How to Stop Freaking Out
If you can prevent your emotions from taking over in the face of stress, you can avoid a lot of regret and set a good example for others.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Americans are emerging from the pandemic more stressed out and reactive than ever. For example, in a typical year, the United States sees about 100 to 150 cases of “air rage”—passengers becoming violent or unruly on airplanes. In 2021, there were more than 5,700 cases, of which more than 4,100 were mask-related. The problem is not limited to the skies: As my colleague Olga Khazan writes, “disorderly, rude, and unhinged conduct seems to have caught on as much as bread baking and Bridgerton.”
You might not be disrupting a flight or assaulting a stranger in the street, but maybe you are more emotionally volatile than you would like—more prone to strong negative feelings, and more often ending up in confrontations you would prefer to avoid, perhaps with people you love. A friend of mine refers to COVID as “the Divorce Lawyers’ Full-Employment Act of 2020,” and indeed, evidence suggests that the pandemic has torn many families apart. Emerging data on adolescents abroad show that emotional reactivity—when emotions are unstable in response to the stressors of ordinary life—increased during the pandemic.
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Whenever I hear about these incidents, I think of the best life advice I ever got, from my older brother: “Don’t freak out.” He was giving me a parenting tip, but really, it applies to everything in life. Freaking out—“emotional flooding,” in social-science jargon—never seems to make matters better, and we nearly always regret it. The fact that freak-outs may be happening with particular frequency right now is an opportunity to understand the phenomenon in ourselves and learn to manage our emotions better. If we do, we will be equipped with a skill that helps us be better friends, parents, spouses, and professionals, even when the pandemic is nothing but a distant memory.
The psychologist John Gottman defined emotional flooding as an automatic physical and mental response to an unexpected negative reaction by another, usually close person, an encounter we can perceive as a threat. Our brain triggers ineffective and disorganized responses as we prepare to do battle or run away. The experience likely involves the amygdala, the part of the brain that automatically produces basic emotional responses to outside signals, including danger. When strongly stimulated, the amygdala takes control of your mental processes, for good (you outrun a tiger) or ill (you get yourself arrested on an airplane). That can lead you to do and say things that surprise you, which the author Daniel Goleman calls “amygdala hijack” in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence. The phenomenon is observable in fMRI scans; when someone is exposed to stressful stimuli, their amygdala lights up like a Christmas tree.
Emotional flooding might have helped your Pleistocene ancestors survive, but it is maladapted to most modern interactions. Political differences hardly ever qualify as a big threat. Nor do most interactions with our families. No parent ever went to bed saying “I wish I had yelled more at my kids today,” and research shows that flooding is a strong predictor of hostile discipline. My relationship with my kids always suffered when I succumbed to a freak-out; it flourished when I did not. As I learned to master my amygdala over the years, I noticed a strange thing: My kids seemed to be studying me most acutely in the moments after they said or did something that could have led to amygdala hijack—but didn’t.
Beyond hurting personal relationships at home and creating all kinds of difficulties out in the world, emotional flooding significantly impairs decision making. In a study published in 2020 in the Journal of Family Psychology, scholars observed 233 couples during a problem-solving exercise focused on topics known to generate conflict (such as money, appreciation for each other, and sex). The couples in which at least one partner reported experiencing flooding were the same ones whom the researchers judged to be less effective in finding solutions to their conflict. This is hardly a revolutionary finding, but important nonetheless. It says that our automatic reaction to conflict is at odds with our interests.
Emotional flooding and its ill effects go beyond our family and love relationships. Perhaps you have seen an amygdala hijack in the workplace, when a colleague “lost it” and lashed out at others, and wound up on the job market. Or think of the father who loses his mind at a Little League game in front of all the kids and parents, forever after being known as “Rage-Monster Dad” to the others. Freaking out is almost always a source of regret and embarrassment, not satisfaction and pride. Keeping your cool avoids bad outcomes and sets a good example for others.
Knowing you shouldn’t freak out is easy enough, but actually preventing your emotions from taking over when you get a letter from the IRS can feel like another challenge entirely. The secret is to manage your emotions so they don’t manage you. This requires what some social scientists call metacognition: becoming aware of your own feelings and observing them as impartially as you can. Doing so activates your executive function, so you can be less impulsive and more in control.
To be metacognitive in moments of high stress and difficult emotions takes practice. It requires allowing time to pass between the onset of your feelings and your expression of your feelings. Taking a step back gives your executive brain a chance to choose your reaction instead of just falling into one. Here are three practices that make this possible.
1. Count to 30 (and imagine the consequences).
“When angry, count ten, before you speak,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. “If very angry, an hundred.” Research has shown that this strategy works well under certain circumstances; for example, people with low self-control responded more quickly and aggressively to an insult than those with higher self-control. Imposing a 30-second response delay on everyone reduced their aggression significantly, but only when there were negative consequences (having to perform a task) to being aggressive.
Say you receive an insulting email from a client at work, and want to fire back an indignant response. Don’t write back yet. Instead, slowly count to 30; imagine your boss reading the exchange (which she might); then imagine seeing the person face-to-face after he reads your response. Your response will be better.
2. Observe your feelings.
The Buddha taught his followers in the Maha-satipatthana Sutta that, to manage emotions, one must observe them as if they were happening to someone else. In this way, one can understand them and let them pass away naturally instead of letting them turn into something destructive.
Try this yourself when you have a strong disagreement with your partner or a friend and are feeling angry. Sit quietly and think about the feelings you are experiencing. Observe the anger as if it were happening to someone else. Then say to yourself, “I am not this anger. It will not manage me or make my decisions for me.” This metacognition will leave you calm and empowered.
3. Write it down.
You may have noticed that when you are upset, if you write about what you are feeling, you immediately feel better. Journaling is in fact one of the best ways to achieve metacognition, which in turn creates emotional knowledge and regulation, which provide a sense of control. Recent research shows this very clearly. In one study published in 2020, undergraduates who were assigned structured self-reflective journaling were better able to understand and regulate their feelings about learning.
If you are, for example, in a relationship that is souring against your wishes, don’t use a confrontational approach right off the bat. Instead, take a few days to record what is happening as accurately as possible, as well as your reaction to it. Write down different ways you might react constructively, based on different possible responses from the other person. You will find that you are calmer and better able to cope with the situation, even if it feels unfixable.
Managing your emotions is like home improvement: You can teach yourself to do a lot of it well, but it’s best to get some professional assistance when the job is particularly tricky. If your emotional flooding is less like a leak around the tub and more like a crack in the foundation of the house, you might consider getting some professional help in the form of therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, is designed precisely to teach patients how to understand and manage their unproductive thoughts and emotions. Metacognition has become an especially important tool in CBT in recent years.
Think of CBT as hiring someone to teach you a skill that is hard to learn on your own, like fixing the foundation of your house. Approach metacognition less like a patient and more like a student excited to learn something new.
Whether you achieve it by yourself or with therapy, learning to be a student of yourself is the most important step to becoming emotionally healthier. If you do the fascinating work of getting to know your mind, you will possess a source of power that will change your life for the better. The next time your flight is canceled, or your kid bites another kid, or your upstairs neighbor tap dances at midnight, you’ll be able to manage it like a pro.
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