Episode 8: Slowing Things Down to Feel S.A.F.E.

What You’ll Learn on this Episode:

  • The importance of slowing down when regulating emotions 
  • Understanding the differences between the lower and higher brain and how they deal  with emotional storms
  • The acronym S.A.F.E. and the significance of ‘S’ — self-awareness and slowing down
  • Hacking physiological body processes to slow down emotions
  • The benefits of focusing on breathing and observing emotions 
  • How slowing down can help regain control and activate the higher brain


*This transcription below was provided for you or your convenience; please excuse any mistakes that the automated service made in translation.

In an emotional storm, everything moves so fast. In part two of this series, we’ll learn how slowing down is a big key to regulating our emotions. This is Leadership Parenting. Episode number eight slowing things down. Did you know that resilience is the key to confidence and joy? As moms, it’s what we want for our kids, but it’s also what we need for ourselves. My name is Lee Gurman, i’m a therapist and I’m a mom. Join me as we explore the skills you need to know to be confident and joyful. Then get ready to teach these skills to your kids. This is Leadership Parenting, where you learn how to lead your family by showing them the way. Hi and welcome to Leadership Parenting. 

Today we are moving forward in our discussion about how to weather through emotional storms. We’re going to talk today about what happens inside of us when we’ve got a big emotion that hits us, that takes over. This is very relevant for most of us. I don’t know if you can think of the last time that this happened to you, but I work with this every single day. The other day, i had a mama I’m working with tell me about her morning. We are meeting kind of late in the afternoon, so she was explaining to me how this seems to happen to her a lot. 

Her morning started out fine. She felt calm and she was guiding her children quietly through their morning routines as they were getting ready to go to school. But then things started to go wrong. Her kids began arguing and they couldn’t find their shoes and one child hit the other and of course they were late and there was crying and her whole morning spun out of control. She said that she felt like this volcano rising in her chest until she could hardly think straight. She felt tears come into her eyes and her muscles felt tight. Before she realized it she was yelling at her kids at the top of her voice. Yelling was definitely not on her schedule that morning, but the anger and the frustration inside just kind of blew. She was telling me this with kind of the sense of shame, almost like she was kind of confessing it and really bringing it to the table for us to work on. She said just the rest of her day she was dealing with this overwhelming sadness and this hopelessness. 

When I asked her what kind of thoughts she was having, she said she started thinking thoughts like she wasn’t cut out for this mothering stuff and the sadness that she was feeling seemed to darken all the rest of her day. Earlier, before our meeting, she had even had a friend ask her to join her for lunch. She actually called and canceled her lunch appointment because she just was feeling so bad By the time we met. She said she felt even worse. I’m a failure at home and at work. She said she felt like giving up. Having enough wine that night to make all of the bad things go away seemed like a really good idea to her in that moment. We talked through that. Just that desire to have something that would numb the feelings was a signal, or a sign that it was the feelings that she was feeling overwhelmed by and she was quickly trying to find something to make all of that go away. When things like this happen, it can feel like a surprise. In fact, she was feeling like it was a big slide backwards. She was not prepared for this. 

We can find ourselves overwhelmed by our feelings, i think, much more frequently than we realize. I guess what I want to start out our time together today is to have this not be a surprise that this happens. Whether it’s anger or sadness, fear, anxiety or any variation of these, we can all have hard minutes, hard hours, hard days. Over time. These things can really weigh on us. I find, as I work with women who are really struggling with depression and anxiety, a lot of times it’s because we get a really helpless or anxious feeling about these kinds of events that happen in our lives, because big and uncomfortable emotions can seem so awful that we’ll do almost anything not to have to deal with them. That’s what we’re talking about today, because anytime that we’re trying not to deal with our feelings, we are actually digging a deeper hole. We’re going to need more stuff to fill that hole with more things to numb us out. We also run into trouble when we try to control the things and the people that we think cause those feelings, because that’s not useful either. Could this mom, if any of us stepped into her place, could we have made that morning go differently as far as controlling her children, what they said, what they did? No, i mean, we can manage circumstances. Maybe had we known. 

