I said this the other day:
I don’t know about you, but in the moment, tools are really hard to remember to use. Also sometimes hard to believe that they’re going to do anything. So I find that practicing strategies and tools during calm moments, and semi-stressful moments, make them much more automatic to use during the super hard times. I think I could probably write a whole post on tools, and I think I will.
And I did.
Here are the three main tools in my toolkit lately that always help:
Sometimes this means moving locations. Walking out of my apartment to go sit by the reservoir. Going to a coffee shop. Usually a change of location and scenery makes a huge difference and abates some of the heaviness I had been feeling.
Sometime this means physical movement, like going for a walk, going to the gym, or going to yoga. During this type of movement, I usually feel “it” moving through me. As I move my body, however vigorously or gently suits that moment, I’m moving it out. Moving the heaviness around, dislodging it from where it had taken root. More often than not, the tears or panic stop once I move – and this is something I have to re-learn each time. This morning I kept trying to wait it out. I said to myself, I’ll leave the apartment once I feel calmer, I’ll go to the gym once I’m not teary. But after a while I decided to just go – and by the time I got downstairs and into my car I was already a bit calmer. Just move. Now.
I used to hate the idea of visualization, and that’s because I thought visualization was only “imagine yourself on the beach listening to the waves.” And while that type of visualization certainly has its time and place for me, it doesn’t do it all, and I needed more than that. I have since learned way more about this idea, and visualization has quickly become a go-to.
I usually visualize “it” moving. “It” can be panic, anxiety, memories, fear, whatever it is for you, or for me. Lately “it” has been a general heaviness that holds itself in my chest, in my throat, or in my head. It feels like a dark murky thick smoggy cloud. I like to envision a white, sparkly light coming in as I breathe in, swirling around, and clearing out the murky darkness as I breathe out. To those of you reading this and rolling your eyes: This works.
The other visualization I’ve done stems from something I read in an amazing neuroscience book [this is an affiliate link]. This chapter of the book discussed chronic pain and how visualization can help decrease the pain. And, I’ve used those ideas before, when I get a headache – I imagine the pain center in my brain, and I imagine a barrier around it, so that any pain signals my head tries to send are blocked and don’t reach the pain center. This works. I have practiced it so much that it now decreases the pain of a headache fairly quickly.
Anyway, I decided I could probably use the same principle around my heart, for those times that I’m feeling too much of my own feelings and all of everyone else’s feelings. So I imagine a barrier around my heart – not shutting myself off from the world, but protecting my heart when it needs a break.
I could give you a zillion grounding tools (i.e. tools that help you stay present, focused on the moment), and there are another zillion out there on the internet. The ones that work for me best lately:
Mantras. I like mantras a lot, and I don’t like affirmations a lot. Mantras seem to be more relevant to me in the moment, whereas affirmations just…don’t work for me. [Side note: does anyone else feel like there’s a difference between the two?] For me, a mantra is a grounding statement, often what someone else would tell me in that moment, or what I would tell someone else, and ultimately, what I am aiming to trust and believe in that moment.
Sometimes my mantras are on post-it notes (there’s about 8 of them in my moleskin notebook right now) or in my pocket (the day of my wedding I texted my dear friend a picture of the post-it note in my purse that read, I am worthy) or just in my head. One that works in a moment of hypersensitivity: “Those are not my feelings. I don’t have to feel them.” Another one that works in a moment of panic: “I am breathing through this moment. I am breathing through this feeling.” They have become comforting statements that bring me focus and relief.
I also find narrating what I’m doing to be very calming. If I find myself starting to get spinny in my brain while I’m driving, I focus on what’s going on: I am in the car. I am driving home.
The one specific visualization that I do love, seems to fit better into this “grounding” category for me. It was an exercise I once learned in a therapy session, and the idea was to find a calming, safe place that could be thought about in such great detail that it would eventually be neurologically strengthened in my brain as calming, the minute that I pictured it. The place that has been consistently safe and calming for me is a specific location at my summer job. So after formally talking about the place in great detail (5 senses), it has been so strengthened in my brain that in a moment of overwhelm or panic or heaviness, I fairly automatically start thinking, I am on the back porch. I am rocking in the chair. I see the sunlight, streaming through the trees. I see the green grass, I see the blue skies. I hear the crickets, I hear the birds.
For all of these mantras and narrations, I find pairing it with my breath crucial. I don’t really know how to explain this in writing, but basically, I breathe in for one piece of it, and breathe out for the other part, so it has some sort of rhythm to it. For example: Inhale for the entire length of I am breathing through this moment and then exhale for the length of I am breathing through this feeling. Does that make sense?
And there you have it. My current set of tools. As I’ve said, I really find that in a hard moment, it’s equally hard to remember to use these tools. Generally because I initially think, That’s not going to work. That’s not going to make this feeling better. But they always do. Not always right away, and not always fully, but they always help. And the more I practice them during less intense moments, the more automatic they become during hard moments.
I would really, really, love to know: do any of these tools work for you? What are your go-to tools and strategies these days? Please share with us – anonymous is always an option.