How to Cool Down in a Hurry

Friday, April 25, 2014
Feeling hot under the collar about something a colleague said or did? About to explode? Expressing your anger in an emotional outburst may feel satisfying, but probably won’t help the situation — or your career.
“When you are in a heightened emotional state, you don’t think clearly,” says psychologist Rebecca Wagner, PhD, manager of the Professionals in Crisis (PIC) Program at Menninger. Dr. Wagner teaches patients on PIC — high-achieving business professionals in high-pressure occupations — to constructively express their anger. “You have to find a way to calm yourself down, and not make decisions in the heat of the moment.”
Easier said than done, right? Dr. Wagner acknowledges that everyone has the occasional angry, emotional outburst. But with practice, you can learn to cool down in a hurry. Here’s how:

Breathe deeply

There’s a reason people urge you to “take a deep breath” when you are angry. It really works. “Deep breathing helps get oxygen into your blood stream and has a naturally calming effect,” Dr. Wagner says.

Buy time

The classic “count to 10” cool-down strategy also works, because it buys you time. The body can physiologically stayed stressed for only so long, Dr. Wagner explains. “You need to distract yourself from the crisis, so that your body will come back to a more normal state of being.”
Distractions can include going for a walk, listening to music, playing a game, cooking or gardening. The key is to make it a “mindful distraction,” Dr. Wagner says. “You need to immerse yourself in that activity and give it all your attention, and not ruminate on what is causing you distress. For example, if you are listening to music, concentrate on the rhythm, the beat, the tone and the instruments being played.”

Leave the situation

When an argument’s too hot to handle, take a “time out” and leave the room for a moment. “If you stay in the situation, the confrontation can be more agitating, especially if you are with someone who knows how to push your buttons,” Dr. Wagner says. After you cool down, you can return to the conversation and pursue a solution with a more rational frame of mind.

Don’t self-medicate

“Turning to food or alcohol to calm down is a maladaptive coping strategy and a way of self-medicating,” Dr. Wagner says. “It may work in the short term, but the problem is still there.” Continuing to avoid situations that make you angry will also make matters worse, she says, adding that the cause of the anger needs to be addressed. “The goal is not to repress anger, but to be able to express it in a way that is helpful,” she says.