Some forms of noise in our lives are relatively insignificant, like the irritation we feel when encountering someone we dislike or enduring a tedious aspect of our job. These can be categorized as "vampire loads" - draining but manageable - which I discussed in a previous post.
However, other types of noise can be debilitating, paralyzing us in our tracks. These feelings arise when a loved one passes away, a crucial deal falls through, or someone we trust commits an irreversible act.
At those moments, it seems like every drop of blood in our bodies rushes to our stomach, and we begin to lose our breath. Our anxiety skyrockets from 2/10 to 10/10, becoming utterly unmanageable. Our System 1 brain - the reactive part - takes over, and our ability to reason disappears.
So, how do we bring our anxiety back to a manageable level?
First, it's helpful to distance ourselves from our emotions. I'm not suggesting we distract ourselves from our feelings, but rather that we avoid personalizing them when they're intense. A useful technique is to envision your emotions as a bucking mustang horse.
A mustang is unruly, and resists being corralled. We need to calm it down before we can reason with it, much like our minds when things go away.
Here are a few ways to calm the mustang:
- Be conscious of and slow your breathing: Typically, prolonging the exhale calms our nervous system. Techniques include box breathing (equal-length breaths for inhaling, holding, exhaling, and holding) and the 4-7-8 method (inhale for 4, hold for 7, exhale for 8). Psychological sighs (take a deep breath in, followed by a quick second inhale, and then a slow exhale) also help.
- Reframe your situation: Seek perspective by phoning a friend or watching a 5-minute motivational video to combat the negative voices in your head.
- Engage in vigorous movement: Finding a way to quickly and safely raise your heart rate will automatically change the chemical signals sent to your brain, helping to calm you down.
These three tactics should put us in a position to think more clearly. Once we're there, we can devise three small, measurable courses of action to improve the situation, helping us regain a sense of control.
Approaching crises in this manner can work wonders when the noise in our heads is deafening.
And as always, when in doubt…