A frustrated mother from Centennial, Colo., recently complained about her young son crying in the car on the way home from school each day. Worried, the mother spoke with teachers, volunteered in the classroom and regularly watched her son happily learning and playing on the school’s online cameras. After several weeks of investigation and study, the mother determined her son was experiencing an emotional release after the strain of the school day.
Although it was a relief to this mother to know the crying after school was not caused by something more serious, the back seat breakdowns gave her a lot of stress. To help maintain her own sanity, she set out on a mission to help her son learn new ways to find release from his negative emotions.
“Self-care means choosing behaviors that balance the effects of emotional and physical stressors,” writes licensed psychologist and author Christine Meinecke, Ph.D., at psychologytoday.com. "Also essential to self-care is learning to self-soothe or calm our physical and emotional distress.”
A commonplace mistake many make is depending on a parent, friend or partner to soothe pain. Of course, many loved ones are happy to help comfort those in times of need. The mistake is in believing others are obligated to be a constant font of emotional support, notes Meinecke.
“Self-soothing is a basic skill important for emotional and physical well-being,” writes Karyn Hall, Ph.D., for validatingparenting.com.
Here are five different strategies to consider when learning to self-soothe:
1. Physical activity
When people get angry or stressed they often feel an abundance of energy and high cortisol levels develop in the brain. Neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley have found that chronically elevated levels of stress hormones in the brain, which are intended only for short-term duty in emergency situations, can lead to physical damage of brain cells. Regular physical activity is one of the more effective ways to reduce stress and lower cortisol levels.
“Physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals that can leave you feeling happier and more relaxed than you were before you worked out,” states a report by the Mayo Clinic on managing anger.
Woody Livingston, of Glendale, Ariz., has found this advice to be personally effective: “When you grow a garden you can work out stress or frustration when needed," Livingston said.
For adults, exercise can be as simple as playing a favorite sport, jogging, cleaning, walking a dog, jumping on a trampoline, biking or playing on a playground would be more effective activities for younger children.
2. Relaxation tools
Relaxation tools are those designed to help decrease the heart rate and slowly release negative emotions. They are intended to help individuals develop a sense of calmness and well-being. For example, soothing music is a therapy tool commonly used in hospitals to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs of individuals.
“Music therapy has a wide range of applications,” reports Dr. Walter Quan, Jr., Oncologist-Hematologist of St. Luke’s Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. “We see some patients whose blood pressure does come down and seems to stay down through regular use of music therapy.”
“Music has the power to help you fight stress and even manage pain, and healing music works whether you prefer heavy metal, country, opera, or something else entirely,” writes Madeline Vann, MPH, for the website EverydayHealth.com.
Meditation and massage are also relaxation techniques used frequently by health care professionals, but they can be just as effective at home. Other DIY relaxation tools suited for helping with difficult emotions include aromatherapy, breathing techniques and involvement in quiet interests.
“I find that activities like drawing, small decorative household projects or even simply hanging pictures, have always been relaxing,” states designer James Spiers of Gilbert, Ariz.
Surrounding oneself with nurturing people is a tool well-suited for depression, loneliness or sadness. Connecting with others, especially those who have previously helped someone through good times and bad, can be just what a person needs when he or she is feeling down.
“Whenever I have had a rough day I try to get my husband to take me out on a date, or I will see if some friends want to have a girls’ night out. It never fails to make me feel better,” shares Amber Adams, mother of four from Mesa, Ariz.
For some, getting motivated to interact with others may be a challenge, but there are still ways to find social support. In his book "The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome," Dr. Tony Attwood, a practicing clinical psychologist, suggests a variety of ideas for those who struggle with socializing, including interacting with a pet, use of social media and giving service.
4. Mental reframing
Many people have an ongoing negative internal dialogue. They frequently think thoughts such as, “I can’t do it,” or, “I’m a loser.” This negativity stems from both conscious thoughts and unconscious assumptions or beliefs. Negative “self-talk” is a bad habit and can contribute to ongoing feelings of anxiety or depression.
Temple Grandin, American doctor of animal science, struggled with chronic negative self-talk until an aunt challenged the pattern by providing examples of positive things Grandin had in her life.
In her book "Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspective of Autism," Grandin noted, “It perked me up when I compared the pictures in my head ... and concretely helped me understand that some of my thoughts were illogical and not based on fact."
Disputing one's self-talk means challenging the negative or unhelpful thoughts. This strategy of reframing can help change a person's perspective on a given situation to give it a more positive or beneficial meaning. Replace negative thoughts with positive ones by using milder word choices (e.g., “dislike” instead of “hate”), challenging assumptions, and striving to learn from personal experiences.
5. Distraction tools
Some people, when stressed or feeling an intense emotion, simply need to get their mind off of their troubles. Like the feisty Scarlett O’Hara from "Gone with the Wind," they decide to think about it "tomorrow."
Reading or listening to a good book, involvement in a hobby (such as genealogy), writing, planning a vacation, watching a movie and volunteering are some of the distraction tools commonly used.
Parents may need to help direct children toward activities that will effectively engage young minds in a healthy way. Distraction tools such as television, computers and video games should be timed and thoroughly supervised. They have been shown to negatively impact a variety of brain functions, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics announced at the group’s annual convention in Boston in 2011.
Life is full of challenges and difficulties. At times, the intensity of anger, sadness, anxiety or discouragement may negatively impact physical and psychological health. Learning to self-soothe through healthy behavioral choices can help many improve their general well-being.
Rebecca Irvine teaches communications at Mesa Community College. She is the author of several books, including MTC at Home (Covenant 2014) and Follow the Prophets (Covenant 2013).