How to Control Your Emotions and Stay Composed Like a Secret Agent

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You’re a secret agent undercover. Heart-pounding fear starts to brim inside. But you steel yourself to try and smoothly keep your feelings on the DL so you don’t alert your enemies to your presence and risk revealing all-important secrets. Alright, we don’t exactly encounter that everyday, but the same line of thought applies. Rude customers, awful roommates or obnoxious classmates can trigger powerful feeling, making us want to scream, sob or dramatically flip tables. Of course, most of the time we can’t respond like that. Learning how to control your emotions can seem impossible, but then again none of us want to end up killed by the enemy. Or more realistically, fired or in the middle of World War III with our roommates.

Use these tips to help you learn how to control your emotions the next time you want to rip someone’s head off.

1. Name your emotion

When you feel yourself starting to get heated during a discussion, pause and identify how you feel. Take a moment to reflect. Are you angry? Upset? Frustrated? Both? “There is research showing that when we label emotional states with a word (I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m anxious) the intensity of the emotion decreases,” said Nathaniel Herr, a professor of Psychology at American University. “Being able to detach from an emotional state for a moment allows us to more easily choose how we want to react in a given situation.” Once you identify your emotion, it’ll feel much easier to figure out how to deal with it. You may still choose to act on it, but at least that response will be informed by thought.

2. Address your feelings

Knowing your feeling not only makes it easier to put it aside so you can stay clear-headed and not punch your BF, but also puts you more in touch with yourself. That way, when you look back later, you can ask, “Why did that upset me so much?” and figure out the answer. Do keep in mind that sometimes you can’t store away these emotions for later like you would with your phone during class. But if you can at least come to terms with them, it can allow you to say to the other person, “What you said really upset me.”

3. Check yourself

Sometimes examining your reaction from a more external point of view can prove more helpful. Herr recommended observing your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations through a play-by-play, announcer-like approach. “For instance, say to yourself: Now I’m feeling angry and want to yell at this person. My jaw is clenched! Now I’m feeling guilty that I want to criticize this person I care about.” Taking this approach lets you detach from your emotions. Then, instead of running for the hills with fear the next time an enemy threatens you during a mission (or your professor hands back a less than stellar grade), you’ll respond in a much more sensible fashion.

4. Look at the bigger picture

“My biggest piece of advice is to take a step back and really think about where the other person is coming from,” said Jenna Meyer, a 2017 graduate of Arcadia University who studied Psychology. Oftentimes in arguments, we get so caught up in our own feelings that we don’t stop to think about those of the other person. Maybe the seemingly rude AF customer who demanded you remake her sandwich 16 times actually has a food allergy and didn’t know how to tell you.

Or she could just be Satan in disguise. But don’t let that inflame you. “Even if they’re completely wrong and they refuse to see the right, you need to think about how they’re feeling,” said Meyer. As she added, they may feel misunderstood or like you’re not hearing them. Reacting without considering the side of the other person will often only exacerbate tensions. Instead, as Meyer advises, use compassion. Even if you disagree with someone, if you come from a place of respect, you’ll receive the same in return.

5. Just breathe

Taking a moment to take a deep breath will help you to “reset” yourself in stressful situations. “What I like to do is count from one to 10 and back down to one again, taking a deep breath between each number; for example, one-breathe-in-breathe-out, two etc.,” said AU sophomore Ilana Schreiber. “I find it’s really helpful because it lets you focus on a very specific action but doesn’t totally distract you from the situation.” Even if you don’t have time for a whole count-to-10 exercise, even taking just one long breath can work wonders.

6. Distance yourself

Defensive behaviors during confrontation are instinctual and probably unintentional. If your friend walked up and randomly insults your shoes, you’ll probably get immediately aggressive. “It’s easy to think that any negativity around you is directed toward you or is your fault, but 95 percent of the time it has nothing to do with you,” said Rebecca Drapkin, a Psychology major you graduated from Dartmouth College in 2008. Shifting the focus off of yourself and realizing you do not own or need to bear the criticism or stress will help you alleviate the pressure of the situation. “Thinking that everything in a bad situation is about you distracts you from what’s important about the situation and usually makes things a lot worse,” added Drapkin. Remember: It’s not all about you.

7. Be the bigger person

“When I’m dealing with someone who is attacking me either personally or in another inappropriate way, I just remember that I am above them,” said AU junior Steph Black. As Black went on to mention, they can’t make you stoop to their level.  Instead, you may want to try taking the high road. Don’t fire back (or, you know, say a nasty insult) just because your coworker blamed you for her screwup. This helps you argue better, and keeps your head above water and any charged emotions that try to drag you down. “When I’m in a stressful situation like that, I just remind myself ‘I am mature, I am in control and because of that, I have the power in the situation,’” said Black.

8. Practice getting a grip on your emotions on a daily basis

Controlling your emotions in a given moment can be very helpful in these situations. However, if you can (almost) always be somewhat in touch with your feelings, it can make a world of difference and make reacting appropriately in difficult times much easier. Think of it as an acting exercise. Even if you can’t fully cope with all of your emotions, learning how to control, or at least mediate and work with those feelings in day-to-day life will really help you down the line. But remember: Bottling up everything is unhealthy. If you can let your emotions out, do so. You can’t hide behind that calm facade forever.

9. Predict these unpleasant events

Granted, half the time our first reactions to those “we need to talk” texts are wrong. But at least they give you time to go through your thoughts and feelings before that chat. “Pending unpleasant events are most stressful when the sufferer has no control over their occurrence and has no idea when they will occur. Therefore, to reduce the stress related to an impending event, one needs to… control when the bad event will occur,” said Fantie. We can’t always have it this way so we should settle for the next best thing: predicting these events. For example, if you feel your SO growing distant, you may want to consider the implications this could have on your relationship. While in a perfect world we would smoothly deal issues as they arise, sometimes just noting them can make it easier when everything explodes.

10. Limit stress in your life

“One of the best ways to prepare ourselves for intense emotional experiences is to take care of ourselves on a daily basis. It sounds basic, but think about how you respond to stress on days when you haven’t gotten much sleep or are really hungry,” said Herr. Think of that Snickers campaign: “You aren’t you when you’re hungry.” According to Herr, making time for self-care will help decrease your vulnerability when you experience extreme/out of control emotions. It all boils down to the basics: getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, exercising and taking any prescribed medications. Not only will all of this help you in these hard times, but you’ll also feel better overall.

Lily is a sophomore Communication Studies major/Public Health minor at American University D.C. She is passionate about reading, science, foreign languages, dogs, and the Oxford comma. Yes, she is 4’4” and no, she is not growing any taller – thank you very much for asking.

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