Before Your Emotions Get The Best Of You, Take A Moment And Just Breathe

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Try a mindfulness strategy to improve self-control under stress.

You know that person, the one that always challenges your self-control? It might be a colleague you see occasionally at meetings, a friend of a friend, or a relative you only see at holidays.

How about those difficult situations, like getting a late charge because you forgot to pay a bill? Situations like that also tax our self-control abilities. Yeah, like that unexpected tax bill.

Yet another precursor of self-control problems is cumulative stress — you slept poorly, ate poorly, worked 12 hours straight and, just as you’re getting ready to shut work down for the day, the message arrives from your boss — Aargh, you are not seriously asking me to do one more thing today, are you?

That person and those situations are why you need mindfulness-based coping strategies.

According to Jon Kabat-Zin, “mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Using mindful strategies in the face of stressors, like that person, you can behave in a controlled, thoughtful manner.

Having a mindful coping strategy, along with a couple of basic steps to improve self-control, can slow the burn, avoid the meltdown and help with a speedy recovery.

Start by choosing a mindful strategy

Look for a strategy that feels right for you. It should be something you feel comfortable doing, that makes logical sense to you and feels good. There is no “right” way to be mindful. You can mix and match counting, breathing, walking, sitting, loving-kindness phrases, or another decompression strategy, whatever works for you.

These are a few strategies to consider.

· Stop and breathe. Take a few moments and just breathe. You can sit, lie down or walk. Notice your breathing, the inbreath (in through the nose) and the outbreath (out through the nose or mouth), without changing it. Experience the coolness of the inbreath, the warmth of the outbreath. Notice where you feel it, maybe in your nose, chest or abdomen. When you get distracted, and you will, gently, non-judgmentally, guide yourself back to the breath. Try counting the breaths from one to 10 and repeating. When you’re under stress simply notice your breath — it helps bring you into the present instead of staying caught up in the problem.

· Take a mindful moment. Focus your awareness intentionally. Take a few moments to notice the objects around you, like the photo on your desk, really seeing them, perhaps naming them (black computer monitor, floor lamp, photo of Violet). Or, make yourself a cup of tea, focusing on each step you take to prepare it, experiencing the sounds, feel and aroma. Or, walk around for a couple of minutes, outside if possible, aware of your body moving in space, your feet hitting the floor or ground, the air on your face. In a stressful moment, a quick dose of mindfulness can bring you back to the present, interrupt a negative thought cycle and provide an opportunity to decide how you’d like to handle things.

· Cultivate loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is a short meditation that guides you to express positive feelings toward yourself and others. Sit comfortably for a few minutes saying slowly and silently: May I be safe, be happy, be healthy, live with ease. You can substitute whatever words work for you including things like: May I be well, be loved, have peace, live in freedom. Then visualize someone easy to love and express those same sentiments toward them. You might go on to call to mind someone you don’t know that well, or even someone difficult to love, expressing those same thoughts toward them. Visualizing that person can help you in your next encounter. In a stressful moment try repeating one or two sentiments a few times to lower your emotional temperature.

Be sure to practice your strategy

Once you’ve chosen a strategy, practicing is key. People often report that, in the moment of stress, they forget to breathe, be mindful or use another stress-reduction strategy. You know how to breathe, but breathing mindfully in a stressful moment is a skill that requires practice.

It’s challenging to practice when you’re feeling good, but not only does practicing ensure the strategy will be available when you need it, practice has other benefits. Mindfulness, breathing and loving-kindness practices have been demonstrated to decrease stress and improve health and well-being.

It helps to identify your warning signs

It’s best to initiate mindful coping early, right when your emotional temperature begins to rise. Notice the early warning signs. Try mindful coping when you’re starting to feel a little warm, before you’re sweating bullets and definitely before an explosion.

Notice your typical signs of stress — they’re different for everyone. You might feel your face getting hot, your hands clammy or balling into fists, your breathing becoming a little rapid or your heart beating a bit too fast. You might become loud or feel like running and hiding.

It’s also useful to know your triggers

Identify the person, or situation, that drives your emotional temperature up, anticipating the challenge you will face, and readying your cool, calm, mindful response.

Try to avoid universal triggers. Getting HANGRY (when hunger drives your anger), excessively fatigued (when lack of sleep drives all negative emotions) and overwhelmed with to-dos (can you postpone or delegate?) will strain even the most skillful mindfulness practitioner.

When your self-control efforts don’t seem to be working there’s still hope

We can do our best, but it is not always possible to maintain the level of self-control we desire.

Consider these common pitfalls without judging yourself.

· Are you committed to self-control? We all want to be right, have the last word or push back when feeling wronged. Self-control under stress is about accepting reality — it doesn’t mean we like or approve of reality. Sure, it would be nice if you never had to see that person, avoided late charges and your boss never asked for one more thing after a 12-hour day, but those are realities you cannot change. You can change your response to challenges if you accept that you don’t need the last word, everyone makes mistakes and you don’t have to be right all the time.

· Were you blindsided? When you didn’t see it coming, maybe you did not adequately identify your triggers or warning signs. Have a postmortem on a situation in which you flopped to identify triggers and early signs you were starting to get hot.

· Do you need more practice? When things are going well we tend to “forget” to practice and then find our coping strategy is not readily available when we need it. Practice your mindful coping a little more.

You don’t have to be Zen master or meditate 45 minutes a day to benefit from these simple yet highly useful mindfulness strategies. Make space in your day for a pause to breathe, a mindful moment or to practice loving-kindness. It creates a positive attitude toward your day and an intention to live with awareness and self-control. It may not last all day, but the more you practice, the greater the benefits.

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An earlier version of this essay was published at YourTango.



Psychologist and life coach. Also, parent, writer, runner, yogini, healthnut, arts lover. Connect with me at

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Judith Tutin, PhD

Psychologist and life coach. Also, parent, writer, runner, yogini, healthnut, arts lover. Connect with me at