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After something stressful occurs, it can feel like the fear gets trapped inside me and my mind gets stuck in a fearful place. Even though the stressful event is over, my brain and body aren’t calming down. When this happens, I use these tools to help myself shift to a better place, both physically and mentally.

This article is part of the Anxiety Tools Series. Click here for more tools that help with anxiety.

Also, please note that this article is not medical advice, nor is it a replacement for medical care. This is just me sharing some of my personal experiences and the tools that have worked specifically for me.

An orange tabby cat laying on top of a pair of blue and green plaid pajama bottoms. The cat is stretched out with a blissful look on their face as they sleep. It looks as if someone took off their pants so that they could get up without disturbing the blissful slumber of this kitty.

An orange tabby cat laying on top of a pair of blue and green plaid pajama bottoms. The cat is stretched out with a blissful look on their face as they sleep. It looks as if someone took off their pants so that they could get up without disturbing the blissful slumber of this kitty.

 

 

The Tools

For me, it usually takes doing at least three or four of these tools to shift myself from fear mode to a calm place. Sometimes I go through most of them before I’m feeling better. And sometimes, especially when there is something I’m still anxious about, I don’t feel all the way better, but these tools still help.

Many of these tools are things that people already know about, like journaling, spending time with pets, getting hugs, and exercising, but others are things that are less commonly known about, like “completing the cycle” and orienting. I’ve collected these tools all together because I think it is helpful to have them all in one place. Especially when I’m stressed, it can be useful to be reminded of what I can do to make things better, because I won’t necessarily remember all of my options in the moment.

These tools are grouped into categories that follow a sequence that I personally find helpful, but really this is about doing what feels best in the moment. This sequence starts with “Immediate Calming Tools,” and then moves on to tools that are helpful for “Processing Through the Stress and Fear.” Next I do “Soothing Tools.” Finally, I use tools that are helpful for “Shifting Mind Modes” to get my brain into a calmer and more stable space. However, each time is different, and if it feels right to do things in a totally different order, I will.

 

Immediate Calming Tools

These are things I do right after something stressful happens to help my body let go of some of the intensity of the stressful event.

Completing the Cycle: As I understand it, people’s bodies can get stuck in the “freeze” part of the fight, flight, or freeze response. In these situations, it can be extremely helpful do an action that signals to the body that the danger is over and we can leave the emergency mode. The idea here is that we are intentionally helping the body finish its stress cycle so that the stress hormones will be removed from the body. Personally, I find that vigorous movement, like shaking it all out or running in place, really helps me. However there are a lot of other options, like screaming, singing, walking, hugs, arts and crafts, and self-care activities. You can find out more information about this in “Healing Stress by Completing the Cycle” (note that there is some discussion of sexuality in this article).

Orienting: This is an anxiety tool set designed to help a person’s nervous system connect to the present moment. The way I understand it is that when people are upset, their mind is usually focusing on the past or the future. Helping the nervous system connect to the present helps it calm down. You can read the full article on orienting here.

Hugs: If there is another person available, ask for a hug. Ideally this would be a long, slow hug where you take a deep breath and relax into the hug. When I need a hug and no one is around, I will hug a pillow or wrap a blanket around myself and pull it tight. The physical pressure is calming to the nervous system on a physiological level (this is why weighted blankets can be so helpful for some people).

Confident Body Posture: Another quick tool for shifting things is to spend thirty seconds sitting, standing, on lying down in a strong, confident body posture. Doing this creates hormone shifts that reduce stress. This TED Talk by Amy Cuddy has more details on this technique, as well as a touching personal story.

 

Processing Through the Stress and Fear

These tools are about finding ways to help the body process and release stress hormones.

Exercise: Even gentle exercise can reduce stress hormones and improve sleep. This can be done in a self-nurturing way, by focusing on movement that feels good, like dancing or walking. In addition, I find that exercise is helpful for processing through tough emotions. When I’m doing this I start with some gentle warm ups, and then do vigorous or expressive movement, like dance, while focusing on the emotion I’m wanting to process through. The idea is that I’m helping my body feel the feeling, express it, and move through it, so that I can let it go.

Get Something Done: Accomplishing a concrete task, especially a physical task like unloading the dishwasher, weeding, sorting laundry, or reorganizing a shelf, has been a useful way for me to process through stress and help my mind focus on the present moment. This can also be a great way to get in some physical movement while symbolically reminding my brain that I am a capable person. I find it especially satisfying to reorganize a small area that has been bothering me, because doing that creates an almost cathartic feeling of satisfaction that comes from changing something stressful into something calm and organized.

Music: Another way to process through emotions is to play music that has uplifting or empowering lyrics. This works great in combination with exercising and/or getting something done. In addition, singing along to a favorite song is another physical activity that can help the body process through things.