Try to do something to kind of almost like in the movies, when you can rewind, go back in time and not say that thing, or grab that child quickly and get them into the other room before their other sibling comes in and gets upset. You can’t anticipate this stuff. The feelings that come are something we should be much more open to and not surprised by. I think this speaks a little bit to our perfectionism, those ideals that we have. It doesn’t even have to be perfectionism, it could just be our hopes and our goals for how we want things to go. When they don’t go those ways, it can be really upsetting. 

Taking the things around us so that we don’t have big feelings not usually very useful for us. Trying to stop the feelings or numb them out also not useful at all. We really want to be able to understand what the feelings are and how to work with them. This is what we’re focused on learning, not so much the feelings themselves right now, but what’s the process and the speed of the process, because the topic of our episode today is how to slow down the stress response. The stress response is that reaction that that mom felt. It’s what happens in your body when you feel like you’re overwhelmed by those feelings. Those big feelings cause us to really be led by a lower part of our brain. 

Let me just review for a quick minute what we’re talking about here as far as how our brain works. So your brain is your body’s most complex organ and most of us have very little understanding of how it functions. And without understanding, it’s super easy to get frustrated when we lose our temper or feel anxious or can’t control these emotions or even impulses that come up. But what I want to really start out with here is that there’s always a reason for how we feel and behave, and it’s much better understood when we look at it through the lens of brain science, and particularly brain and body science, because every thought and feeling and behavior that you have has a root somewhere in the workings of your brain. And not only that. There’s often competition, because it’s happening in several parts of your brain. You’ve got several some things that are happening, and this happens because the brain isn’t just one mass of neural cells. It’s actually made up of specific and unique parts with specific jobs. 

So your brain exists literally to do two things for you. The first is to help you survive. That is absolutely the baseline, most important goal that your brain has for you, and so many of the workings of the brain are automated Things that keep your heart beating and your lungs breathing in air and your blood circulating stuff that we don’t even think about and that you don’t have to pay attention to, thank heavens, but also this very sensitive system that really is paying attention to whether things are safe or not safe. And the second thing that your brain exists to do for you is to help you thrive and to give you that power, that empowerment, to kind of do all those things that humans do that are higher level performance, things like set goals and have relationships and feel the joy that comes with having a life of meaning and purpose, like we talked about. So two things your brain does, and sometimes it can seem like these two goals are working against each other, because the primary goal of survival oftentimes starts to kind of take over any good, well meaning plans. We have to be in a thriving mode. 

So this mama who was looking at having a morning and I know this because she and I were working on this having a morning that went a little more smoothly and that held some elements of connection and attachment for her children before they left to go to school for the day. So that was her goal and that I would categorize. If you have to put that in one of two buckets, that’s going to be in the thriving bucket Because you can keep children alive without having real kind of close attachments. You can just kind of get them fed and sheltered and on their way. But what we’re trying to do as parents is meet those attachment needs and and have this kind of a pleasant experience in the morning. So that was her primary goal And yet enough things kind of went awry that morning And there was enough challenge to the plan and how things were supposed to go that her brain literally took those signals as being a threat And so the threat system in this mom’s brain got activated and she moved into fight or flight. She had all of the pressure in her chest, she had all of the autonomic nervous system that turned on as if there was something dangerous happening and she moved into survival mode. 

So I think it’s important for us to understand how our brain is involved in this process, because if we don’t, we start to get super critical about it, starts to look like it’s just our choice, like we chose to get upset. We chose to get overwhelmed by those big feelings. We chose not to do what we wanted to do, what we set out to do with our values and our goals and all of that stuff that we focus on when we’re calm, and the truth is that we really can get moved into a place where we don’t feel like we have a choice at all, and so my job is to really kind of help us understand the inner workings of this so that you can get your choice back. And so it’s important to understand that when your fight or flight gets turned on in that threat system, you’re going to have a physical response in your body, and that’s how you know it’s happening, and we just need to watch for this. We need to really pay attention when we’re having those big feelings come up, and what we’re going to talk about today is how to address that, how to respond to that. 

