Tools to Manage Emotional Dysregulation

Many clients contact me asking for resources/tools to manage overwhelming anxiety or numbness/shutdown. Overwhelming anxiety is commonly the nervous system response known as “fight or flight”. When the mind/body perceives threat, the sympathetic nervous system shifts into gear and mobilizes the body to respond to the threat: heart and respiration rate accelerates, blood moves to the limbs (often resulting in shaking, trembling, sweating), and thinking may become less clear. If this response is inadequate to deal with the threat at hand (or has repeated past experience of being inadequate), the dorso-vagal branch of the nervous system may take over and move the body into a “freeze” response: bodily rhythms slow down, emotions are numbed, and the body collapses or shuts down. Sometimes these two responses are appropriate to the situation at hand; but often, they are not and we need to find ways to bring our nervous system back into a state of balance required for social engagement.

Here are some tools to help manage both overwhelm and shutdown:

  • Containment: Try visualizing a container such as a safe, box or bubble to hold overwhelming emotions, thoughts or sensations temporarily. Containment is different from repressing unwanted experiences; it is a temporary holding until the material can be safely examine (e.g., in a therapy session, in the safety of one’s home, etc.)
  • Affect Regulation: Many people have difficulty identifying their feelings, which can be overwhelming in itself. Feelings (and their accompanied bodily sensations) have a function; e.g., fear communicates perceived threat; anger communicates boundary violation; sadness may communicate a loss that needs to be mourned. Art or journaling are common ways of expressing emotions such that they can be identified, clarified and understood without being overwhelming. Constructive distracting and self-soothing activities can be helpful.
  • Mindfulness – the ability to observe and allow the natural changes in emotion, sensation, and thoughts – can be cultivated through many practices including yoga, meditation, and observing the five senses.
  • Visualization: Calm/safe place imagery is a powerful tool for inducing relaxation, especially if you can evoke many sensory details such as sounds, smells, touch, temperature, sounds, etc. associated with the place. Some people find it helpful to visualize a screen or an intensity dial that controls the size, clarity, or volume of their thoughts/feelings/sensations.
  • Breathing: Slowing the breath cycle, and placing one hand on chest and the other on belly can help calm the nervous system.
  • Grounding: These tools include feeling your feet on the floor (pressing toes, soles, heels into the floor) and noticing the sensations of strength in the ankles, calves, shins, knees and thighs as they hold your body up. Lengthening the spine, squaring the shoulders and slowly observing your environment can also help move the nervous system out of the “freeze” response.

These tools require practice, especially for people who have a history of trauma (a central feature of trauma is the inability to physiologically modulate stress responses). Many clients need support to learn how to experience their body as a physical safe place. When practiced regularly, these tools help reduce fear, overwhelm and numbing, making it easier to process the stressors and traumas of day-to-day life.