How to take care of yourself in a time of emotional dysregulation and respond when faced with someone who is losing it
By Geoff Dueck Thiessen, Regional Director, Winnipeg Member Centre
In the September 2022 issue of the Guide, Jay Bueckert, regional director of the Fort McMurray Member Centre in Alberta, wrote about anger and how to manage your own emotions and responses—especially when you’re at work. Geoff Dueck Thiessen, regional director of the Winnipeg Member Centre, expands on that theme, examining what sparks our reactions and how we can de-escalate tense encounters in a time of emotional dysregulation.
MY PHONE TELLS ME I talked to “C” for 14 minutes. Weird, because I could swear it lasted about an hour. And my spouse, Karla, who was in the house and able to hear C’s voice from upstairs, also thought it lasted an hour.
Nope—14 minutes of yelling, threats, and interruptions was all I got, and it left my head buzzing. And this is a member I was trying my hardest to help by advancing a grievance on her behalf!
A week later, I was helping a dear friend move. The move was fraught with my friend’s marriage separation tensions. While driving back and forth as a passenger, I was part of three near road-rage incidents.
This friend is normally a calm and peaceful person, full of compassion and proficient in a helping profession. Yet he brought us much too close to being in a serious car accident—including one at 120 kilometres per hour.
What is going on? Is this just normal human behaviour, or are more people struggling to keep their composure?
We were all hoping that after the worst of COVID was over that we would be “back to normal.” Are we? Or has something shifted? Is there a bit less joy? Is there more fatigue? And are we having an even harder time regulating ourselves when we’re under stress?
Given the news cycle we face every day, which includes political and ideological polarization, inflation, war, and threats of calamitous outcomes from environmental and nuclear threats, maybe we’ve got some reasons to be struggling to maintain stability.
Saturday Night Live (SNL) captured this well in a game-show skit called “So You Think You Won’t Snap.” Calm, happy contestants were read several troubling news headlines and challenged not to lose control.
They responded with excessive drinking, self-harm, and assaulting a flight attendant. When SNL does a skit on something, it’s usually because the subject (in this case, Americans losing control of their emotions and behaviours) is in the greater American imagination.
THE EDUCATIONAL ASSISTANTS I REPRESENT in Manitoba have a term for these control issues: regulation. Self-regulation is the ability of a person to manage their own emotional and behavioural responses to stimulation. Dysregulation describes someone who isn’t in control of their emotional responses.
Many childhood educators use “zones of regulation,” represented by colours from blue to red, to illustrate a continuum of emotional and psychological states. On the blue end of the continuum, energy is too low. On the red end, energy is too high. In between are green (happy) and yellow (agitated) zones.
A person in the red zone is a person no longer in control. This occurs because the brain’s frontal lobe is paralyzed after the amygdala, which helps in decision-making, has engaged, and the brain is awash in stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline.
Logic and empathy are impaired, and consequences are forgotten. The urge to lash out can be overpowering if we feel our basic needs aren’t being met. It’s quite normal to move out of the most positive zone (green) and then take some steps to rein things in before escalating to red.
For educators, the goal is to raise self-awareness so students can recognize when they’re moving toward the red zone and use strategies to manage their thoughts, emotions, and ultimately behaviours.
When I used to teach anger management to men in the criminal justice system, the theories and strategies were much the same. Time-outs (alone time), going for walks, exercise, talking it out, and breathing exercises are just a few things people can do to prevent escalation. A key learning: don’t make an important decision about someone important to you while you’re dysregulated!
Someone wanting to do deeper work would look all the way back into their childhood and culture, to discover what underlying beliefs and values might be there, that when challenged by a situation could trigger a deep emotional response. For example, road rage incidents might all look similar, but different people could be triggered for different reasons—like my friend’s recent marital troubles.
One person could be responding to deeply held beliefs about respect, disrespect, and a core feeling of humiliation, which then leads to anger. Another person might be triggered because of previous traumas and a core feeling of fear, which then leads to anger.
