Stressed, anxious, angry, overloaded, numb, creatively blocked. Whatever you call it, we all need a toolbox of techniques to help calm and center ourselves at various times during the day. Think of it as emotional first-aid. Here are 10 techniques to try out and throw into your psychological toolbox.
1. Deep breathing. This is the granddaddy of calming and centering techniques. Portable, no equipment required, quick. What’s not to like? There are various formulas — 4/7/8 is one. But what they all have in common are counted breaths: inhale for count of 4; hold your breath for a count of 7; exhale as completely as possible for a count of 8.
The deep breathing itself calms you and lowers your blood pressure; the counting helps you get out of your head and gives you something to focus on. Again, portable — do it when you’re impatient while standing in line at the DMV, when you feel anger rising up when you’re in a staff meeting or reading that text from your ex-boyfriend.
2. Get mindful. This can be as simple or elaborate as you want. The key is paying super attention to your environment, to what you are doing. The simple version is to intensely focus on what is around you — the sound of people walking in the hall, the color of the leaves on the plant next to you, the smells in the room.
More active is reading the license plates aloud of the cars in front of you as you drive, seeing if you can find all the different colors of the rainbow in the room you are in. Still more active is deliberately doing something that requires attention but is still easy — washing dishes, pulling weeds, cutting up an onion. Focus on those dishes, the weeds, the onion, and better yet, do them at half-speed. These more active mindfulness techniques are particularly effective when you are feeling creatively blocked.
3. Active meditation. This is borrowed from David Hanscom, the author of Back in Control. Here you deliberately focus on relaxing some part of your body — lowering your shoulders works great. Then take a couple of deep breaths and let that relaxation take hold for a minute.
Next find something to focus on — those footsteps in the hall, the leaves of the plant, the sounds of birds outside. In total, it takes no more than a couple of minutes, but it can relieve any pain that you might be feeling along with any emotional stress.
4. Brief meditation. If you already know how to do meditation, here you simply do a short version of what you usually do — say, 5-10 minutes. If you rely on apps and guided meditation, you can certainly find one that is short. If you don’t know meditation or don’t want to rely on an app, you can do Benson’s Relaxation Response:
Take one or two deep breaths. Then, breathing normally, start saying “one” to yourself each time you exhale. As soon as you catch yourself thinking about something — the argument with your partner, what you need to get at the store — simply go back to saying one. Don’t worry if your head bounces around, simply just return to one. You can do this standing or sitting.
What this does, and what meditation does overall, is change your brain waves from the active alpha/beta waves to the more calming theta/delta waves. Do this before a job interview, an exam, or when you’re beginning to get embroiled in an argument.
5. Brief aerobic exercise. Take a brisk walk, do jumping jacks, jump rope (or pretend to jump rope) for 5-10 minutes. It kicks up endorphins.
6. Get into nature. Take a brisk walk outside or simply go outside and appreciate nature — plants, birds, sounds, smells. Again, be mindful. The change of scenery makes the difference.
7. Listen to music, a podcast; watch a video; play a video game. This is about getting out of your head and emotions by refocusing. Pull up a song from your phone, listen to a podcast, tune into YouTube, play Candy Crush. Focus on something new, but keep it short so you don't get lost. Again, 5-10 minutes is enough.
8. Practice self-care. Putting on your favorite song may be self-care for you. But it also may be painting your nails, taking a bath, cuddling with your childhood stuffed animal, or waxing your car. Do something that relaxes you and makes you feel that you are taking care of yourself.
9. Do emotional writing. Write down, in longhand on a piece of paper whatever you are thinking, stream-of-consciousness style: "I don’t know where to begin…I’m so angry because…I am so overwhelmed because..." Don’t worry about wording or punctuation. Just get out it. Again, do this for 5-10 minutes.
And when you’re done, tear the paper up and throw it away.
10. Take a brief nap. Napping helps you reboot. Keep it to 15-20 minutes so you don’t wake up groggy. Sitting in a chair is probably better than lying down so you don’t sleep for too long.
As with all first-aid tools, the more tools you have in your toolbox the better. That way you have flexibility, you can choose ones that fit your time and place. The purpose of all of these is to calm you down, get you out of your head. And they are all are ones that you can do on your own — you don’t need to depend on someone else — like needing to calling up a friend who may be out to rant to in order to feel better. You're self-sufficient. And they're legal.
Try and see which ones work best work for you and add them to your first-aid toolbox.