feel, and then proceeding to four things you see, hear, sense, feel, etc. Having a basket of various objects to touch, smell, see, hear, and taste is another way to invite the brain to settle by focusing on sensations.
7. Take a Break
Sometimes when a client’s emotions are high and I know they would like to regain emotional control, we take a literal break from our work. We may look out the window together and chat about what we see. Sometimes I do other tasks and give my client privacy to stop, stretch, breathe, and distract their mind while I attend to other tasks for a few minutes. People have taken a little walk and returned to my office. It is hard to let go when things are intense. Practicing taking a break in session models what is helpful when the individual is overwhelmed at home.
Experiencing emotions is a welcomed and essential part of therapy. There is a common metaphor that emotions are like waves – they come and go. Some feel like a storm, a tidal wave, or even a tsunami. Bringing the emotion down to something that is manageable instead of threatening can be a welcome relief. I appreciate the transformation I see when people with big emotions embrace these skills. What can sometimes start as us working together to regulate big emotions leads to practice at home and a changed idea that emotions can be reduced, and therefore tolerated and explored.
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