So, before we do that, i want to give you a very simple kind of definition or overview of a very complex organ, so you have a chance to quickly imagine what might be happening inside your head. And the way that we can simplify this is to talk about your brain as having a lower part and a higher part, and I kind of prefer the simple because I think if we can get a quick snapshot without having to become neuroscientists ourselves, it’ll service really well. So I like this. You know and this isn’t a highly scientific explanation, it’s far more complicated than this but I really want you to get an image of having a lower brain where you have a brainstem and a limbic system And I’ll talk a little bit more about that in a second and a higher brain where you have a cortex and a prefrontal cortex. 

So if you can kind of look at your brain as two parts, and the lower part of your brain is very survival oriented and it develops really early and really fast And it is mostly focused around protection through a very automated system. So your brainstem would be in that lower part of your brain and your brainstem is responsible for all of the functions in your body, most of which you have absolutely no control over. So and that’s a good thing, right Your heart rate, your breathing, your temperature, your digestion. You don’t want to have to think about those things, but you’ll notice if we are in a dangerous situation, whether it’s a real danger or perceived danger. And this is kind of the crux of what we’re going to be focused on when we’re working together is that if we’re in real danger, if there’s the proverbial tiger chasing you, then your heart rate is going to go up so it can pump blood through your body, get to your core, give you the energy to sprint away or to stay and fight And all of those automated processes your temperature, your digestion will stop, your heart rate will go up, your breathing will go faster, your immune system actually stops, pushes pause. It doesn’t go away, but it pauses so that all available energy can go towards you fighting or fleeing. And also, what happens is that the blood moves to your core, to those survival places where you’re going to fight or run, and it actually moves away from the thinking structure. Through that Your focus isn’t on thinking through things, it’s on kind of instinctual survival. 

And the higher brain is the part of the brain that does all that thinking, that does all that planning, that does all of that imagining of how it could be in the future and wanting it to be a certain way with the goals that we have in mind, hopefully linked to the things that we value. So you know, the lower brain is faster and automated and just loves to look for danger and respond without permission most of the time. And the higher brain is slower And I will say I do think it’s got a power or a strength that our lower brain doesn’t have. But both parts of our brain are so valuable and we want to keep them both and we want to use them both. But I think that where we’re talking about today is learning how to help the higher brain catch up with the lower brain’s response. Because when we have something that’s happening that we’re perceiving as dangerous, like our kids can’t find their shoes and they’re going to be late, and the kids are arguing this wasn’t what I planned on and I’m a terrible mom and how can I keep doing this? day in and day out, our brain hears that and says danger And it pushes the panic button, the emergency button and all of those chemicals, those fight or flight chemicals of cortisol, adrenaline. They pump through our bodies And then you’ve got that fight or flight response. That’s when we yell, that’s when we run away, when we shut down, we walk out of the door, we walk out of the room. 

When we say things that we don’t mean, i used to believe that when people said I said it and I didn’t mean it, in the back of my mind, before I understood how the brain worked, i would think yeah, i don’t believe that, if you say it. You probably mean it. I mean you must have been thinking about it. But now I understand. Well, certainly, because it’s happened to me where I’ve said something that you know, if I had paused, if I had had the calmness to be able to think through it, i certainly wouldn’t have said that That does not align with what I really believe or what I really want to convey. But when we’re in just a quick, defensive, protective, survival stance, things come out of our mouth that we do not really align with, and I think it’s so important for us to understand that when these things are happening, we’re having a brain response, and everyone has this happen. Just some of us can, you know, kind of catch it sooner. And that’s going to be. 