Spending time with those underlying feelings of humiliation or fear, and the reasons why those feelings are so strong when cut off by another driver, can prevent the escalation to anger, which for many people is ultimately an action-based emotion that pushes us past our underlying, uncomfortable, and confusing feelings.
BEING ABLE TO SELF-REGULATE is a pretty key skill for adults wishing to live in healthy relationships and stay employed. The more often and more severely we become dysregulated and enter the red zone, the more people will walk on eggshells around us and avoid spending time with us. At its worst, violence can result.
But what about when we’re the ones who’ve been subjected to dysregulated behaviour? This is where things get really tough, especially when we don’t want to avoid the person or end the relationship.
In the instance of “C,” it’s still my job as a representative to bring the grievance process to a close. I don’t believe there is a perfect formula for handling the toxicity, but taking care of ourselves is really, really—yes, really—important! Because it’s not a great leap to go from being subjected to dysregulated behaviour to losing control ourselves and passing it on.
So, what should we do?
10 Strategies for Taking Care of Yourself When Facing Dysregulated Behaviour
- Set boundaries early. Decide what you will and won’t endure so that, when it happens, you’ll be less likely to soak up even 14 minutes of hostility. (Like I did!)
- Practice your exit. If you think you’re going to have to withdraw from a situation, having a sentence or two ready and practiced is helpful. “I’m not comfortable with the energy level in this conversation. I’m going to go now.”
- Stay calm. Be direct and purposeful, if possible, but above all else stay calm. As a bonus, your calm behaviour can make it less likely that the dysregulated person will continue to escalate. Sometimes, calmness is contagious.
- Get help. Depending on the situation, talk to the police, your supervisor, a professional counsellor, or your partner. It’s very hard to process hostile interactions by ourselves. Reach out and get some support.
- Keep breathing. Your frontal lobe needs oxygen to function. Holding your breath will starve your brain, making controlled thoughts and behaviour more difficult.
- Be compassionate to yourself and the other person. Try not to take the situation personally. Dysregulation is normally not about the immediate situation as much as it is about something else.
- Don’t attack. Adding personal guilt or hostile attacks against the person won’t likely help in the long run and will only increase your own stress levels.
- Talk about it. Keeping hostile incidents bottled up is a great recipe for trauma. Your brain will have a harder time sorting out the confusing and scary information if you keep it in. Find a safe, trusted person to talk it out.
- Do what’s good for you. Some people journal, some do artwork, some go for a run or to the gym. Doing 20 to 30 minutes of cardio daily can counteract the effects of stress chemicals on your brain. Spiritual practices like prayer and meditation also can be key to staying connected (as hostile incidents are deeply disconnecting).
- Get out of your echo chamber! Canadian author Tomson Highway, a residential school survivor, credits much of his positive outlook on stubbornly thinking more about others than himself. Just as self-care is important, it’s also really important to actively engage with others, particularly through acts of service.
When you do find yourself in an emotional encounter, there are ways of responding that will allow the other person to defuse, decompress, and feel heard.
7 Strategies When Facing Dysregulated Behaviour
- Keep your cool. Don’t let your own feelings spiral out of control. Responding to someone emotionally or angrily is only going to escalate the situation. If you feel tense, take a few deep breaths. Wait a moment and collect yourself rather than responding immediately.
- Acknowledge their feelings. When someone speaks aggressively to you, it’s easy to roll your eyes and dismiss them as crazy. But disregarding their feelings will only inflame them more. Acknowledge their emotions (e.g., “I understand this situation is frustrating for you.”) so they feel like they’ve been truly heard.
- Wait for the calm. Try to let the person get their feelings off their chest without interrupting. Avoid telling them to calm down—this often has the opposite effect. If things have really escalated, politely suggest taking a 10-minute breather. Ask if they would a like a glass of water or coffee or if they’d prefer to meet on another day.
