When we feel anxious, our ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ reaction is triggered. Here are a few simple, but effective self-soothing techniques to calm the body when you are feeling emotional distress.
1. Change the temperature
Target areas of the body that are more sensitive to changes in temperature. You can try applying cool water to your face with your hands, use a Ziploc bag filled with cool water, or place a wet towel over your eyes.
Over the course of 15-30 seconds, you’ll find your heart slows down and blood flow to non-essential organs will be slightly reduced. This can work well for anyone in a stressful situation, including police officers or EMTs who respond to highly stressful situations, and lawyers right before or after they come out of court. It’s important to note that very cold water will not have the same effect and might actually put you at risk, so near-freezing waters are not recommended.
If you don’t have time to lie down with a damp cloth or don’t want water on your face, you can simply run cool water over the back and in the palms of your hand. Be mindful of the situation and wait 15 to 30 seconds for the effects to take place.
A third option, if you don’t have access to running water, is to grab a cool bottle of water or soda. Put your hand on either side of the bottle or can. You may even get enough condensation to wipe the water across your hands. This can be especially helpful when entering a meeting, or as a refresher during a long meeting without others noticing you’re using a self-soothing strategy.
2. Utilize the senses to engage pleasant memories
Remembering a pleasant memory can trigger the emotions that go with it and shift your emotional state. This might be a trip you took in the past, the image of your pet, or a fun outing with friends.
If you’re having trouble bringing up a memory, try sensory recall. Turn on some light background music that brings to mind a specific happy moment, such as music from the 80s, or a song you heard in a yoga or meditation retreat. Smell is also a powerful tool; notice the smell of coffee, tea, incense, or even apple juice.
A powerful way to engage multiple senses at the same time is to go for a walk. This could be a walk in the park, or the beach or woods if those are accessible. Notice the scent of grass and the color of the sky and the sound of rustling leaves. If you’re in a city, notice the sound of the bustling city. Anything that heightens your awareness and mindfulness can have calming effects on the brain.
Note that “getting rid” of an emotional state such as anxiety is difficult, but what we can do is assess where you are on a scale of 0 (no anxiety) to 10 (I really need help), and take steps to bring that anxiety down one level at a time. If you’re at an 8 or 9, first recognize the fact that you’ve identified where you are on this scale, and try some of the techniques above. Think of a happy memory, put on some music, or try splashing water on your face. After you’ve tried that, reassess where you are -- were you able to go down one notch from a 9 to an 8?
Try practicing these techniques today, before you feel anxious. That way, as soon as you enter the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ moment, you can automatically tap into these steps and start bringing down your anxiety level.
Todd Schmenk is a mental health counselor specializing in the treatment of anxiety-related issues. His focus areas include general anxiety, panic attacks, chronic health conditions, couples counseling, and performance anxiety.