From lashing out at a loved one to stuttering in front of the cute barista, losing your cool can seem like a nightmare, and it often is. So how do you keep your cool?
Keeping your cool has a lot to do with emotional regulation, as losing our cool is usually an emotional reaction. Of course, this does mean that we have to look these uncomfortable feelings in the face, but the benefits of doing so outweigh the discomfort. Making sure that your basic needs are met and you know how to relax and call out your mind when it’s playing tricks on you are also keys to staying cool under pressure - although you don’t always have to.
In this article, I will take a look at why we lose our cool and more importantly, four tips on how to keep it.
Why do we lose our cool?
Some of my most embarrassing moments as a teacher have been the ones where I've lost my cool and raised my voice. I never want to do it and staying calm is one of the qualities I value most in teachers and expect from myself, but sometimes the calm attention grabbers don't work or the back row is just too rowdy.
No one ever wants to lose their cool and get angry or lash out. It's uncomfortable, embarrassing or even scary for everyone involved. Yet we still do it.
The emotions and feelings that make us lose our cool - anger, fear, worry, and anxiety - are a part of the normal emotional range. Sure, we would prefer to always be happy and calm, but life isn't all sunshine and roses. So occasionally losing your cool is completely normal and just a part of being human.
Not all emotional reactions are equal
Emotions may be normal, but not all emotional reactions are. To understand this we need to take a closer look at how emotions work.
When we talk about emotions we usually refer to a feeling. This is clear enough for everyday use, but scientifically speaking, emotions are usually broken down into four interrelated components.
Firstly, there's the affective component or the feeling we usually refer to. Secondly, there's the cognitive component, which includes thoughts and any other cognitive processes, for example, how our attention is directed and how we perceive stimuli.
Thirdly we experience bodily arousal. For example, our breathing may quicken, we may shiver, sweat, or blush. Body temperature may also change, for example, a 2012 article reports that disgust elevates body temperature by around 0.3 °C.
Arousal is necessary to prepare us for the fourth component: behavior. For example, we may slam doors when we are angry or run away in fear. Although it doesn't always feel like it, this is the only component that we can control.
When the behavior serves a purpose and is appropriate in the situation that we are in, we can call it adaptive. When faced with physical danger, running away is a perfectly reasonable response (although it has little to do with reason and all to do with hundreds of thousands of years of evolution).
However, when the behavioral response to an emotion does more harm than good, we can call it maladaptive. For example, running away from a presentation you have to give at work is a much less reasonable course of action. Substance use is also a common behavioral strategy, while substance abuse and self-harm are more extreme examples of a maladaptive response.
While it can sometimes be adaptive, losing your cool is generally a maladaptive emotional reaction. Showing your anger is completely justified in certain situations, as is expressing anxious thoughts. It should never be our goal to always keep our cool and suppress all emotional reactions in every situation. In some situations, losing your cool can even be flattering to others, like blushing and stumbling over words on a first date.
However, most times, losing one's cool comes as an unpleasant surprise to everyone involved. A teacher raising their voice from irritation, a loved one lashing out in anger - there's nothing flattering about that to anyone.
How to keep your cool
A part of the key to keeping your cool lies in emotional regulation. We can't control if we feel emotions - they are automatic reactions to different stimuli we experience - but we can control how we act in response.
In addition to emotional regulation, there are other ways to avoid unwanted outbursts and lashing out. Let’s take a look at four actionable tips on how to keep your cool.
1. Keep your basics in check
I wouldn’t normally advise you to take life advice from a Snickers commercial, but you really aren’t yourself when you’re hungry. When your basic needs are unmet, you are more prone to lashing out or getting emotionally overwhelmed.
Getting enough sleep, food and physical activity are all extremely important for keeping your cool.
2. Face the feelings
It can be hard to examine negative emotions, but it’s necessary if you want to change your behavior. If you feel like you’re about to burst, it’s a good idea to ask what emotion you are feeling and why. Sometimes, simply taking the time to face and name the emotions is enough to cool them down.
Facing your feelings is also essential for figuring out any patterns that might need addressing. For example, getting angry easily can be a sign of burnout or feelings of inadequacy, but we might miss what the emotion is trying to tell us if we never face it.
3. Keep an eye on your thoughts
Sometimes, we lose our cool because our mind is playing tricks on us. These tricks are known as cognitive distortions and include black-or-white (or all-or-nothing) thinking, jumping to conclusions and personalization, to name a few.
For a more comprehensive list and explanation, check out this one from Verywell Mind. But in short, cognitive distortions make us see monsters where there are none. For example, when my friend doesn’t text me back for hours, I’m prone to do a little mind-reading and convince myself that they don’t like me, although they’re probably just busy.
Learning to recognize and doubt what these distortions are telling you is a matter of practice, but it pays off.
Relaxed people are better at keeping their cool. Sounds logical, right?
You can look at this from two perspectives. Firstly, taking time to rest and relax to generally maintain a lower stress level, and secondly, practicing calming exercises when the feelings run hot.
For the first point, there really isn’t much else to it. For the second, there are a plethora of relaxation exercises to choose from, with my personal favorites being box breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and the 5 senses exercise.
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Keeping your cool is a matter of regulating your emotions, not falling prey to cognitive distortions and making sure you’re rested, relaxed and well-fed: it’s much easier to stay cool when you’re taking care of yourself. Of course, it’s always easier said than done: facing uncomfortable emotions head-on is always hard, and learning how to notice cognitive distortions can be grueling work, but the results are definitely worth it.
What do you think? Are you good at keeping your cool? Or do you need more tips on regulating your emotions? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!