- Don’t judge. Try not to judge the other person for things said in the heat of the moment. Understand that they are not being their rational self.
- Practice active listening. Try to take their comments on board. Do they have a valid reason to be so distressed? Why do they feel let down? Active listening means really stopping and digesting the words the upset person is saying. If you’re simply imagining your rebuttal while they talk, that’s not active listening.
- Find common ground. Try to find some common ground early in the conversation to get beyond the point of disagreement. A simple statement like, “Let’s find a solution that works for everyone,” can demonstrate feelings of empathy and understanding.
- End with a concrete plan. Always conclude a discussion with a plan for moving forward. If this is a work issue, email a summary to all the parties affected. Include timeframes and specifics. If you didn’t manage to reach a solution, set a date for a follow-up meeting.
None of us can live a stress-free life. Take the time to acknowledge your fraught emotions and process them by talking with a friend or trusted coworker.
The good news is that even bad days can be good for us. Adversity is a great teacher. What upsets us now might not be so hard the next time because we’ve learned to adapt and be resilient.
What Is Emotional Dysregulation?
According to webmd.com, “Emotional dysregulation is a term used to describe an emotional response that is poorly regulated and does not fall within the traditionally accepted range of emotional reaction. It may also be referred to as marked fluctuation of mood, mood swings, or labile [erratic] mood.
“When someone is experiencing emotional dysregulation, they may have angry outbursts, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, and other self-damaging behaviors. Over time, this condition may interfere with your quality of life, social interactions, and relationships at home, work, or school.”
7 Tips for Active Listening
- Give the person your full attention.
- Never interrupt.
- Make eye contact.
- Don’t mentally formulate a rebuttal while they’re speaking.
- Ask questions for clarification.
- Repeat their points to show understanding.
- Keep an open posture (i.e., no closed arms).
Why People Are Acting So Weird
We’re social beings, and isolation changed us.
The following is excerpted from “Why People Are Acting So Weird” by Olga Khazan, published in The Atlantic magazine (March 2022):
The pandemic loosened ties between people: kids stopped going to school; their parents stopped going to work; parishioners stopped going to church; people stopped gathering, in general. Sociologists think all of this isolation shifted the way we behave. “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened,” Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studies social disorder, told me. “When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.”
The turn-of-the-20th-century scholar Émile Durkheim called this state anomie, or a lack of social norms that leads to lawlessness. “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings,” Durkheim wrote. In the past two years, we have stopped being social, and in many cases we have stopped being moral, too.
“We’ve got, I think, a generalized sense that the rules simply don’t apply,” Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, told me. In some places, he says, police arrested fewer people during the pandemic, and “when enforcement goes down, people tend to relax their commitment to the rules.”
Long before road rage became a commonplace term in society, Disney released the cartoon Motor Mania, way back in 1950. The cartoon features Goofy as mild-mannered Mr. Walker, who wouldn’t even step on an ant, turning into Mr. Wheeler, a crazed maniac when behind the wheel.
The cartoon foreshadowed a trend that has become all too common on the roads today. A 2022 Leger survey found that nearly 80 percent of Canadian drivers witnessed road rage acts over the past 12 months. But only 50 percent admitted to engaging in them. While road rage itself is not illegal in Canada, many of the behaviours exhibited could lead to charges, especially if someone is hurt or killed.
Did you know?
Germany takes road rage seriously. Drivers who merely shout insults or make offensive gestures while driving can be subject to fines or imprisonment. A 2009 US defense bulletin warned American troops that “sticking your tongue out at a German police officer has resulted in fines between €150 and €300. More obscene gestures were punished with fines ranging from €600 to €4,000.” In German law, insults while driving are not considered a trivial offense but a criminal one. There is no difference whether you insult a police officer or any other person on the street. Fines vary according to the offender’s income and social standing.
Sources: globalnews.ca, laist.com, pension-sprachschule.de, media.defense.gov