≡ Menu

Emotionally hijacked? Effective ways to manage distress

Feel calmer immediately using these simple techniques.

People use several different words to describe feeling distressed. They might say they feel emotionally hijacked, or triggered, or activated. They might say they have a lot of energy, or juice, in their system. They might say they are experiencing anger or rage.
If you are feeling distressed, your emotions are likely driving the show, rather than your thinking brain.

You need to get back in your body to feel calm, and it’s better to accomplish this sooner rather than later.

If the idea of being in your body, or out of your body, is new to you, you might want to read the blog posts recommended at the bottom of this post.

Six effective techniques can help you calm down when you feel distressed

You may gravitate more strongly to one method than another, so try out all six. You’ll have a library of options available at your fingertips that you can use when you need them.

1. Tell yourself you are not about to die

I use this method a lot with clients experiencing panic attacks.

When you are in hyperarousal, meaning in fight, flight or freeze, your body (not your thinking brain) believes that death is imminent. It believes that a grizzly bear is patrolling the perimeter of your house or the hallway at your office.

To use this method, ask yourself two simple questions. The first question is, “Am I in danger of dying in the next three minutes?”

The answer will be, ‘No.”

The second question is, “Am I about to die?”

The answer will also be, “No.”

People tell me that asking themselves these two questions is often enough to settle themselves down, almost immediately. When you realize you aren’t about to die, you gain perspective on your situation and the degree of escalation you are experiencing can settle from eight out of 10, with 10 being the highest you can go, to three out of 10, which is more appropriate to the situation you likely find yourself in.

2. Push down through your heels until you activate your buttocks

This method is one I teach most my clients. It’s easy, it’s effective, and you can use it anywhere.

First, sit in a chair and put both your feet flat on the floor. Make sure your toes remain on the floor throughout this entire exercise. This is important.

Next, firmly press down through your heels until you feel the muscles in your buttocks activate. You may need to move forward in your chair for this to happen. You don’t have to press down hard – just hard enough so that you can feel that the muscles in your buttocks are on-line.

While continuing to firmly press down through your heels, begin to deep breathe, and allow a feeling of groundedness to enter your body. This is what you are aiming for.

Continue to press down until you feel completely grounded. Then slowly release the pressure on your heels.

If you know you have to attend a meeting and that there’s a good chance you will feel triggered, you can plan to press down through your heels repeatedly during the meeting so that you remain calm. You’ll have a better chance of keeping your thinking brain on-line if you do this exercise, which will help you navigate whatever stressor you are dealing with.

3. Inhale and then deep breathe

Inhaling and deep breathing deserve their own space on this list, and for good reason. If you feel distressed frequently, chances are you also hold your breath a lot.

Small children hold their breath when they are in real danger. Many people that experienced developmental trauma (meaning they experienced trauma before the age of 18 years) are chronic breath holders as adults.

Once you reach adulthood, you can change where you are and who you are with when you need to, so it’s on longer necessary to hold your breath. Instead, you want to inhale because inhaling tells your body that you are safe.

Your body believes you are in danger when you hold your breath. If you want to learn to learn to remain calm, then inhale when you find yourself holding your breath. And then exhale. And then repeat.

Don’t hold your breath between inhalations and exhalations. Just inhale, and then exhale. And repeat at a slow, natural pace.

4. Find 10 things that are red

A technique that people that are highly cerebral tend to like is to find 10 in their immediate surroundings that are red.

As quickly as you can, identify 10 things that are red. It’s okay to stand up and walk around as you look for the items. As you find each one, say what each item is, either out loud or silently to yourself, and where it is located.

For example, you might say, “Red book on the bookshelf under the window” … “red magnet on the top drawer of the file cabinet” … “red stars on the fabric of the sofa chair against the wall…”

This exercise forces you to look around, see your surroundings, and name the items and their locations. Said another way, this exercise forces you to be in the present. In the here and now. This practice is called Orienting.

One client told me she used this exercise every hour for four days during an extremely stressful period. She said she was able to remain calm and to think her way through her situation for all four days, which was a significant personal triumph.

5. Bounce a ball

I buy racquetball balls at sporting goods stores for my clients because this exercise really works.

I usually teach my clients this exercise when they are having difficulty managing their emotions. I stand up and ask them to bounce the ball back and forth with me. While They always say, “Yes.”

I then sit down and ask them to continue bounce the ball on their own while they are standing. I suggest that they throw the ball against the wall or squeeze it in the palm of their hand. I will ask them to experiment with different ways of keeping the ball in motion while we talk.

I often give my clients the racquetball to take home so they can continue to use it. I suggest they buy a three-pack of balls and leave one in the car, one at the office, and one at home so they can pick one up no matter where they are when they feel distressed. I ask them to play with the ball regularly because playing with the ball will help them to calm down.

If you have a difficult phone call to make, you might want to squeeze a ball in one hand or use the speaker feature on your phone and throw the ball back and forth between both hands.

If you feel yourself escalating while you talk to your spouse, you might try throwing the ball back and forth between the two of you, letting the ball bounce before the other person catches it. The goal is to keep the ball moving. People tell me they are able to remain calm while they talk through a difficult subject when they do this exercise.

6. Cover yourself with a heavy blanket

If you’d like one more effective technique to experiment with, try covering yourself with a heavy blanket while you sit on a sofa. Pull the blanket over your shoulders, and make sure it reaches your feet. If you are feeling really hijacked, you might want to put a second blanket over your head or pull the hood up on your hoodie so that your head is covered, too.

I have bought several heavy blankets at Pottery Barn if you’re looking for a place to find one.

When a blanket is heavy enough, people say they feel like they are swaddled when they are under it. We swaddle babies to help them feel safe and calm, so it makes sense that swaddling work on adults, as well. After all, we were once all babies and our bodies remember how to respond under similar circumstances.

My clients sometimes tell me, when I place a heavy blanket over them, that they already do this at home. This doesn’t surprise to me. Rather, it makes sense because people normally already know a couple of ways to help themselves calm down when they feel distressed.

So go ahead and experiment with the six techniques I have outlined in this post to help you manage your own feelings of distress when they arise. Many of my clients use these techniques to resource themselves over the short-term. Over the long-term, we work to expand their ability to remain calm, even in difficult situations.

— Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

If you feel emotionally hijacked and would like help, contact me to book an appointment or a free 15 minute consultation.

Sign-up to receive my monthly blog updates and receive this free report:
Are you in Burnout? 10 Important Questions and Answers
Sign-up to receive my monthly blog updates and receive this free report:
Are you in Burnout? 10 Important Questions and Answers