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Emotion Tornadoes: Staying Safe in Unstable Environments

Would you know how to deal with an emotion tornado?

Key points

  • Emotion tornadoes are difficult to spot.
  • Jumping into an emotion tornado is risky and not helpful.
  • It's always better to let the tornado run its course.

I love binge-watching any number of shows on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, but sometimes I really love watching shows on The Weather Channel. I am mildly fascinated with natural disasters, and I love learning about all the ways in which I can prepare should I find myself in the “cone” of a hurricane or living in an earthquake zone.

The Northeast is currently my home, and we don’t experience earthquakes, hurricanes, or brush fires on a regular basis, just tons of snow and the occasional nor'easter. I am particularly grateful that we don’t have tornadoes because these tunnels of terror are powerful, fierce, and sneaky. They seem to come out of nowhere and if you don’t heed the warnings, they can suck you in and spit you out, leaving you behind as part of the destruction.

When weather conditions are favorable for tornadoes, the National Weather Service issues a tornado watch, encouraging everyone to be aware of changing weather conditions. When a warning is issued, a tornado has been sighted and it’s time to take action.

The shows do a great job of providing helpful tips on how to prepare for a tornado, but never have they recommended getting closer or jumping into one in order to change its course or slow it down. A tornado is unstoppable, its direction unchangeable, a true force of nature. If you are lucky enough to get away in time, you might be able to safely observe one from a distance.

As fascinated as I am with tornadoes, I’m in no hurry to put myself anywhere near the region of the United States known as “Tornado Alley.” I’ve had one too many personal experiences with tornadoes, moments during which I ignored the warnings and made the terrible mistake of getting too close, of jumping in hoping to change the course or to slow it down—choices that never ended well for me.

My experiences were not with real tornadoes, though. I’m referring to a different kind of tunnel of terror, one that has weaved a path of destruction in my workplace, in my family, among my friends, and in my relationship. The emotion tornado.

Just like real tornadoes, emotion tornadoes seem to come out of nowhere and may sneak up on you if you’re not on watch or heeding a warning. It might be someone experiencing intense emotions that render them unable to consider the people in their environment. The emotions might be anger, frustration, fear, hurt, or worry, their intensity so powerful that those who are too close to the storm or attempting to “slow it down” may get sucked into it and suffer negative consequences.

An emotion tornado is not always obvious to the naked eye, because it might be swirling inside a person rather than externally, but certain cues can help you identify if the situation calls for you to stay on watch, or to heed the warning and take action.

A subtle cue that may put you on watch is a passive/aggressive or hurtful comment made to you by a family member, an indicator that perhaps they’re in a foul mood and fishing for conflict. A sudden, negative shift in someone’s mood might be another cue that a storm is brewing, especially if you’ve seen this kind of mood evolve into a Category 5 tornado in the past.

Some cues are very clear warning signs, like when a complete stranger snaps at you for no apparent reason, or when an angry driver honks their horn at you for taking too long to move through a green light. A highly dangerous emotion tornado is the one you may have seen weave a path of destruction many times before: a dark, swirling tunnel of alcohol fumes, anger, and rage.

We all have the potential to become a tunnel of intense emotion at some point in our lives because life is full of metaphorical thunderstorms that spawn these tornadoes, and they are unique to each person.

A thunderstorm may be a childhood filled with neglect and abuse, or a history of complex trauma, and this kind of storm might produce tornadoes on a regular basis. It may be chronic financial stress, conflicts in the workplace, or perhaps the loss of a loved one. A thunderstorm may also be persistent, dark thoughts that are self-defeating and judgmental, or a troubled relationship.

Source: Ipopba/iStock

Emotion tornadoes may not be easy to spot, but here are some ways you can stay safe:

1. Know this first: Nothing you did or said has anything to do with whatever thunderstorm spawned the tornado in the first place. It likely formed long before you came into the picture.

2. When someone makes a passive/aggressive or hurtful comment, recognize that reacting in anger is akin to jumping right into the tornado. Choose safety, whatever that looks like for you. It might mean you don’t engage or react, or that you quite literally walk away.

3. Judging a tornado or trying to figure out where it came from will not in any way change its direction or slow it down, and it may impair your ability to remain objective and find safety. Observe it from a safe distance and wait for it to run its course.

4. Most importantly, know yourself well enough to determine when you’ve become an emotion tornado, and let others know you need space for this storm to run its course.

Whether you or someone else is an emotion tornado, observe them with love and kindness, rather than judgment and criticism, because we never know what thunderstorms are in the distance.

More from Yvonne Castañeda, MSW, LICSW
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