Simmer Down: Keeping Emotions from Boiling Over, by Guenette du Ville
Have you ever witnessed someone “fly off the handle,” responding extremely emotionally to what seemed like a small trigger? Have you ever experienced yourself suddenly becoming furious out of nowhere? Sometimes our strong emotions can take us by surprise, and can overwhelm our mind and body. We may feel paralyzed and helpless in the face of the energy behind these feelings. Part of gaining more control over these intense emotions is to recognize what we call Low-Level Emotions.
Low-level emotions are small emotional arousals we experience in our daily lives that we typically choose to ignore. In the busy day-to-day life, ignoring small irritations or setting aside frustrations can be adaptive, and sometimes even necessary, to get through the day. At the same time, what emerges when these small occurrences are not acknowledged can be detrimental to our mental health and to our relationships. When these low-level emotions are allowed to build up, they can sneak up and create a big explosion that may lead to conflict in relationships, job loss, and even legal problems.
As a therapist, I encourage recognizing low-level emotions for many reasons. Acknowledging these emotions before they become uncontrollable is important for our sense of well-being. When we are more in touch with our low-level emotions, we can hedge off damaging, caustic explosions. Relationally, when we can acknowledge these emotions stirring, we can have more productive conversations that focus on the issues at hand, instead of responding to the sometimes scary energy apparent in the emotions. I have even seen this practice help some clients avoid manic episodes.
Recognizing low-level emotions is really about getting to know ourselves. Sometimes we are faced with thought distortions, thinking that a slight has been directed at us or personalizing a situation to create unwarranted emotions. Knowing our tendencies toward these distortions, we can learn to do a reality check with others to see if our thoughts match the reality of our family and friends. Incorporating the new information, we can then decide whether these feelings are warranted in the situation. Additionally, knowing our physical reactions to emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness is beneficial, as the body can ‘clue us in’ to the feelings we are experiencing in the moment. Moreover, listening to our bodies allows us to intervene on the build-up of emotions by physically relaxing, in order to provide the biofeedback of calm to our emotional center. Lastly, recognizing increments during the build-up of emotions can slow the process down, allowing us to take breaks, release the energy, and reasonably find solutions to the problem at hand.
The next time you recognize a stirring of emotional energy, check in with yourself. Take an inventory of what emotions are coming up, what may be the reasons behind these feelings, what thoughts are zooming through to reinforce the emotions, and what visceral response the body is experiencing. It is amazing how much information we can glean from these 4 questions, and how many ways we can help ourselves in controlling our emotions.
Guenette du Ville, MFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in working with individuals, couples and families who struggle with anxiety and mood issues. To schedule an appointment, please contact 619-272-6858 x702 or email her at email@example.com