Taking Back Control: How to Manage Big Emotions When They Threaten to Overwhelm You
Intense emotions serve an important purpose, but sometimes our feelings reach such a fever pitch that they hijack our ability to think clearly and respond appropriately. These moments of being emotionally overwhelmed can occur without warning and make it feel impossible to regain control.
Learning to recognize the signs that emotions are building toward a boiling point allows you to take steps to minimize the fallout when they threaten to overflow. With the right tools and techniques, you can teach yourself to engage the rational brain and minimize emotional chaos, no matter how upset you feel in the moment.
When Emotions Hijack the Brain
An emotional hijacking refers to a temporary state where emotions essentially take over the brain, making it difficult to think rationally or exercise restraint.
During a hijacking, activity increases in the amygdala, the part of the brain that generates emotional reactions. At the same time, logical functions of the prefrontal cortex decrease. This emotional interference limits your ability to insert perspective and override impulses with the rational mind.
You’ve likely experienced emotional hijackings before. Perhaps you recall instances when a minor annoyance caused you to “lose it” or react with intense anger or sadness that seemed disconnected from the triggering event. This experience of “losing control” characterizes what happens when emotions knock logic aside and take the reigns.
Risk Factors That Increase Vulnerability
Certain traits and circumstances can make someone more prone to emotional hijackings:
- Built-up stress exhaustion
- High reactivity and volatility
- Insufficient coping skills
- Unresolved emotional issues
- Inadequate self-care regimen
- Trauma history
- Sleep deprivation
- Hormonal fluctuations
- Low distress tolerance
When you ignore emotional needs, feelings gain power. Watch for signs like irritability, isolation from others, or “numbing out” as warnings you need to better attend to your mental health.
Tune Into the Early Warning Signs
Emotional buildup doesn’t happen instantly. Tuning into body sensations and emotional shifts allows you to recognize an impending hijacking before it reaches maximum intensity.
Physical cues like muscle tension, stomach knots, or lightheadedness indicate mounting emotional activation. Sudden mood changes like defensiveness, agitation, or inability to focus also signal rising distress.
Recognizing these early warnings prompts you to intervene with coping tools before emotions bypass logic completely. Keeping intensity manageable prevents regrettable words or actions in the heat of the moment.
Have Go-To Tools on Hand
Prepare coping mechanisms you can deploy quickly when you catch a spike in emotional arousal. For example:
- Breathing exercises – Regulate inhales and exhales to calm the body.
- Distraction – Get mental distance from the emotion.
- Affirmations – Replace distressing thoughts with positive ones.
- Fidget devices – Channel nervous energy into objects.
- Timeouts – Walk away until composure returns.
- Calm spaces – Have soothing places identified.
The faster you can engage these tools, the quicker you halt the hijacking. Keep them easily accessible so they’re ready when needed unexpectedly.
Enlist Your Thinking Brain
When emotions swell, remind yourself feelings aren’t always facts. Ask:
- Is my reaction in proportion to the event?
- Will I still feel this strongly tomorrow?
- What’s the likelihood of the worst-case scenario actually happening?
- Could there be a less upsetting way to view this?
This prompts logic to override impulsive reactions driven by emotional impulse.
Verbal Processing Defuses Buildup
Saying feelings out loud releases emotional steam. Calling a friend or therapist lets you talk through rather than act out intense emotions.
Hearing your own voice forces your brain to formulate coherent narratives, engaging rational processes.
Mindfulness: Feel Without Reacting
Mindfulness teaches witnessing feelings from an impartial perspective. Notice physical and emotional sensations without judging or reacting to them.
Repeating phrases like “This is anxiety. Here it is” creates distance needed to respond thoughtfully rather than impulsively.
After an Emotional Storm
Once hijacked emotions settle, reflect on what led up to the temporary loss of control. Look for insights about triggers and needed lifestyle adjustments. Forgive yourself for any regretted actions. Use it as a learning experience rather than a source of self-criticism.
With preparation, self-awareness, and practice utilizing coping tools, you can handle big feelings in healthier ways, maintain composure when challenged, and minimize emotional chaos. Don’t wait until emotions hit the boiling point. Develop the ability to recognize rising distress and engage logic so hijackings no longer control your thoughts, words or behaviors. You can take back command of your emotions and respond consciously.