When you encounter irritation or anger or when you are ‘triggered’ by something the response you have is often quick, sometimes too quick to catch… and at times like these we turn to food, alcohol or other substances for solace. That solace is usually short-lived and often results in shame. These responses to stress, tiredness or a difficult conversation with a partner can be problematic, especially if they are just as frequent as the triggers that set them off! People very often arrive for therapy when they struggle to gain control of something they know is both a destructive and self-defeating behaviour, yet, is also difficult to control.
A potential cause for such problems in controlling emotional response comes from our experience of ‘modelling’ via the influence of a primary, or very significant, caregiver when we were young. If that modelling was not great and there was all sorts of anger, bottling up of emotions etc. then we tend to handle our own stress in the same, or very similar, ways. On a positive note, practicing evidence-based interventions to ‘self-soothe’ can help us handle negative emotions better.
How do I know when I need self-soothing? You will nearly always know after the fact! But the trick is picking up the beginning of an emotional ‘hijack’ before it takes over and leads to the response. Emotional thinking taking over is always accompanied by a physical feeling somewhere (e.g., in the chest, head, stomach). Think of it this way: when there is no threat, nothing is upsetting you and you are calm how do you physically feel? now compare that to the last time you were angry/frustrated.
Initially a great idea is just to get better at spotting your emotional state- i.e., ask yourself: what am I feeling right now? And then as you ask the question really focus on how you are physically responding/feeling at that moment. The value is you will get better at spotting the ‘here it comes again’ feeling when you are triggered. Also, in your analysis asking what led up to this feeling? A row, an awkward situation/tiredness etc. and then what was your response to the trigger? i.e. what did you do to self-soothe?
1. Trigger 2. Feeling 3. Response
(argument) (flutter in chest) (consume substance to make me feel better)
Of course, a re-frame of this scenario is that the person you are arguing with, or the negative thoughts or feelings you are experiencing, tell you to go and self-harm in some way… Our intention then is to better regulate our response when a feeling/emotional state starts to take over. So essentially wedging an intervention between the feeling and response section of the model above.
Let’s introduce three ideas here and then re-present that model.
2. Square breathing
3. Defuse the thought
No I’m serious this actually works…
1. Start by tapping the back of your left hand with two fingers of your right hand, do this at roughly two taps per second do this for 30 seconds, move to the forearm and do the same, then the bicep/upper arm, shoulder, left side of your chest, then move to your waist, thigh, butt, calf and foot.
2. Stand up straight and scan your self- what feels different between your left and right side?
3. Repeat now using your left hand on the right side of the body- then stand up again and scan yourself and note how you feel.
#2 Square breathing
Square, or box, breathing reduces stress, even in veterans suffering post traumatic stress, (Seppälä et al, 2014). Set the timer on your phone for 3 minutes- breathe in 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and breathe out four seconds, hold again for four seconds and repeat, make sure you breathe consciously and either count inside your head or look at the phone timer and repeat for at least 3 minutes.
#3 Defuse from your thoughts
Defusion a technique from acceptance commitment therapy is a great way to separate you from your negative thoughts (Larson et al, 2016). Thoughts come into our minds (you will of noticed) without us asking for them and they can be pretty random and also pretty messy. The idea here, is to simply say to yourself, what you can ‘see’ e.g. right now I am thinking ‘I wonder what people will make of this’ so simultaneously whilst I am thinking a thought, I can also notice what my thought is. In defusion it is recommended you insert the phrase ’I notice I am having the thought that…’ so you 'defuse' from a thought you were fused to- this is not the same as getting rid of the thought, it is still there but a part of your mind has seperated itself and is noticing what you are thinking...
Your thoughts are of course not definite reality or instructions which you must obey, they are in fact, just thoughts and although some of them may be true/accurate some of them (again as we all know) most definitely are not.
You can practice defusion on any thought, but it's best use is thoughts you don’t like having! A key feature is not to try to wrestle with the thought/push it away or else to try and distract yourself, instead you accept the thought is there and notice it without fighting it.
1. Trigger 2. Feeling 3. Response
(Argument) (Chest flutter) (Defusion
or: Square breathing
Boath, E., Good, R., Tsaroucha, A., Stewart, T., Pitch, S., & Boughey, A. J. (2017). Tapping your way to success: using Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) to reduce anxiety and improve communication skills in social work students. Social Work Education, 36(6), 715-730.Square Breathing
Larsson, A., Hooper, N., Osborne, L. A., Bennett, P., & McHugh, L. (2016). Using brief cognitive restructuring and cognitive defusion techniques to cope with negative thoughts. Behavior Modification, 40(3), 452-482.
Seppälä, E. M., Nitschke, J. B., Tudorascu, D. L., Hayes, A., Goldstein, M. R., Nguyen, D. T., ... & Davidson, R. J. (2014). Breathing‐based meditation decreases posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in US Military veterans: A randomized controlled longitudinal study. Journal of traumatic stress, 27(4), 397-405.