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Emotional Volatility: Calm Down or Shut Down?

At some point, you have likely been told to "calm down."  Unfortunately this attempt at emotional balance, or as we say in the therapy world, emotional regulation, often results in more shut down, than "calm down."  If you struggle with emotional volatility, then a few of these phrases probably sound familiar:

  • Don't be so sensitive

  • Why do you have to make a big deal of everything?!

  • Get a grip

  • Turn down the volume on that

  • Get a hold of yourself

  • Chill out

  • It's not that big a deal

  • Don't take everything so personally

  • Dial it back a notch

  • You are too much

These types of comments are often painful to hear.  Instead of hearing the other person's need for balance, peace, harmony, or predictability, you may hear that something's wrong with you.  Sometimes, however, these comments do seem to help with emotional regulation.  When you hear one of the phrases listed above, you likely shift your attention to tensing up your body.  The most basic skill in emotional regulation is that of consciously shifting your attention.   It's the attention shifting that regulates, not the tensing up.  The tensing up costs needs and is usually accompanied by shame.  

The easiest way to shift your attention is to choose something concrete and slightly pleasant on which to focus.  Some examples might be:  the places that sunlight touches the room as it comes through the window, the color of the sky or natural surroundings, the sound of birds outside, the feel of something soft, self-shoulder massage, a drink of water or cup of tea, etc.  Placing your full attention on these concrete pleasant objects for even a minute will interrupt internal patterns of escalation or shutting down.

Once the pattern is interrupted you might shift to more subtle objects of attention like:

  • Three deep breaths

  • The place where the bottoms of your feet touch the ground

  • The sensation of emotions in your body, for example, you notice that sadness is a heavy feeling in your chest.

  • The needs alive for you behind the feelings and thoughts

  • Metta practice (a prayer for the well-being of yourself and others)

When you consciously choose moment by moment where to direct your kind attention, you are practicing mindfulness.  Engaging in this practice when you are not in a volatile moment, helps you access it when you need it most.

When someone else tells you or you tell yourself some version of calm down, you can use that as a cue to engage one of the practices listed above.  If you want to help someone else with emotional regulation, invite them to shift attention with you.  For example, "Will you breath one full inhale and one full exhale with me?" Or "Let's pause and listen to the birds together for a moment.  I hear a starling and hummingbird."  Once there is a greater sense of groundedness, the ideal is to be able to put your attention on whatever emotion is present in the moment.  This compassionate accepting attention is the deepest form of emotional regulation.  To read more about how to hold your attention on a feeling go here:

In reality, you aren't really regulating the emotions themselves.  Emotions come and go, rise and fall.  Shifting your attention or any type of emotional regulation is really about taking care of your relationship to your emotions.  It is the practice of cultivating an attentive compassionate relationship with your emotional world, and, of course, any part of your experience.

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4 Responses

  1. Mar 17, 2016
    Debra Sullivan


    I have just started a class for Mindful Meditation, then read your Gem.....appears it is time to be mindful! Thanx for the validation of my current course!

  2. Mar 18, 2016
    Julie Lawrence

    This approach concerns me ... it seems like distracting myself from what I'm feeling, which my feelings don't seem to enjoy! I think that sometimes it can be helpful to distract ourselves for a moment, to let the insensity pass, but with the intention of going back and hearing our inner selves as soon as possible.

    What do you think?

  3. Mar 18, 2016

    Yes, we are on the same page. Really the shift in attention is meant to be a shift away from the reaction to the feeling which is what is typically creating the sense of extremes.

    The ideal is to simply to notice the feeling with acceptance. this is a subtle and refined practice perhaps, so I am offering some baby steps to help get the compassionate witness on board.

    Thanks for bringing forward this very important point.

  4. Mar 18, 2016

    I have edited this article to clarify the point you brought up

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