‘Tis The Season to be Emotional, Part II: What To Do When Things Get Tense

A few days ago, I gave you the first part of a step-by-step training plan that lays out exactly what and how to practice managing your emotions. Now that you know how to prepare, what do you do in the heat of the moment when your emotions flare up?


1.Recognize the signs of the “fight-or-flight” response.

Heart pounding, stomach turning, palms sweating: these are signs that the part of your brain that is on the lookout for threats to your survival (your amygdala) has been activated. The amygdala, however, is the reactive, not rational part of your brain, and is quick to set off false alarms about your life being in danger.  In fact, it might very well interpret shallow breathing – which often happens when we feel insulted, angry or upset but your life is far from endangerment — as a threat.

Step 1: Assure your brain that survival is not at stake — take a deep breath.

2.Use your body to ground you in the present.

When your boss says “I need to speak to you later,” immediately, your mind starts racing – into the past (“Is he upset about me putting him on the spot in yesterday’s meeting?”), or the future (“Am I being taken off the project?”). Neither is helpful. What you need to do is get out of your head and back into the present moment. Your body can help you do that.

Step 2: Feel your feet on the ground, your arms on your desk, your butt in the chair.

3. Hit the pause button.

When are your emotions most likely to get you in trouble: when you’re talking or not talking? Often, people start talking because they’re uncomfortable with silence, not because it will help the situation. When someone is making provocative comments or needling you, they’re looking for a reaction. They need you to push back — if you stay neutral and don’t react, there’s nothing for them to attack. Remember, you can always say more, but you can’t take back what’s already been said.

Step 3: Learn to sit with the silence. Give yourself 10 seconds (at least) to let your rational brain kick in.

4. Check your crystal ball.

Before you start talking, do a quick peek into the future. If you lose control and tell this person what you really think, how will they respond? Will it escalate or diffuse the situation? Is the instant gratification of giving them a piece of your mind worth the potential long-term damage to the relationship?

Step 4: Ask yourself: What do I really want — to be right or to get a certain result?

Review and Recap

When you have some distance and are feeling calmer, take a moment to reflect and ask: “What was going on there? Why did I get so angry?” See if you can identify the exact trigger: “I lose it when my boss gives me that patronizing smirk. I feel like he thinks I’m incompetent.”  And by drilling down — is there any evidence that he does think you’re incompetent? — you can understand what your beliefs about the situation are and why it  triggers a feeling of powerlessness or frustration, for example.

When it comes to mastering your emotions, there are no shortcuts. With practice, however (just like anything), it gets easier and more familiar.



  1. sam December 2, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Love this post. Highly practical, very zen too.

    1. Renita December 4, 2012 at 9:04 pm

      It’s all about keeping it simple, isn’t it, Sam. Thanks for stopping by!


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