Why sitting down can accelerate an emotional meltdown…


why sitting down


Think of the last time you were on the verge of losing your sh*t (okay…maybe you actually lost it, but I won’t tell).

Chances are, you are not proud of that moment. Whether at work or at home, completely losing control is rarely constructive.

I’d love to help you understand what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. I recently heard Dr. Stephen Porges teach at the Psychotherapy 2.0 Summit and here’s what you should know:

#1. As a human being, you are programmed to stay safe.

This is a good thing most of the time. Wanting to stay safe keeps you alive.

Unfortunately, this can be a very subjective thing.

For example, most people feel like they are going to die if they step onstage in front of a large crowd. I have never heard of anyone dying onstage from public speaking, but this makes no difference for your body. It is trying to keep you safe so it has mechanisms that kick in to tell you, “DON’T DO THAT!”

We are hard wired to constantly assess the risk around us. This means there is always the possibility of danger triggers—signals that will unconsciously kick in a physiological reaction.

The good news is that we can override this process.

#2. A mini lesson in neuroscience.

Back in 1994, Dr. Stephen Porges proposed the polyvagal theory, which revolutionized our understanding of the various systems in our bodies that respond to perceived threat.

Here’s the basic idea:

  • When you feel threatened, you first rely on your communication skills to resolve the problem.
  • If this doesn’t work, you turn to mobilization (flight or fight).
  • After this, your body resorts to immobilization (shuts down) to preserve itself.

Think of a 5 year old in the school yard, dealing with a mean older kid. First, they will try to talk to that kid (“Hey…stop that!”). Then they will try to run away (or fight, depending on their personality). If all else fails, they will shut down—a sobbing child in the middle of the playground who is unable to move or talk even when an adult tries to intervene.

For examples of polyvagal theory in the workplace, check out this Fast Company article.

Let’s connect this back to why we should sometimes avoid sitting down.

#3. Moving your body overrides your instinct to shut down.

My husband and I have accidentally avoided many arguments by always going for a walk when we have a big discussion. I say accidentally because I was never consciously thinking, “Let’s move our limbs so that if either of us gets upset we can avoid having a meltdown.”

But, according to Dr. Porges, if we deliberately keep our bodies in “mobilization” mode by moving our limbs, we won’t slip into “immobilization.”

Do you or your significant other resort to shutting down if you feel backed into a corner? Until a few years ago, I was the queen of immobilization. However, I never shut down during one of our walks. This was because my legs were moving and therefore overriding my physiological inclination to immobilize.

Of course we don’t want to perpetually keep ourselves in fight or flight mode. Our bodies were not designed to handle extended periods of time exposed to the stress of perceived danger.

As Dr. Porges stated during his Psychotherapy 2.0 webinar, “The goal is to not allow the defense physiology to drive the bus.”

This means that if we are reacting to a threat, we need to give ourselves the chance to calm down.

Yet another reason to be active!

We know physical activity is good for us, but realizing that it helps us prevent an emotional crisis is really compelling argument.

The most important thing to remember is, when entering a situation that you know is going to be stressful, sitting still is not going to be helpful. Try to find a way to move during the situation (i.e.: on a phone call, put on your headset and walk while talking), or immediately afterwards.

The intention here is not to ignore our feelings, but to validate our them and then focus on movement to help ourselves regulate back to a safer zone.

Comment or tweet me @2ndhandtherapy to share your stories about trying to keep calm.


Pssst…want more tips for taking better care of yourself? Grab your free Secondhand Therapy eBook, Start Investing in Your Emotional Wellbeing: 25 Practical Tips for Moving Past Survival Mode. Just enter your info below…