Everyone knows what it feels like to be frustrated and angry, but not everyone knows how to handle those powerful feelings. Contrary to belief, not all “bad” feelings are bad for you. Most people are afraid of their anger because it is connected to the fear of losing control or being disliked. Yet it is anger that can be your greatest protector, enabling you to speak out when you are not being treated well. It can help people back off when they have crossed over the boundaries you have set. Releasing anger helps you regain control. The inability to manage powerful emotions hurts your relationship to yourself and to others. It also interferes with your effectiveness at work, as an actor.
So what does it mean to get hold of your emotions? It means being in charge of managing your feelings rather than avoiding, repressing, or letting them get out of control. It also means having the ability to be effective during turbulent situations, learning to stay calm and clear-headed while walking on shaky ground.
Understanding what goes on inside your brain when emotions are peaked can be a great tool in regaining self-control. According to the book The Brain and Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman,
“Our brain was designed as a tool for survival. If the amygdala detects a threat, in an instant it can take over the rest of the brain—particularly the prefrontal cortex—and we have what’s called an amygdala hijack. During a hijack, we can’t learn, and we rely on over-learned habits, ways we’ve behaved time and time again. We can’t innovate or be flexible during a hijack. The amygdala often makes mistakes. It gets a sloppy picture and has to react instantly. It often makes mistakes, particularly in modern life, where the ‘dangers’ are symbolic, not physical threats. So we overreact in ways we often regret later.”
This important information reveals how important it is to get out of survival mode when there isn’t an actual life-threatening event. When there is a physical threat, it is great for survival, but when we are confronting an emotional threat, it works against us by shutting down our capacity to see things clearly and make sound decisions from a calm, balanced place.
Here are the ABC’s of gaining emotional control:
Pay attention to your body. Become familiar with the areas in your body holding emotional stress. Is your stomach, throat, chest, or shoulders tightening up? These are inner signals letting you know you’ve just experienced something upsetting. Powerful emotions have their beginnings in the body. When you learn to recognize these sensations, you can stop them before they cause an emotional meltdown. Notice where you feel tension and start to relax those areas. Do a quick body scan starting with the top of your head going all the way down to your feet. Check in with each area and when you discover tightness, breathe into it and release the tension on the exhalation. Here is a long version (30 minutes) of the body scan with Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s beneficial to practice the body scan everyday, so that when you need to do it in the heat of the moment, it is readily available to you.
Often when you feel panicked or upset, your breathing will become irregular, rapid, and shallow. People tend to breathe from their chest at that point. When you redirect your breath and shift into the belly breath, you will start to feel more balanced and relaxed. We breathe this way when we are sleeping or relaxed. Take your hand and place it on your belly and feel the rise and fall of each breath. Count to four on your inhalation and count to four on your exhalation. Make each in-breath and out-breath the same length. As you return to the natural calm breath, you are sending a signal to the body and mind that you are safe and everything is okay. A relaxed body and mind will help you to stay balanced and in control.
. . . your thoughts. Remember, the body will believe what the mind tells it. Gaining control requires hands on action. You need to talk yourself out of panic mode. Tell yourself in a calm voice that you are safe and secure and everything is as it should be. Use a visualization technique to help you along. Picture in your mind’s eye a place that is real or that you have seen in photos, which represents your happy and peaceful place. Hold onto that peaceful picture. You are actively replacing catastrophizing thoughts with positive ones.
Living a full life means that you have to deal with the ups and downs. We need to manage the difficult moments and work through them in a positive way in order to get to the other side. The way out is through, not around. As you practice this way of dealing with difficult emotions, you will get stronger by building mental muscle. Learning how to handle the hard stuff will keep you open-hearted and able to show up in life with 100% of yourself because you have the confidence to meet it.
For some extra tools and weekly tips to deal with the difficulties visit my website.
I’ve created The Conscious Actor Inspiration Journal; to help actors develop awareness of what inspires them. Beautiful pages filled with inspirational quotes to help keep you strong minded. For New York actors, the journal is available at Drama Book Shop Los Angeles actors may pick up the journal at Samuel French Bookshop
Conscious Actor articles are not a substitution for professional psychotherapy.