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June Converse

Thriving After Trauma - Author and Writing Coach

What Does an Extreme Emotion Feel Like?

Some people, like my husband, live in a more rational world.  He rarely, if ever, feels an out-of-control emotion.  He gets angry, sad, scared – but he never feels out-of-control.  When an emotion hits me in that powerful way, he’ll often look at me as if I’m an alien.  My kids actually used to say that I literally turned blue when I was excessively angry.  A blue alien. 

Unfortunately, for me at least, I’ve never been able to put into word what’s happening inside me.  I either can’t find the words or can’t make the words make sense.  Or, and this is what happens most often, I feel like if I do explain I’ll sound crazy. 

I’ve been reading this great real-life story (a combination of fiction and non-fiction) by Anton Svensson.  In the book, he writes these words:

….[it] was like forcing out another person who’d moved inside him, who’d made himself at home, and who under no conditions wanted to move out again.

The Father by Anton Svensson

As soon as I read those words, I recognized myself when I’m filled with excess emotional energy.  It fills like someone (anger, sadness, fear) has become a completely separate being inside me.  I feel alien.  I act/react in alien ways.  I scare people.  I scare myself.

Controlling the Out-of-Control

I keep repeating that emotions are important because they are.  Out-of-control emotions, however, are counter-productive.  As a matter of fact, out-of-control emotions usually make the situation worse and the consequences more dire.  We must find strategies to calm ourselves. 

In DBT circles, this is called Distress Tolerance.  I think all therapeutic models have some mode of finding calm.  This site offers several suggestions:

I found what works for me:  I get in my car, drive around I285 (63 miles) while listening to a book that I already know.  I choose a book that I already know because I’ve already experienced the crisis and climax.  When I’m in distress, it doesn’t help me to add stress with a fictional crisis.  The book I choose also has a ‘happily ever after’ ending and I skip around the chapters to only listen to the ones I enjoy.  Interestingly, this is the only time I actually drive the speed limit.

Usually after this hour of driving, I’m still emotional but I’m no longer a blue alien. 

I know this is a disassociation technique.  I know some therapists would not condone my approach.  Some therapists would tell me to “sit with it” or “hold it”.  I agree with that most of the time but sometimes it’s just too hot to hold.  When the emotion is that hot, it can burn down the house.

My husband used to hate it when I took this little trip.  He worried.  He also likes to resolve conflict as it occurs.  He still doesn’t “get it” because he doesn’t experience extreme emotions.  On the other hand, he has also learned that 1) I’m probably safer taking this time to chill; 2) Our relationship is likely safer because the danger of saying things or making decisions we regret later is reduced; 3) When I return, I’m able to handle my emotions and use the information they provide wisely.  He has also learned through experience and time that I return home OK – almost always better off and safe every time.

Sometimes I don’t need something as extreme as a tour of Atlanta.  I have a list of other strategies to use:  read, bath & book, walk/exercise.

What Works/What Doesn’t?

It’s important to have strategies in place BEFORE you get out-of-control.  Once that emotion dragon takes over, it’s hard to even think.  So, today, tomorrow, find a few strategies to try when you are feeling like your normal self.  Which activities calm you?  Which make you more anxious? 

For some of you, doing a meditation or a mindfulness activity helps.  For me, meditation/mindfulness makes me jittery.  It’s important to know what works and what doesn’t. 

What works for me is a solo-activity.  Maybe journaling or coloring or doing your favorite hobby would work.  Maybe cooking or savoring a bowl of chocolate ice cream.  Maybe doing one of the DBT worksheets (or any of the therapeutic worksheets) is the key.  How about a puzzle or Sudoku or Angry Birds? 

Look at the website list above or search “worksheets for calming” – even some of the worksheets for kids will help. 

Don’t be dogmatic:  what works for YOU may not be what works for your friend.

Create A Toolbox

Create a toolbox of strategies.  In the second drawer of my office I keep colored pencils, sketch paper, some of my favorite DBT worksheets, a coloring book, a book of word finds.  I also have a file folder on my computer of puzzles and other therapeutic things.

Just yesterday, I was wrestling with a problem and I felt myself beginning to get anxious.  I heard my negative voice start condemning me.  I went to my drawer, tried to draw a flower.  It sucked!  I have no drawing talent.  I actually ended up getting tickled with how bad it was.  I only took 10 minutes to calm myself.  When I came back to the project, I was able to refocus and get my problem solved. 

If I Just Have To Be Negative

If I just have to let that emotion run its course – if none of my strategies work, I do the Catastrophe Exercise – either written or just in my mind.

I learned about this via a TedTalk.  (I can’t find it again to give you the source.  Sorry.)

Catastrophizing Recipe

  1. Name the problem.  An example:  my company has announced lay-offs and I might lose my job.
  2. Ask yourself, “If I lose my job, what will happen?”
  3. You’ll likely have a series of answers – all worse than the last.  That’s the idea.  Find the ABSOLUTE WORSE SCENARIO.  The example:  If I lose my job, I will not be able to pay my mortgage and will have to foreclose.
  4. Imagine that scenario in detail.  Then ask yourself … “I would?”  Example:  If I lose my house, I would ….
  5. Make the plan.  Plan exactly what you would do if you lost your house.  Solve that problem.  Example:  I have parents, siblings, friends who have available space.  I could work at McDonald’s and make enough for an apartment.  Note:  these answers are not ideal – no one wants to go back to Mama – but they are do-able.
  6. Once you realize you can handle the worst case, you can handle anything else.  And, seriously, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario actually happening?
  7. One last idea:  once you’ve calmed some, go back to these scenarios.  Can you identify a change you need to make to create a safer environment?  In the example, I might have realized I need to focus more on building my emergency savings or I need to update my resume.  Be proactive. 

By the way, watching YouTube or TedTalk videos is a great way to take a few minutes to chillax.  The TedTalks are all less than 20 minutes and they have some compelling talks.  And, we all know that cat videos are relaxing – laughter always is!

In the spirit of catastrophe, cats and humor:


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June Converse with purple hair
Choosing to rebuild a life after a breakdown has been a challenge. I became an author and a blogger who openly shares...


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