The pandemic along with the disappearance of many of the routines that kept us grounded and helped us manage our anxiety have understandably put some of us into a mode where we’re unable to see anything but doom or gloom. It may be exacerbated for those of us who grew up without having our emotional needs met; an inability to regulate negative emotion (also called a deficit in emotional intelligence) is a very common effect of these childhood experiences, and how to stop yourself from spinning out emotionally when things got tough was one of the questions readers submitted numerous times when I was writing my book,The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood. (This post is adapted from the book.)
An inability to calm yourself not only amps up your angst but it effectively stops your ability to think anything through dead in its tracks. It’s basically a double whammy that will keep you ruminating and wake you up in the middle of the night. But there are things you can do to help yourself.
First calm yourself and then get to work
Begin by addressing the anxiety that is driving your thinking, and do what you can to defang it. Self-calm by either deep breathing or by visualizing a person you feel safe with or a place that calms you. Reassure yourself.
Then, there are two strategies you can use when you’re beginning to spin and feel utterly demoralized. The first is to imagine the worst-case scenario and to look at it objectively and figure out what you will actually do if it happens. Mentally, this puts the ball back in your court and permits you to become proactive instead of emotionally reactive. Coming up with a plan if this should happen will also make you feel less anxious and besieged. Spend time thinking about what you will do if what you’re afraid of actually happens, and even better, write it down; think about both the practical aspects and the emotional fallout. Again, you can use this technique to deal with situations that will merely be disappointments on the road of life—such as being passed over for a promotion, not getting a job, or having a relationship hit a rocky patch—or those that are really important and affect your emotional equilibrium, such as the end of a relationship, losing your job, or going through a contentious divorce. I found it a life-saving technique during my protracted divorce, in fact.
The second technique is cognitive reframing—changing how you’re thinking about the problem or situation. While this is potentially a very valuable strategy, it’s also relatively hard to master, especially if you still are learning how to manage your emotions. Reframing does not mean that you’re reaching for those old rose-colored glasses and murmuring that “Everything happens for a reason” and “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Absolutely not. Instead, cognitive reframing has you abandon that doom-and-gloom view of the situation and permits you to see it more objectively and, with luck, without all the self-blame and character assassination you often resort to. You know how when you take a photo, you frame the subject and change the perspective by zooming in or out? Or you decide to focus on a specific detail rather than the whole to reflect a different vision? That’s basically what you’re doing when you deliberately reframe; you’re actively shifting your perspective and focus.
Reach for your journal
Using journaling can be very helpful as you begin to learn to reframe. Let’s say that you’ve had a huge blowup with your husband or lover, and you’re absolutely convinced that there’s no way back from this argument, that he’s going to leave you, and that’s probably your fault. Begin by describing the situation as accurately and objectively as you can, using both distance and a third-party perspective (“cool processing”). Reread what you’ve written and see whether or not your vision of the situation has shifted. What cues or signs did he demonstrate that were positive in nature? What might you have done to shift the tenor of the argument that you didn’t? What would you say if this fight had taken place between two strangers? How would you evaluate the behavior of each of the parties?
The more often you use these techniques, the more comfortable they’ll feel to you and the less likely you’ll be to catastrophize.
Photograph by Annie Spratt. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Copyright © 2019, 2020 by Peg Streep. All rights reserved.