I often say “change cannot occur without awareness.” In other words… in order for change to occur we have to bring consciousness to what is happening in our thoughts and our bodies. We can calm down our nervous system by “waking up” the “thinking” brain in our frontal lobe as well as using tools to re-center.
In a world where we are blasted by social media and addicted to our devices, there are seldom moments where we are truly present and not being distracted or interrupted by another demand. Over these past two years we’ve all just experienced one of the most divisive and emotionally charged seasons in American history. It has been a polarizing experience fueled by fear and hate. No wonder we all feel like our brains are on fire!
There are some “simple” tools and skills that can help us to calm our nervous systems and regulate our emotions more effectively. These tools begin with Mindfulness - the art of being present. The neuroscience behind mindfulness is life changing. The truth is you are constantly growing new neural circuits in your brain, in essence, you are hardwiring your brain to think a certain way which leads your body to feel a certain way. In his book “Hardwiring Happiness” Dr Rick Hansen explains how the brain actually takes its shape from that which it rests upon. If you are resting your mind in self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclination toward anger; sadness and guilt. On the other hand, if you keep resting your mind on good events and conditions, pleasant feelings, the things you did get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions, and qualities then over time your brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, a positive mood and a sense of worth. This ability to change the brain is called neuroplasticity and it is rooted in self awareness. When we are mindfully present, we are able to recognize what is happening with our thoughts, feelings and behaviors and can then work at making an intentional shift.
I like to tell clients this process is like exercising a new muscle. It feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar at first, but the more you do it the stronger it becomes… the stronger the new neuropathway becomes, the easier it is to access new thoughts and emotions.
So how can you build a Self Regulation Tool Kit?
When working with clients we practice this by creating a “Self Regulation Tool Kit.” Everyone’s tool kit might look a little different. Our goal is to build skills and gather tools that help to create new neuropathways - thoughts and feelings of calm and safety in our mind and our bodies.
Remember we have to practice these tools and skills. We “practice” a skill to build up that muscle so that when we need to use it, it is powerful and effective.
Here are a few ideas:
Journaling - keeping a gratitude journal where we list the positive things that we experienced that day. Dr. Rick Hansen created an acronym “HEAL” for a helpful reminder in how to learn to “take in” the good. First, Have a positive experience, then Enrich that experience by stopping and noticing it, next Absorb the experience by connecting it to an emotion and body sensation (I like to say “marinate” in it), lastly the L is linking the positive to a negative. This helps the healing process and helps us to connect adaptive and positive neural networks to experiences that are difficult, soothing them and often bringing a new way of thinking about something difficult.
Breath work - the power of our breath cannot be understated. It can seem like such a simple experience, one we do without thinking because it is! When we stop to notice our breath, allowing ourselves to experience it as nourishment and connection to our body, it can change everything! Check in, even now as you read. Invite yourself to become curious… Is your breath shallow or rapid? Is it full and deep? Sometimes when we are first learning to bring breath work into a more mindful practice, our brain can wonder and be distracted. That’s ok! Gently bring your awareness back to your breath. Breath brings us back to our center. It signals to the brain we are safe, our heart rate slows down and our blood pressure decreases.
Movement - I’m not talking about mindless, dissociative exercise but thoughtful mindful movement. One day it might be stretching and breath work, another day it might be a mindful walk or run. Another day it might be an upbeat, high energy work out! Did you know that most movement has a bi-lateral nature to it? Swimming, walking, biking… all using one arm or leg and then the other. Research shows us that bi-lateral movement and stimulation activates our “information processing engine” in our brain. It soothes the body and helps the brain to re-organize. Movement also releases important endorphins into our body. Tune into your body each day, what is it needing today?
Bath/Shower - water is a wonderful way of soothing the body, soaking and relaxing, allowing the body to soften. Turning a daily necessary task for hygiene into something that nourishes your mind and your body by being mindful of the experience. Use Epson salts, light a candle, turn the lights down or off and reduce stimulation, tune into your body.
Connection - We are relational beings! Attunement, laughter and time with those we love is a powerful and necessary. This activates our “social engagement system” and allows us to feel connected, seen and loved. This is more than “emotional dumping” or mindless chatter. We often regulate best in connection with another.
Music - encouraging, relaxing music is powerful. Science shows us the power of music and mood. So when listening to music be mindful of how it is making you feel. Is it encouraging you? Is it feeding your soul in some way? Sometimes we have a desire to listen to music that matches our mood. It can help us feel attuned to. But we also have to be careful. Do we feel better? or is it making us angry, sad, or feeling lonely? You may like to play an instrument or sing. Engaging with music is a beautiful way of stimulating the Vagus nerve and calming our system. Be mindful and make a choice that nourishes you!
Art - painting, drawing, coloring, creating something beautiful, expressive and meaningful is also a great way to engage our right brain. Research shows we can enter into a “flow” when we create that releases a flood of endorphins and has a relaxation affect on our nervous systems. It can also be a great way of expressing and releasing emotions.
These are just a few example of what might be in your “tool kit” to help you self care and regulate your emotions. What would you add to your tool kit?