Tips for Self-Soothing in Testy Times


How to help yourself to not make things worse.

I know stress levels are high right now for everyone.

As we are upon this year‘s anniversary of having our lives be turned upside down in ways we hadn’t known before, and having to manage new levels of complexity while we try to move through a partially vaccinated world, many are wishing to get back to the way things were before, when we didn’t have restrictions about how close we could get to someone, or what to wear on our faces, or how many people we could gather with, or whether we could hug loved ones or not. Many long for being able to do our regular and most desired activities (eating out, traveling, protesting, going to the beach or gym or favorite yoga studio, having holidays with family members from different households, going to school, hanging out with friends…).

Many folks are wishing to get to the new normal (whatever that is, and that probably includes many of the above mentioned restrictions) already and just be done with it so there isn’t so much uncertainty all the time about how to proceed.

Lots of folks are feeling an increase of stress right now, even with that small light we can barely see at the end of the tunnel (that seems to flicker on and off all the time, so that we often lose our sense of direction). The struggle to get vaccines; or not trusting the vaccines and not wanting them; or too much 24/7 time spent with partner (or kids) and lots of frayed nerves; or questions, doubts, fears about how to manage the mixing or intermixing of the haves (vaccinated) and the have-nots (not vaccinated); or the dilemma of sending kids back to school or choosing to keep them safe at home but going crazy in the process; or all the unknown and accompanying fear of returning to the workplace, are all situations that can add to the anxiety of the times.

Some folks are terrified of being social again, after they’ve adjusted to and maybe even preferred the social distancing and quiet, especially if they are more introverted, while others are wondering will this isolation and loneliness ever end? Some folks feel uneasy at the prospect of being with real human beings again and wonder if they’ll know how to be social face to face with with real people.

And then of course there are all the deaths, losses, medical and health issues, accidents, break ups, mental health struggles, cancers, illnesses, etc. that already were there and still go on anyway, that are added to the mix of everything that we’re dealing with now.

I’ve heard this lament about the added anxiety and stress that is upon us now (again? Still?) from many folks, and many who think there is something wrong with them for feeling this way. (There’s not! It’s a perfectly normal human response to ongoing stress, trauma and the prospect of change, whether it’s good or bad.)

I was standing in a socially distanced line for a Covid test and witnessed so many acts of humanity – restlessness, irritation, complaints about the disorganized or unclearly communicated process (from quick-to-ire folks whom I could tell were already feeling so overloaded); to a mom and her son’s aide giving firm, loving bear hugs and physically restraining in a strong but gentle way the big teenage son with developmental difficulties who was wailing, grunting, and writhing about, in anticipation of what was going to happen to him (I flashed on how hard this quarantine has been on this family and knew surely they have been overloaded too); or the woman who was checking people in and who took a big deep breath when another woman was raising her voice and yelling at her about the unclear information, and with her deep breath she seemed to gather herself up and respond calmly, gently, and respectfully, and then helped the frustrated woman to get to the front of the line she should have been in. I recognized clearly how much strain both of those women have been under, and I marveled at the woman who was able to hold her composure and pause long enough (it was a millisecond tops), so that she didn’t react with matched frustration and anger.

What a skill that is/would be useful to us all. So I offer here a few ideas about how to self soothe in a heated moment. We all need reminders that can help us to get through these testy times.

One of the best ways to avoid an argument, altercation, or explosion (and all the residue that comes with that) with another human being (partner, coworker, kid, fellow linemate, family member, etc.) is to make sure you can contain your own reaction first, so you don’t contribute to the escalation of something.

Here are some quick things to try – mostly in the moment (but of course, the more you practice these outside of those heated moments, the better equipped you’ll be when these little or big moments arise, and they most surely will. Best to gather your own toolbox of what works for you ahead of time.)

Tips for self soothing:

  • Find your core – not your defensive core but your connected core.
  • Go to your body right away – find your toes, shoulders, jaw, etc.
  • Imagine all your anxiety going down a long tube to the center of the earth, where there is a giant recycling plant.
  • Do a square breath – that is, to the count of 4 breathe in; to the count of 4 hold your breath; to the count of 4 breathe out; to the count of 4 hold your breath. Repeat.
  • Walk outside. If you are outside, intentionally notice the trees or a building nearby.
  • Do a 54321 breath where on a long slow in breath and a nice longer slower out breath you name five things you can see. On the next breath name four things you can hear; on the next breath three things you can touch, and the next breath two things you can smell, and the next breath one thing you might taste.
  • Breathe to the count of three in, and exhale to the count of six out. (If you can double the count of the exhale that’s good. If you can triple it, that’s even better.)
  • When you’re being triggered in your couple relationship, take a Time In – which is to purposefully separately both go do something that is calming or self regulating (not calling a friend and complaining or getting on social media). Try to get your balance back.
  • Meditate
  • Offer good will to the ‘offender’.
  • Imagine your thoughts on clouds or a magic carpet blowing by.
  • Ground yourself – feel the gravity beneath your feet or the surface you’re sitting on. Imagine your legs are growing roots deep into the ground.
  • Put your hand on your heart, and breathe. Then put your hand on your belly and breathe, then put one hand on your heart and one on your belly and breathe. See which one of those quiets you best.
  • Try the ‘Shut the F’ breath – breathe in for the count of six and breathe out with a long and audible Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! (Attempting to quiet both external and internal ‘noise’)
  • Be curious rather than furious.
  • Wonder (turn your reactions into gentle questions)
  • Stay calm, hold steady even when your partner gets activated. Try a customer relations mindset.
  • It takes only one person to quiet or pause and change the whole system.
  • Run in place, do a yoga pose, do some squats, dance, jump rope – get your body moving so you can discharge some of the frustration.
  • Recognize and abandon any ineffective go to moves that you might have when you are triggered.
  • Pause before speaking or doing.
  • “If you can’t change, change the way you think about it“ – Maya Angelou
  • What’s your superpower in this relationship? Think about it and activate it.
  • Take big deep breaths that you can hear. Let them out with a sigh.
  • Just stop and think your own thoughts.
  • Check in with and connect to what’s going on in your body, your emotions, and your thoughts. Name your feelings to yourself.
  • Watch the image of your automatic reaction go by rather than act your automatic reaction out.
  • Laugh or giggle (at the absurdity of the human condition, or something funny you bring to mind)
  • Try to not personalize so you don’t get caught in the h
  • Have a moment of gratitude – look for something, Anything, that you might be grateful for and focus on that.
  • Have self appreciation for your efforts to not get caught up in the negativity of the moment.
  • Remember everybody is struggling in some way. You are not alone. Compassion for other and for self.
  • Repeat. REPEAT…

I hope some of these ideas are helpful to you in those heated moments when you’re feeling yourself getting triggered. You do have a choice about how you might respond, and to choose to respond rather than react.

If you or somebody you care about is having difficulty controlling your reaction to all the stress that you’re experiencing, please contact me for a therapy appointment. If you and your couple relationship are struggling with not letting things escalate so much during these stressful times, please contact me for a couples therapy appointment.

Take good care and be well.