When Hurricane Sandy dropped a 120-foot tree on my friend Hannah’s house—the dream home she had owned for just a few months—she felt upset, to say the least. She tried all the usual ways to compose herself, such as deep breathing and guided imagery, and they did help…sort of. But what she really needed, she told me, were some proactive super-soothing techniques for dealing with super-sized stress.
You don’t have to be a victim of a natural disaster to empathize with Hannah’s distress, since we all face emotional obstacles in life. But recent times have been especially rough due to a very competitive economy and the need to keep up with almost daily upgrades in technology. Managing stress well, rather than stress chipping away at us, is definitely advantageous.
In fact, self-soothing is a vital life skill. Self-soothing doesn’t mean overindulging yourself—for instance, with over-the-top shopping binges or excessive food or alcohol. Rather, it means knowing how to take extra-special care of yourself during particularly challenging times.
When you are hit with an emotional hurricane, try any or all of the following calming techniques. With some experimentation, you’ll discover which ones work best for you…
Press the “stop” button on negative mental tapes.Do you catch yourself ruminating on the worst that could happen (“The insurance company won’t pay, my friends won’t help and I’ll wind up living on the street”)? Replace that “awfulizing” refrain in your head with a more realistic scenario (“My premiums are paid up and I can stay with my cousin while my home is being repaired”). Also, remind yourself of a past challenge that you faced successfully as you inwardly repeat the mantra, “I survived that, so I can survive this, too.” As a physical reminder, write your mantra on an index card and stick it in your pocket—then take it out and read it as whenever negative thoughts threaten to overwhelm you.
Trim your to-do list.The idea is to make the rest of your life as stress-free as possible while you concentrate on the big challenge at hand. Cancel or postpone obligations that add to your burden…request that family and friends make fewer demands on your time, at least temporarily…take a mental-health day off from work if you can. There will be certain things you can’t let go of, of course—but you can always find somewiggle room in your schedule.
Be as kind to yourself as you would to a loved one.It’s common to focus on our own flaws while ignoring our strong points, then berate ourselves inwardly for our weaknesses. To halt that stress-expanding habit, speak to yourself in the third person, showering yourself with the same care and compassion that you would show to a troubled friend.
Rather than chiding yourself to “stop being a big baby,” tell yourself, “Life is hard just now, so it’s OK to feel unsettled. Remember that you have many fine qualities—strength, persistence, intelligence—that will help you through.” Then close your eyes and visualize yourself moving through your struggle successfully, utilizing your inner resources, the resources that have helped you overcome other challenges.
Epictetus said it well in the first century A.D., “People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of things.” That’s something to remember when you are giving yourself an undue hard time about the hard time you are having.