June 29, 2022
7 self-soothing techniques to build emotional resilience
BY Cynthia DeMarco
Has claustrophobia ever kept you from getting an MRI? Or a fear of needles made routine bloodwork or IV chemotherapy difficult? If so, then you might benefit from a new self-soothing technique.
While far from an exhaustive list, the seven below are simple ways to help you calm down or move past an emotional block in the moment.
Take some time to experiment with these tools, whether your hard places are connected to diagnostic tests, cancer treatment or something else entirely. They may help you build emotional resilience, so that you, too, can bounce back from challenging situations.
Chop wood, carry water
Changing the way you do even the simplest task can pull your attention away from emotional distress and focus it sharply on what’s happening here and now in the physical world. The Zen Buddhist phrase “chop wood, carry water” reflects this principle.
Almost any activity can be made meditative. That’s why adult coloring books have become so popular. Even doing something more slowly than usual can have the same effect. Try brushing your teeth or hair one day using your non-dominant hand, for instance, or taking a different route to work.
It’s not necessarily the activity that matters; it’s the mindset. Some people do woodwork. Others rake leaves, ride a stationary bike or knit.
“It’s the meditative effects they’re after,” explains Clinical Nurse Michael Eckenfels, one of the therapists in MD Anderson’s Psychiatric Oncology Center, “not necessarily all those scarves. Any activity involving repetitive motion will do.”
Change your ‘mind’s voice’
Whose voice do you normally hear inside your head? Most people have an “inner voice” or “inner monologue” that’s running almost constantly. It’s the one that makes observations like:
- “Hmm. Where did I put my keys?”
- “Uh-oh. Looks like it’s laundry day.”
- “What?! I don’t even know what that emoji means.”
Reading famous quotes, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream …” or President John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you …,” can often make your inner voice sound like the person who originally said them.
But you can change this inner voice deliberately, too, by making it speak more softly, slowly or gently. You can also change its tone, inflection or diction to make it more comforting, or even replace a negative message with something more validating or encouraging. This is particularly useful if your inner voice is often critical.
“You can even borrow someone else’s voice, if that works better for you,” says Eckenfels.
Take a six-second pause
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once observed that, “Between stimulus and response is a space. And in that space is our power to choose our response.”
The most primitive part of our brains, the amygdala, has but one job: to decide if something is “dangerous” or “not dangerous.” If the amygdala malfunctions, it can hijack the whole system. That’s why we react in knee-jerk ways sometimes — ways that we normally wouldn’t respond — during high-energy situations.
“To combat this,” says Eckenfels, “deliberately pause for six seconds the next time you find yourself getting really agitated about something. This will give you time to respond instead of react, and actually decide what you’re going to do, instead of letting impulse determine it.”
Whether it’s an umpire’s bad call at a baseball game or a clueless driver who cut you off in traffic, it can be useful to ask yourself: “Is it really worth getting so worked up about this?”
Release some oxytocin
Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter of connection. It’s the hormone released by the hypothalamus when someone smiles at us and we feel uplifted. It’s also released during cuddling and sexual intimacy.
“Not everyone’s a hugger,” notes Eckenfels. But you can still enjoy the benefits of oxytocin by:
- Petting a dog or cat
- Hugging a pillow
- Smiling at or doing something nice for someone
- Getting or giving a massage
- Thinking of someone with whom you feel safe
Name it to tame it
Sometimes, just taking a moment to notice and label exactly how you’re feeling can help calm you down when you’re upset. It’s been shown to decrease activity in the part of the brain responsible for reacting emotionally and channel it to the part of the brain responsible for more analytical thinking.
“If you don’t know the right words, search for ‘emotions chart’ or ‘feelings chart’ on the internet, and use the language you find there to help identify your emotions,” suggests Eckenfels.
Often, just realizing that you feel jealous rather than angry can be useful — and help you unravel why you feel that way.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that releases tension through tightening and releasing different muscle groups in sequence. Usually, people start at the top of the head and work their way slowly down the body, but there are many different variations. Experiment until you find one that works well for you, or try a relaxation app that has new versions daily, if you don’t like repetition.
“Progressive muscle relaxation is something that’s been really well-researched and used for a long time, so we know it works,” says Eckenfels. “The really great thing about it is that once you learn how, it can be done almost anywhere — even on a bus or in a waiting room.”
Connect with nature
Being in the natural world has a documented soothing effect on many people. It makes them feel less stressed and better able to cope with life’s challenges.
But don’t despair if you can’t get out into the wilderness every day. You can reap almost the same benefits by sitting outside in a park or garden, looking out a window or watching fish swim in an aquarium.
You can also change the background on your phone or the screensaver on your computer to a soothing outdoor scene and use that to shift your focus.
“Right now, my desktop’s screensaver is a picture I took of the Appalachian Trail in Maine,” says Eckenfels. “Whenever I’m stressed, I look at it and remember how it felt to hike a path that wound seemingly endlessly through the woods. And I feel myself relax.”
The main thing to remember, he says, is that “the best time to develop resilience techniques is before you need them.”
So, experiment to see which ones work best for you, then practice them regularly.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
The best time to develop resilience techniques is before you need them.