“I just feel out of control. I start shaking and then I’m either yelling or crying.”
I hear statements like this almost daily in my work as a psychotherapist. It’s devastating to imagine how greatly one’s quality of life is affected when this is a constant reality. When a client describes a situation like this, it typically means they are no longer emotionally regulated and are out of their resiliency zone. Their heart starts beating faster than 120 beats per minute, and they are no longer thinking rationally or able to control their emotions or responses. It is a very unpleasant sensation and when this happens, they typically go into fight, flight, or freeze mode.
Have you ever wondered why therapists ask the infamous question, “How does that make you feel?” It’s not because therapists are trying to annoy you or become a cliché. The first step to regulating your emotions is to place a label on them. When we are able to identify and name our emotions/feelings, they cease to become as powerful or overwhelming.
Think of it this way: when you are watching a scary or suspenseful movie, fear tends to increase and build throughout the movie until you actually see the monster, alien, or scary force. Once we can identify and process the threat, our fear diminishes. Our powerful imaginations can often conjure situations that are worse than reality. The monster might still be scary, but the visual recognition allows us to catch our breath, settle in, and adapt accordingly. With clarity about the threat before us, we can then decide how to move forward. The same is true with emotions. When we label our feelings, we initiate the process of coping with them, rather than allowing them to derail us.
Emotional regulation is key to the management of panic attacks. Research indicates that when people are able to label their physiological experience as anxiety during a panic attack, their heart rate decreases 10-20 beats per minute, which then allows them to feel more regulated and in control.
I was working with a woman this past year who would have terrible panic attacks multiple times a day lasting, on average, 20-35 minutes. These panic attacks were so intense they resulted in her visiting the emergency room once or twice a week—despite their reoccurrence, the severity was so intense she thought she was having a heart attack. Through our work together, she learned to identify her body’s alarming physiological response as anxiety and practice coping techniques such as breathwork and grounding exercises when she felt the onset of anxiety. Since working with her, she has not visited the emergency room since, and she has reported significant decrease in the frequency and severity of panic attacks.
The skills of identifying, labeling, and accepting emotions are critical to our ability to healthily engage with the world around us—in relationships, during unpredictable challenges, etc. If you are interested in learning more about how to improve these skills and feel more confidence, agency, and control in your life, please feel free to call me for a free consultation.