“Never in the history of calming down has anyone calmed down by being told to calm down”
If we can’t force ourselves into calming down, how do we do it?
This Post is an excerpt from my Udemy Course Coping Skills and Self-Care for Mental Health where you can learn hundreds of skills to manage intense emotions and soothe stress and anxiety.
The autonomic nervous system controls our stress response (The Fight/Flight/Freeze Response), and also the relaxation response (Rest and Digest). But we can’t easily control this part of our nervous system with just our thoughts. Instead of trying to think ourselves calm, one effective approach to turn on “Calm” is to access your nervous system through your body.
Your mind and body are closely connected, and just like your brain can trigger your body to be anxious by thinking worrisome thoughts, your body can trigger your brain to be calm through sensory soothing.
When I’ve had a long stressful day doing therapy and parenting my three tiny children, I often feel a little tense and very exhausted. It seems like that stress builds and builds throughout the day. But, one of my favorite things to do after the children go to bed is to take a steaming hot bath. During a long soak, my muscles soften, my mind relaxes, and gosh I feel calmer just thinking about it right now. Something about the feel of the hot water triggers that calming reaction. This is my favorite form of sensory soothing.
Sensory soothing is an important part of calming the emotions from a “bottom-up” approach. By using sights, smells, your sense of touch or hearing, you can turn on the calming part of your nervous system and soothe your brain. Then once you’re calm you can choose words and actions that are going to be more helpful. This is called Sensory Soothing- and these can be effective coping skills for when you’re upset. They help you get centered, slow things down, and come back to a problem when you’re calm.
One of my students just shared this example: “I have a long commute but I travel with an old washtub, a nice bar of soap, a gallon of water and a washcloth. On the long ride, I take a break to wash my hands and face. The smell of the soap, the coolness of the water, and the old tub remind me of home. It is simple, it is calming and it is enough!”
Here are some examples of Sensory Coping Skills:
Slowly smell a favorite scent- cinnamon, vanilla, perfume- you can use an essential oil diffuser or put a drop into a diffuser necklace or piece of paper
Put on some scented lotion
Use an essential oil
Use a Bath Bomb to make a scented bath
Hold a warm rice pack or heating pad
Take a Hot Bath
Shower in the dark
Pet an animal
Wash your face with very cold water
Hold an ice cube and notice what cold feels like
Feeling a comfortable texture (like a child holding a blanket or an adult holding a rosary, rubbing something smooth like a stone or a piece of satin)
Drink a hot drink slowly
Eat a small treat slowly, savoring the taste
Go someplace very quiet and sit very still
Go for a walk by yourself with headphones on, listening to music you love.
Proprioceptive (Body Movement)
Go for a walk
Exercise or Play a sport
Stretch your muscles
Do one yoga pose
Swing on a swingset
Rock in a rocking chair
Step outside for a breath of fresh air