5 Body Hacks to Instantly Calm Overwhelming Emotion

illustration of woman calming herself down when emotionally overwhelmed

Getting overwhelmed with emotion isn’t pretty. Think fist-shaped holes in the drywall, a blowout bar fight, or throwing your soon-to-be-ex’s stuff out a window, preferably ablaze. But overwhelming emotion can also turn privately inward, resulting in cutting, drinking yourself into a stupor, or a massive binge.

In some ways, all the drama makes sense: big emotions often feel scary. But it’s not the big emotions themselves that are dangerous, it’s the way we choose to react to them.

But decisions made in the heat of the moment are almost always regretted. We end up hurling insults we wish we could take back, scaring the people we love most, and generally digging ourselves into ever-deeper holes. Worst-case scenario, we end up hurting someone else or ourselves.

Now, while it’s vital to work on long-term solutions, there are methods to pull the plug on overwhelming emotion in the moment. We all know someone (or are someone) who seemingly has an allergy to emotions—even a small exposure to negative emotion leads to the psychological equivalent of anaphylaxis. In those moments, you need a quick fix. Therefore, by request from an anonymous listener, here are 5 body hacks to try when you need an emotional Epipen.

Tip #1: Go soak your head.

One way to instantly disrupt overwhelming emotion is to immerse your face in ice water. Seriously. Fill the sink, add ice cubes, hold your breath, stick your face in, and keep it there for 30 seconds.

Why on earth does this work? Holding your breath and immersing your face triggers what’s called the diving reflex, which is your body’s lifesaving reaction to a fall into cold water. It’s evolution’s protection against falling through thin ice on a lake or capsizing your raft into a cold ocean.

Specifically, your blood vessels reflexively narrow, your pulse slows, and oxygen shunts to your most vital organs—your heart and your brain. In order to conserve energy, all non-essential bodily functions are dampened, including, it so happens, negative emotions.

An alternative way to trigger the reflex and stay dry at the same time is to keep a gel pack in your freezer and, when you’re feeling out of control, hold your breath and place it over your eyes.

Tip #2: Literally chill out.

If you’re not in a socially acceptable place to soak your head, you can also squeeze a fistful of ice until it hurts. After all, it’s better to dig ice out of your cocktail than risk throwing it in someone’s face.

Squeezing ice until your hand hurts doesn’t trigger the diving reflex, but it does create a strong sensation that activates pain offset relief. This is the phenomenon that occurs when a painful sensation stops. When you finally let go of the ice, rather than returning to your pre-ice emotional state, your body will experience a short burst of intense relief, even euphoria.

Pain offset relief is also the reason cutting “works,” but squeezing ice is a much safer way to get a similar result.

Tip #3: Breathe as if you’re blowing bubbles.

No, this isn’t some kind of “visualize your negativity floating away on bubbles” exercise. It’s a breathing trick that makes use of a physiological phenomenon called respiratory sinus arrhythmia.

A key to calming your body is slowing your heart rate. And while you can’t change your heart rate by sheer force of will, you do have backdoor access via your breath.

The trick is to make your exhale longer and slower than your inhale. Why? Heart rate synchronizes with respiration—when you inhale, your heart beats a little faster, and when you exhale, the pauses between your heartbeats are a little longer.

So deliberately make your exhalations long and slow, as if you were gently blowing bubbles from a bubble wand. As kids, we all learned that blowing too hard leaves you only with sad drips of soap. Instead, a slow, steady exhale through tightly pursed lips works best to create those big, beautiful bubbles.

So channel your inner preschooler and breathe as if you were gently blowing bubbles. Repeat for a few breath cycles and feel your heart rate slow. Who knows—you may even prevent that same inner preschooler from having a tantrum.

If you’re worried about being rejected, show up. If you’re worried about failing, dive in.

Tip #4: Use opposite action.

Opposite action comes from legendary psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan and is exactly what it sounds like: do the opposite of what your emotions tell you to do. If you feel like staying in bed, force yourself to get up and take a shower. If you’re feeling sad and mopey, have a one-song dance party in your living room. If you’re feeling resentful, hold the door for the person behind you or give your dog a tummy rub. If you’re feeling envious, count your blessings.

This works because our mood and behavior naturally want to synchronize. Our mood can take the lead, readying us for action, or our actions can take the lead, thus changing our mood.

That said, some emotions should be honored. If your gut tells you your Uber driver is sketchy, don’t use opposite action to jump in the car and take a quick snooze to boot. Likewise, if your emotions make you resent a job where you’re exploited or harassed, don’t use opposite action to lean in.

Instead, opposite action works best when the emotion you feel isn’t rational or reasonable. It may take some sorting to figure out when emotion should be listened to versus ignored, but some are clearer than others. Prime examples include insecurity, anxiety, and inadequacy: for example, if you’re worried about being rejected, show up. If you’re worried about failing, dive in.

Tip #5: Sit with your emotion.

This last technique, unlike the other four, isn’t designed to cut short a strong emotion. Instead, it’s meant to help you tolerate it, which makes it the most powerful of all. Ultimately, simply feeling what you feel is the key to mastering negative emotion. Willingness to feel emotion puts you in charge.

Strong emotions often occur in a wave—they build, crest, and then fall away. But because it feels like we’ll be swept away in a riptide of anger, sadness, or pain, we often cut off a wave of big emotion before it crests. We stuff it by drinking or bingeing or let it out inappropriately by hurting ourselves or someone else.

It’s super hard, but try letting the strong emotion sweep through you. This takes practice, but sitting with an emotion is the single best way to deal with it. Emotions come, in part, from body sensations: grief is a paradoxical mix of heaviness and emptiness, anger is a hot rush of tension and adrenaline in the head and chest, shame is a burning urge to hide your face. Noting the sensations and being willing to feel them allows the wave to crest and dissolve.

The best way to work up to this is to start a mindfulness practice. That could mean mindfulness meditation, or it could mean working in purposeful mindful moments throughout your day—showering mindfully, washing dishes mindfully, taking a few minutes to scan your body and note what sensations are kicking around in there. Practice directing your attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. Eventually, you’ll be able to notice and respond to your emotions, rather than just reacting on impulse.

But while you work on cultivating your mind, in a crisis, you can hack your body. And sometimes, just knowing you have the psychological equivalent of an Epipen at hand can make you less tempted to leave a trail of your ex’s clothes strewn along the highway.

A final note: if your strong emotions go along with thoughts of killing yourself or you otherwise can’t keep yourself safe, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. You deserve way more than a body hack!

Image of calm woman © Shutterstock