How to Find Calm Amid Chaos
Begin to lessen the overwhelming emotional response you may be experiencing to the smallest provocation.
We are inundated by news, and the reality of a chaotic world. From natural disasters—floods, fires, and hurricanes—to chaotic leadership and man-made disasters, we can easily be swept up in a tide of overwhelming emotion.
When our lives, either within the scope of our own immediate reality, or in a bigger context, feels like too much to bear, we need tools to help us cope. Overwhelmed by the scale of emotions we are feeling, we start to overreact to situations. These outbursts begin to deteriorate relationships in our lives, harming our most important resource: community.
If you feel that your emotional reaction to a situation is overly intense, or out of control, especially when responding to a relatively minor incident, you may be be experiencing “emotional flooding”, as described by Carolyn Daitch and Lissah Lorberbaum in their book The Road to Calm Workbook (w.w. Norton, 2017) as “strong surges of emotion that come on rapidly, persist with overpowering force, interfere with your functioning in the present, and resist being quelled by logic-based thoughts.”
The issue, according to Daitch and Lorberbaum, lies in the level of emotion within the context of a given situation. There is nothing wrong with strong emotions, but when anxiety, fear, anger or sadness are extreme in the face of relatively minor instances, you may be at the mercy of an emotional “flood.” This type of flooding occurs when communication between brain regions, especially the forebrain, (or “voice of reason”) and the midbrain—known as the home of your emotions—is not functioning optimally. Essentially, “emotions roar and logic-based input from the forebrain comes across with the power of a whisper.”
This type of emotional overreactivity can easily be seen as problematic. The people in your life walk around on eggshells, doing anything they can to avoid “setting you off.” The question becomes, how do you begin to find a way to decrease the level of emotional flooding you experience? Daitch and Lorberbaum suggest a program they developed called the “Daily Stress Inoculation.” Practiced daily, they suggest it can “diminish your baseline levels of tension and anxiety and, thus, your overall reactivity.” You can become more resilient to the stressors of life.
There are three paths to the their daily program: bringing balance to your autonomic nervous system and levels of stress hormones, and developing methods of optimizing brain-wave activity. The first phase of the program begins with three relatively simple exercises:
- Eye Roll. An unintended consequence of this exercise may be that you burst into laughter, (more likely if you have a teenager, and useful in it’s own right.) The authors suggest closing your eyes if practicing this around other people. Roll your eyes up as if you were looking at the arch of your eyebrows while inhaling, holding your breath and your gaze for a few moments, then allowing your eyes to return to their natural position as you exhale. This practice helps you focus your attention, and can disrupt the intensity of an emotional reaction.
- Tight Fist. Focus on concentrating your big emotions and any muscular tension into the hand that is dominant for you. Squeeze your hand, feeling all the tension and energy you feel contained in it, and then imagine all that energy turning into a color and dissolving into your hand. Then slowly release your fist, one finger at a time, letting the color drip down to the earth and be absorbed. Repeat the sequence with your other hand. This practice is ideal for releasing tension in your muscles as well as fear, anxiety and worry.
- Focus on your Breath. Simply notice your breath and allow it to be exactly how it is. Bring the word “comfort” into the inhalation and “relax” into the exhalation, letting yourself feel as if you are “floating” on your breath. This practice activates your relaxation response and can take the spotlight off overwhelming thoughts and physical sensations.
As a practice of “inoculating” yourself to the overwhelming stress of life, these may seem simplistic. These steps lay the groundwork, creating a strong base for the deeper work. Daitch and Lorberbaum insist that with daily practice and consistent focus, you can begin to lessen the overwhelming emotional response you may be experiencing to the smallest provocation. As you practice these steps, you can begin to realign your brain’s communication and nervous system response.