Coping with Distress In-the-Moment

One of the questions I am asked most frequently is how to calm down quickly when distressed.

Emotions are, in part, chemical reactions that are happening in our bodies. When we are emotionally distressed, our nervous system also gets activated. Our heart rates might rise, we might notice that we get cold or get flushed with heat, or it might feel like we want to flee or move our bodies. That is part of why emotions are often described as a wave. If we can ride it out, once the chemicals have re-balanced, we will feel better or different. We can potentially help our bodies metabolize those chemicals faster, and soothe our nervous systems. These are some of my favorite techniques to help do that:

Coping Skills for In-the-Moment Distress

Remember:  One thing alone might not do the trick!  Combine several or add on others until your body returns to a calmer/less distressed state.

  • Splash cold water on your face.

  • Chew on an ice cube or let it melt in your mouth/drink ice water.

  • If you are cold, run warm water over your hands or take a warm
    shower/bath.  If you feel warm, put a cold cloth/ice pack on the back of your neck.

  • Eat something peppermint or lemon flavored.  (Altoids or gum work great.)

  • Tense all of the muscles in your body.  Hold for up to 30 seconds and release.

  • Stand in a doorway and strongly press your arms into the frame and your feet into the ground (without hurting yourself).  Hold for 10-30 seconds.
  • Place a blanket (or other item) under your feet, plant your feet on the ground, and pull up on the edges of the blanket with force, so you’re pulling up as your legs resist.  Hold for 30 seconds and release. 

  • Place your hand over your heart (skin on skin/under your shirt, if possible).  Call up a single memory with a person or pet (not the whole relationship), where you felt warm, cozy, safe, melt-y, comfortable, and hold that memory in your mind and body for 20-30 seconds.

  • Breathe in for four seconds, hold it for six seconds, and breathe out for eight seconds.   Do this for one to two minutes. Or, take in a deep belly breath, and make a “whoosh” or “voo” sound when exhaling (try to mimic a fog horn!). Do this at least four times.

  • March in place or jump up and down for several minutes.
  • Rock yourself back and forth or side to side with a bouncing motion, while giving yourself a butterfly hug (arms crossed over chest with hands on upper arms).

  • Hold/snuggle a pet, or intensely hug a pillow, doll/stuffed animal, or tree.

  • Put on a song you like and dance around, or hum/sing a song you like.

  • Watch a video or look at images of things that you like/make you smile or laugh.

  • Half-smile for 15 minutes. (Let a comfortable smile spread across your face, despite what you are feeling.)

  • Rest your hands on your knees/thighs, with hands open and palms up, for three to five minutes.
  • Tap back and forth on the tops of your knees, or using a butterfly hug, tap on your arms. Or, tap your feet back and forth.
  • Notice the urge in your body.  If your legs want to run, jog/march in place.  If your arms want to push out or punch, slowly push on a pillow or wall.  If your fists want to clench, hold on to something tightly, etc.

  • Choose a phrase and repeat it like, “I am calm.”  “I will get through this.”  “I handle hard things.”  “I am at peace.”  Even if they don’t feel true, say them anyway.

While it is helpful to return to a calm state, emotions are cues that give us information and tell us to pay attention. It is important to understand, process, and deal with the underlying causes of the emotions, and how we are relating to our emotions and situations, so that we can find more long-term relief.

Want to learn more about geeky mental health topics? Check out the rest of my blog.

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