Our goal is to be able to recognize when it’s happening and know what to do about it. Hence the slow. That’s what we’re focusing on is how do we slow things down so that we can bring our higher brain on board and decide with much more clarity what it is we want to do? We want to learn how to bring our upper brain, our higher brain, into the equation to help us manage that, to help us identify is this really dangerous and what can we do about it? Listening to this episode and learning about your brain helps to activate the higher brain and invites it into your life so it can help you more in any of your situations you’re facing. So let’s look at how the brain works in our daily life. Simply said, we want to be able to use our higher brain, or our reasoning mind, to help us make sense of what our body is doing and feeling and then help us decide how we’re going to act. 

But remember that that instinctual lower brain is very fast and the upper brain processes take longer to come online. So when we’re in an emotional storm, what’s happened most of the time is that we’ve been you know we call that word hijacked. Our upper brain, our higher brain, has been pushed aside and that automated response that lower brain is responding with all sorts of that, those big feelings. And those big feelings are showing up in our body. And when I say take your breath away, i mean, yeah, that’s part of your lower brain’s process is to get your body ready to fight or flee, and it’s not going to be doing this slow, deep breathing. This is a clue for us. Whenever we’re in a storm, we’re emotionally dysregulated, we’re having really big feelings. It’s so important to remember that we are having a brain response And I think that this has been so helpful for me because I you know especially because I know a lot about this stuff that if I get overwhelmed by my feelings, a lot of times I get immediately upset with myself, like I’m just so frustrated that I’m not shown up in a way that I want to, especially because I feel like I don’t have any excuse. I know all this stuff But as I’ve worked with clients over the years and I’ve told them to do this, i’ve had to walk the talk right And do it myself, and the more that I’m able to say whoa Lee, hold on, you are in a storm right now. 

You are feeling a whole bunch of stuff in your body And I’m just going to give myself the benefit of the doubt which I believe is absolutely true that I’m having a threat response period And congratulations, that means I’m a human, that means you’re a human when that happens. So for for me to just be able to remember that, that this is something that is happening right now in my body, and rather than judge it, rather than just act on it and do whatever it is it’s telling me to do. I can recognize that it is a threat response And this is what I talked about in the last episode Recognize I’m in threat and decide I want to feel more safe. And I use that word safe on purpose, because when your brain feels safe, you calm down. When you calm down, your brain feels safe. This is a circular network. This is a feedback network. 

When your brain feels overwhelmed, your body gets the feelings of that, gets the sensations. When your body feels overwhelmed, your brain interprets that data and says, oh no, something’s wrong, and so it amps up the chemicals And then you get more of those chemicals in your body and you can start to see the cycle that this rolls into. And a great example of that is a panic attack, and most people, when you talk about having a panic attack, something triggers it. But the thing that sustains the panic attack is how awful it feels in our bodies And then we get so upset at how awful it feels that it feels more awful, and that’s what increases the cycle of the panic attack. This is why we need to learn how to go to the safe place and safe as an acronym that lays out the steps that hopefully we can practice enough that we don’t have to think about it so much. 

Remember, all of these processes we’re talking about today are higher brain processes. I’m trying to teach you a concept that you’re conscious of. That’s happening in your higher brain. When you feel overwhelmed by feelings, i want you to be able to reach into that higher brain and turn a light on right. This is. I need some help here. My lower brain is in the driver’s seat and I’m my body is in distress. It’s ready to fight or flee. Now, of course, if there’s a real fire in your house, you’re not going to be worried about your higher brain at all. Your instinctual response is going to get you out of the building. But if you’re having that I’m on fire feeling and you’re just standing in front of your two year old who’s crying, then we want your higher brain to lead you, not your lower brain. Once again, you don’t get a choice which shows up first. When your lower brain shows up first and you are feeling flooded, i want you to be safe. 

Today we’re talking about S in safe. We need to learn how to slow things down, and just this conversation is a slowing down drawing the curtain across to open it so we can see oh, there’s a process going on here. My body is flooded And, in figurative terms, when our brain notices something is threatening, it turns on that response And those big sensations are flooding our bodies. That’s our brainstem doing its job. So now you can see the path of physiological flooding and it happens to every single one of us and it’s very fast, so fast. We don’t even know that it’s happening, sometimes until we’re fully flooded. So now, what do we do about it? Let’s talk about the S. Now you understand and this is part of slowing it down. You understand what’s going on. So I’m going to say S for self-awareness and S for slowing things down. 