Stretches: Doing a sequence of stretches is another way to process through and release things. If there is a particular area of tension that you want to work on, check out the Ask Doctor Jo YouTube channel.

 

Soothing Tools

These tools are all about being gentle, nurturing, and soothing. They can be helpful at any time, but I find that they are the most helpful after I’ve helped my body process through the stress and fear.

Interacting with a Pet: Snuggling or playing with a pet can be a great way to experience warmth and connection. In addition, caring for another living being can be a great way to focus on something immediate and concrete that is outside of ourselves. Animals live so joyfully and passionately in the now, and being present with them can be calming.

Calming Music: Music can have a strong calming effect. In scientific research, this song was created to reduce stress and studies have found it to be very effective, so much so that they advise people to avoid driving while listening to it because it can make people drowsy. This article has a list of other calming song from the same study. Also, here is a link to my favorite piece of relaxing music.

Herbal Tea: Making tea can be a self-nurturing and soothing activity. In addition, there are a lot of herbs that are specifically calming. Mint tea soothes the stomach. And some herbs, like lavender, have been shown to be helpful for anxiety. Do note that if you are taking prescription drugs it is important to be aware of how medicinal herbs, like lavender, interact with them.

Food and Water: When emotional or stressed, it can be harder to notice our basic needs. However taking care of our physical needs is an important form of self-care that can improve our well-being, or at least prevent things from getting worse. If possible, eating some protein can help keep things stable.

Feel-good Entertainment: Take this opportunity to watch, listen to, or read a favorite piece of feel-good media. Personally, I find low-tension media that has a lot of positive interactions between people particularly useful. For those with Netflix, The Repair Shop is one of my all-time favorite feel-good TV shows. In it expert craftspeople repair damaged family heirlooms and then return them to their overjoyed owners. My three favorite feel-good podcasts are: Sidequesting, a fantasy podcast where the main character goes on side adventures, Flyest Fables, a story full intertwining hopepunk fairy tales, and Meddling Adults, a humorous show where guests compete to solve children’s mysteries for charity.

Progressive Relaxation: This is an exercise designed to help relax their bodies. This link goes to detailed written instructions for doing progressive relaxation. This link goes to a YouTube video (with subtitles) where there is a verbal guided progressive relaxation.

Massage: Massage has a lot of health benefits. I am lucky to have family members who regularly give me massage. I also do a lot of self-massage. For many people, self-massage with hands, tennis balls, rollers, and other tools is an important way to regularly access the benefits of massage. This article has some interesting self-massage techniques, as does this article.

Experience Nature: If you have the opportunity to be in a natural area, there are a lot of health benefits to physically being out in nature, many of which are surprisingly long lasting. If it isn’t possible for you to be out in nature, then looking at pictures, watching videos, and listening to nature sounds can also give some of these benefits.

Go Outside: Spending time outdoors, especially in green spaces is good for health and happiness. Among other things, it reduces stress.

Sleep: This one can be quite difficult for people with insomnia or limiting schedules, but if you can, set aside enough time to get extra sleep. Sleep is healing to the mind and body. Significantly, sleeping enough reduces stress hormones a can aid in recovery.

 

Shifting Mind Modes

Brains can get stuck stressful states or mental patterns. Getting the brain to shift to a different mode, even for a short period of time, can make a big difference, but doing this can be tricky.

Journaling: Writing things down in a journal can be a great way to get things out. I find that if I’m struggling with a lot of physical anxiety symptoms, asking myself what is going on and if there are any feelings that I’m not consciously feeling can be very powerful. In addition, journaling can be used to engage in self-talk that helps us shift our perspective on things. I’m hoping to write an article about this set of tools sometime soon. This article has a lot of details on the benefits of journaling, along with tips for getting started and making the most of it.

Meditation and Prayer: There are a wide range of practices, both secular and religious, designed to help our minds get to an altered, more expansive space. Many of these focus on love, compassion, and kindness, which are powerful mental tools. The altered mental space provided by these techniques can be transformative.

Ritual: Similar to meditation and prayer, ritual can be used to help create a shift in the mind. For those who are non-religious, it can be helpful to think of ritual as communicating with the unconscious parts of the mind. Cleansing rituals can help people let go of things. Rituals can also be used to welcome in positive things that are desired.

Fun: There is a reason why fun feels good—it is good for our brains. It also gives us positive things to think about. I find this especially useful in addressing unpleasant thought patterns, because doing something fun can shift my brain from ruminating on something negative to thinking about something enjoyable.

Creative Projects: This is another way to give our brains something positive to focus on. In addition, when working on a creative project it is often possible to get into a flow mental state. This flow state has long-lasting mental benefits. Although this article has sections aimed at encouraging people to buy their meditation service, it is short, informative, contains clear descriptions, and has useful tips for encouraging a flow state to happen.

 

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