- Intense mental reactions, such as:
- Racing stream of thoughts that overwhelm you. You can't seem to stop thinking, and the thoughts are coming super fast
- A feeling of being frantic, helpless, and out of control
- Worries about the past
- Worries about the future (including "what if" thoughts)
- Worries that you are going crazy
- Worries that you will never feel better again
- Worries that you have or will "lose everything" you have (relationships, jobs, etc.)
- Intense physical reactions, such as:
- Issues with breathing, i.e., hyperventilating, feeling like you're not breathing enough, pre-occupation with the breath in a fearful way, tightness in chest or feeling of throat closing which makes it seem like you're not getting enough air
- Gastrointestinal issues, i.e. stomach upset, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain
- Muscle tension
- I've felt similarly before and made it through. They can too.
- They have probably felt similarly before and have made it through. They will again.
- Anxiety and Panic are like a mouse with a microphone, loud and scary, but very often there is no actual danger.
- When emotions are dysregulated at this level, the person is in Emotion Mind. I know that, for me, anything that can help me back into Wise Mind is a good thing during these episodes.
- There are things that can be done to potentially help slow down the cycle
- I am not a doctor or therapist, so I need to be conscious of this, support as a peer, and be careful of my boundaries
Look At It As a Curious Scientist
With all of that, I kept in mind some things that my DBT therapist has been discussing lately, one of which is the biology of emotions - particularly anxiety. Thinking of what happens to my state of mind and body - the hardwired human responses when triggered into an anxious or panicky episode - really helps to make it less scary for me.
- Biological changes, including a brain change in neural firing
- Muscle tension
- An urge to run away, fight back, or freeze
- Feeling terrified
These are part of a universal experience when these emotions arise, and if you can remember this the next time you experience it, it may help to slow down any reaction you have to the episode, helping you to not add to your distress.
Breaking Free From The Cycle
The way I helped my friends - and a way you can help yourself the next time you notice you're stuck in the vicious cycle of biological changes and ruminating on the situation that triggered the emotion - is to make a move by responding to the biological changes.
- Noticing what's happening in your mind and body
- Describe, non-judgmentally, what you notice. For example: Breathing is faster. Heart is racing. Feeling like I'm not grounded.
- Figure out what desired emotion or behaviors you want, and act accordingly
One of the most effective DBT skills I've found in this situation, both when helping my peers and myself is Distraction. Once I've noticed, described, and figured out that I want to feel better, whether that means safe vs. fearful, happy vs. sad, calm vs., angry, etc., I want to distract my mind with thoughts that interrupt the pattern of unwanted thoughts that continue to race through my brain.
If helping someone else, I may ask random questions, such as their favorite movie, singer, color, or cuisine. If I get one word answers, I ask for elaboration.
During the time that the person is responding to these distracting questions, messages are being sent back to the brain and nervous system that there is no danger and that all systems can return to normal, so to speak. If you're alone and wanting to do this for yourself, you can turn a television program that requires close attention to follow the story, get online and find some YouTube videos that are detailed, such as makeup tutorials, or fill out a crossword puzzle or word game -- yes -- in the midst of feeling like you are...distraction can (and often does) help.
Remember and tell yourself, "I don't have to suffer."
Remember that your interpretations of what is happening during an episode of emotional dysregulation do not always reflect reality. Be open to the possibility that your Emotion Mind is doing a lot of the talking and that you will have more rational, reasonable assessments of your situation once your nervous system has finally calmed down.
And, about that, I've often noticed that while my mind may logically get that I am not in danger and that I am safe, my body may take extra long to catch up. My heart may still race for a while. I may still randomly sob even though I've stopped crying. I may still feel uncomfortable with muscle tension or stomach upset. Don't let this distress you further.
In my experience, it takes longer for the physiological/biological ramifications of the distress to dissolve and stop. I find that the more effort you put into self-care, soothing, and distraction, the sooner you feel better on all levels, including physical. Just be patient. Your equilibrium will be restored, and you can help facilitate this by remaining as calm as you can in the meantime.
Other skills that can help during this time are deep,meditative breathing and half-smiling, which has been scientifically proven to help positively affect mood.
I hope this was helpful for you or someone you love and that it took some out of the "scary" out of emotional episodes.
Thanks for reading.