Just noticing it is going to start the slow down process. As a matter of fact, when you just start to notice, ah, i’m having a hard time, ah, i don’t feel good right now, something big is happening, this is the beginning of you inviting that upper brain into the equation. That’s all you have to do, just notice it. And a good way to do that is to imagine yourself now, when you’re calm, kind of stepping back, like you’re a little, you know little. You on a shelf in the room watching what’s going on. Wow, i’m feeling big feelings. Oh my gosh, my heart is pounding, my stomach is churning, being able to get a sense of observing, being able to see that I there’s a thinker in me that can see that I’m having a hard time. And once again, this speaks to that concept that we talked about in an earlier episode, about your essential self, that you are separate from your thoughts, your feelings and your actions, and hopefully this is all starting to come together. I’ve been laying out these foundational pieces and now we’re going to keep referring back to them And you’re able to see, i am Lee, who has all these values, and you know, i know who I am, and Lee is having a really hard time right now. And that sounds kind of weird talking about myself in the third person, but it gives me that sense of stepping back, that separateness from my experience. And when I’m able to do that, i’m able to kind of hand that steering wheel over to my higher brain and my lower brain is starting to have to work with my higher brain. Not saying it’s easy, but it’s the beginning step. 

The next thing that I want you to be able to do to slow things down is to kind of hack your physiological body’s processes. You know, the only thing that your willful conscious mind can control, that your brainstem controls, is your breathing. So think about it. Just by thinking can you change your temperature? I mean, i know this is pretty crazy awesome. But you know some meditation focused monks who only do this and do this all the time have been able to do an amazing thing and working with their brainstem. 

But for the vast majority of us, we can’t change our temperature at will, we can’t stop and start our digestion, we can’t make our heartbeat faster or slower, but we can work with our breathing. It’s the one main connection that, by willful choice, we can use how we breathe, how we focus on our breathing, how we control our breathing. That will actually help us go in and manually turn down our stress response. And this is why breathwork is such a big thing and why we use breathwork in yoga, why we use breathwork in mindfulness. It’s because it’s a process that bridges the gap. It actually is kind of like the foundation, because when you can take a deep breath consciously, no matter how much your body is stressing out, you are now using the language of the lower brain. And when you are able to take a slow, deep breath in, be aware of it and then exhale and even have a bit of control on the length of your exhale. 

Several things are happening. Number one your higher brain is now in action. It may not be able to figure out all the thoughts and the feelings and what you’re going to do yet, but it can just focus on your breath. Number two when you reach in and start to control your breathing, your body has no choice except to take that as feedback. Remember how we talked about a panic attack is taking the sensations in your body and bringing that data up to your mind. And then your mind is like, oh my gosh, holy crap, this is awful, i got something terrible is happening. And then it sends more chemicals down. 

Well, this same feedback system works to your benefit in calming you down and helping you feel safe, because if your breathing slower than you were before, especially on the exhale, your body takes or gives that data back up to your mind and your mind works with that limbic system and the brainstem and says well, it must not be that bad, the breathing is slowing and we can calm someone down. As a matter of fact, that’s what we do when I have someone that is really in distress and they’re just absolutely flooded. If I can somehow help them focus on their breathing, i’m going to be able to help them eventually bring along all the other sensations that are really painful for them. So slowing things down will involve observing and just kind of tagging it going yep, i’m in a threat mode and then breathing, so that you can start to work with that feedback system and calm and soothe your body. Now there’s many things that we do after this, but it’s really not worth talking about all the things that you want to do after this, because if your body is flooded, you can’t hear them. Anyway, they don’t work. When I’m working with a couple in marriage counseling and someone in that couple one or both of them are flooded, they can’t hear what their partner is saying. They can’t even hear what I’m saying, and so my goal has always been to be as compassionately connected with them as possible and say you know, let’s just take a second And this is why taking a time out isn’t such a bad idea, i mean and your time out can be your breath, literally. 

