A Simple Trick To Regain Your Cool When You’ve Lost It

The Challenge: Sometimes we get all fired up with anger or frustration.
The Science:  Using the breath and the “self-distancing” strategy can help us quickly regain our cool.
The Solution: Try these powerful techniques the next time you’re in a “hot” situation.

Whether it is Mel Gibson ranting when stopped by the police, Alec Baldwin assaulting paparazzi, or Chris Brown getting into bar brawls, being a celebrity might make you cool but not help you cool down.

That is why we enjoy reading about these incidents — it is comforting to know that celebrities are like us. They too might have meltdowns about a parking space or a perceived insult.

But chances are that our rants won’t be published in any magazine or online gossip column, and no paparazzi will take our pictures. No publicity, but all the grief. So, what can we do when confronted with hot emotions such as anger?

First, breathe.

Deep breaths, in and out, in and out.

Inhale fully for a count of four, hold it for another count of four, then exhale fully for a count of four. Do it four times. 4x4x4x4. This is what the military calls “tactical breathing,” but there are several variations (such as the 4-7-8).

Whatever the numbers, you know you are doing it right when your belly moves (extending when inhaling and contracting when exhaling) more than your chest and when the rhythm of your breathing slows down.

Evidence suggests that deep breathing cools our emotions and engages the relaxation response.

Second, as you breathe deeply, relax your body.

Unclench your fists, relax your jaw, and drop your shoulders. Quickly scan your body for any sign of tension, and release it. That’s it.

Third, think of… what?

Here, things get a little bit trickier. I would have placed my bets on thinking about how we feel and trying to understand why — “know thyself!”

I was wrong. It turns out that in “hot” circumstances, thinking about what just happened and how it made you feel actually increases aggression.

It is like “using gasoline to put out a fire” because it keeps the angry feelings alive.

However, there is a way of thinking about our “hot” moments that fulfills our desire to make sense of things on the one hand, and that reduces our angry feelings on the other hand — in other words, there is a way to make meaning, not war.

When we relive any kind of experience, most of us see events unfolding through our own eyes — and this “self-immersed” perspective is what keeps emotions “hot.” However, studies show that some people spontaneously take a third-party perspective when thinking of emotionally charged events (so they see themselves and the triggering episode from “outside” as if they were watching themselves in a movie). These are the people who manage to cool down their emotions much more quickly and effectively while at the same time making sense of the event. This finding applies to adults and even to adolescents.

This “self-distancing” strategy was re-packaged as an intervention, and research shows that it works. If researchers instructed people to relive “hot” experiences “from the perspective of a fly on the wall” and to try to understand their “distant self feelings,” then participants’ emotions did significantly cool down, and their perspective on the event was more rational and adaptive.

More importantly, this self-distancing strategy works not only when reflecting on past events but also in the moment! That’s right, it works right there and then: when you are tempted to fly into a rage, thinking of being a fly on the wall helps.

The takeaway

When you experience emotions such as anger, frustration, or irritation, the key is to cool them down by putting psychological distance between you and them so you can start making sense of it all.

To achieve that, you can do any of the following:

  • Use a “third-party” perspective: relive the event from the perspective of a neutral observer (such as a passerby) or the perspective of a fly on the wall.
  • Travel in time: what would you think of this upsetting event five years from now or ten years from now?
  • Travel in space: imagine you are relaxing on a Caribbean beach sipping mojitos — what would you think of this upsetting event from your reclining beach chair?

White, R. E., Kross, E., & Duckworth, A. L. (in press). Spontaneous self-distancing and adaptive self-reflection across adolescence. Child Development.

Paolo Terni
Dr. Paolo Terni, MAPP, PCC, is an expert on the psychology of achievement and on the development of human capital. A Solution-Focused coach based in California, he empowers his clients to work smarter, to accomplish more, and to thrive in challenging circumstances. Since 1997, Paolo Terni has been using his coaching and training skills to help companies in Europe and in the USA to successfully implement Organizational Development (OD) projects. Passionate about education, he mentors coaches for ICF accreditation purposes and he works pro-bono with schools and no-profits. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Master of Applied Positive Psychology, Paolo Terni is conducting further research on the development of character strengths in conjunction with the Positive Psychology Center.
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