It can also be stepping aside, it could be getting a drink of water. This is another way to slow things down. So I would say, breathing first, well first, observing second, breathing Third would be to change your position. If you’re sitting, stand up. If you’re sitting, sit down. If you can lay on the floor and stretch out, and to be able to check in, calm myself down so that I can do those next steps. 

That’s power, that is literal power, and I’m so grateful I have that tool and I used it. I used it just this weekend and I want you to be able to use it too. I want you to have it at your fingertips and you need to practice it. Use it harder than others, but the more you practice it, the better you’ll get. You’re giving yourself space to bring that higher brain online, and then we can do all the other things that we’re going to talk about The A, f and E and SAFE they come next. So, never fear, this isn’t enough. I get it, but it needs to be the first step And it’s simple Not easy, but it’s simple, something I want you to practice. 

So I hope that this has been helpful for you to start to get a context to put this you know weathering emotional storms into that we’ve normalized it and that it’s going to be expected and that we’re going to be crossing the bridge from lower brain to higher brain so that we have a little bit more control and choice and how we respond to these big feelings, and to trust that there are things you can do to help calm and soothe your body so that you can start making the decisions and choices that you want to make and show up how you want to in your life. And when it comes to our kids, the first way we’re teaching them all of these things is through our example, and I don’t say that to set anybody’s guilt alarm on, because I know that that’s something that most of us worry about as moms and dads is that are we showing them a good example? And I’m going to tell you, yes, you are. Most of the time, you’re probably managing this really well, and the times where you don’t manage it well means that you’re human. 

So if you make mistakes and you lose your cool and you you know you don’t calm yourself down and that emotional storm causes you to erupt I want you to remember that you can always repair. You can always go back and say you know, i was kind of in an emotional storm. I really think we should use that language with our kids because it helps us, you know, show them how they can recognize when it’s happening in them, and we can use that language with them as well. Just say, wow, i could see that you’re really having big feelings right now and you’re really having. It’s very it feels like an emotional storm, and I see that and I’m so sorry that’s happening to you right now And how can I help you? And and then when you’re able to explain to them that, ah, i can see that I was in that storm and I’m going to try to do that better next time. It’s just like we’re all working on it together. 

So first way to teach kids is by example and then literally use the language with them so that they can start to understand that there’s nothing wrong with them either and that their body’s just working the way it’s supposed to, and that we want to be able to invite our higher brain in to be ultimately deciding how we’re going to move forward. Well, thanks, for this is a long explanation. Thanks for spending time with me. I’m excited to talk with you next week about the A in SAFE. We’ll go in a little bit more detail how feelings are created and how they show up in our bodies, and I’m going to give you one really great step to start to work with them and also be able to help your kids work with their feelings. So I look forward to talking with you next week and I hope you have a great day today. Take care. 

The Leadership Parenting Podcast is for general information purposes only. It is not therapy and should not take the place of meeting with a qualified mental health professional. The information on this podcast is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition, illness or disease. It’s also not intended to be legal, medical or therapeutic advice. Please consult your doctor or mental health professional for your individual circumstances. Thanks again and take care.


This podcast is not intended to provide mental health treatment.  Leigh Germann is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and not a doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist.  She does not provide diagnosis nor offer therapy through the LeighGermann.com website or in the information offered on the website. It is important that you do not disregard professional medical or mental health advice or delay seeking professional medical or mental health treatment because of any information on the LeighGermann.com website including but not limited to blogs, newsletter, videos, podcasts, e-books, programs, webinars, courses and other services. Leigh Germann and offerings on LeighGermann.com are not providing legal or financial advice, business advice, psychotherapy, supervision, religious advice, or medical advice. The information contained on this Website has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.

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