Identify your emotional comfort blanket
Feeling vulnerable, upset, powerless or distressed can be bewildering, so experts agree arming yourself with the tools to manage those emotions is key. ‘If you don’t know how to soothe yourself when you’re provoked, you’ll be prone to getting depressed, become angry and resentful, or withdraw from the situation entirely,’ explains Leon F Seltzer, US-based psychologist and blogger for Psychology Today. ‘None of these reactions will empower you or enable you to accept or take control over whatever circumstance led you to react negatively.’ It’s all about feeling confident we can quiet our minds and find a way out of the emotional distress, rather than falling deeper into it, or running away.
Chloe Brotheridge, hypnotherapist and author of Brave New Girl: 7 Steps to Confidence (Michael Joseph, £12.99), agrees. ‘We live in a fast-paced world, disconnected from ourselves and nature – we need to counteract the mess that is modern life. It’s essential to have a toolkit that helps when you’re experiencing stress, and that prevents you from reaching that point.’ So how can you override stress, and stop a negative mindset eating away at you?
Break the stress cycle
According to Seltzer, you need to hone your self-soothing skills so they’re second nature. ‘It’s crucial to learn which things work most effectively for you in advance. What you do could range from self-hypnosis to visualisation to exercise, or just some deep breathing, but you need something “in reserve” to help you cope with anything that, in the moment, undermines your emotional equilibrium.’
Another problem we need to overcome is self-blame. We get angry or frustrated because we deride ourselves for whatever’s going wrong. Seltzer argues we need to master the art of forgiving ourselves. ‘It’s about getting to the point of unconditional self-acceptance, regardless of mistakes you’ve made in the past,’ he explains. ‘That’s not complacency, but recognition your mishaps represent, say, naiveté or impulsivity, rather than something inherently defective. It’s about self-compassion.’
Embrace a positive outlook
Scientific research has shown that positive self-talk can help in times of stress. A 2017 study revealed a surprising form that can quickly control emotional responses; addressing yourself in the third person. Say you’re called Claire and you’re stressed about your job. You might say to yourself, ‘Why is Claire worked up?’ It sounds mad, but it’s less emotionally reactive than addressing yourself in the first person: ‘Why am I so stressed?’ It gives you a bit of psychological distance, which helps you feel more in control of your emotions. In research, scans showed emotional brain activity decreased within seconds.
Visualisation is another way to escape your befuddled mind. ‘Often, we imagine what could go wrong,’ says Brotheridge. ‘Instead, imagine what could go right. Play a movie in your mind of how you’d like an event to go, such as a presentation. Imagine how you’d like to feel, look, act and speak. It creates a new blueprint for how things can be and means you will go into that situation feeling calmer.’
For many of us, our first port of call in testing moments is to reach out for support from loved ones, but that’s not necessarily the best course of action.
‘Anything you can work out independently is going to be more empowering than depending on someone else,’ explains Seltzer. ‘You need to see yourself – not others as your “saviour”. Although there is one saviour research agrees you can reach for – a pet. Studies repeatedly show stroking an animal decreases blood pressure.’
Self-hypnosis – another tried and tested tool sounds daunting, but, says Brotheridge, can be simple. ‘Do a body scan,’ she advises. ‘Start at your feet and imagine the muscles relaxing. Move through your legs, torso, arms and neck, head and face. Imagine each body part relaxing in turn. It calms mind and body.’
Change your environment
Another strategy is gaining perspective. ‘Getting into nature helps us reassess upset feelings in a broader context,’ says Seltzer. ‘That allows us to reflect and realise what’s happened isn’t catastrophic.’ Really immersing yourself adds to the stress-relieving power. A 2017 study found sounds of nature – such as a babbling brook – can physically change the systems that control the fight-or-flight response, helping us to relax. If exercise is a stress-reliever for you, run, walk, jog, cycle, stretch or swim in the great outdoors.
Sound in general can affect frayed nerves. Studies show high noise levels can trigger depression. If you are feeling tense and the sound of, say, loud train announcements is jarring, noise-cancelling headphones could help. Or perhaps it’s silence that drives you nuts: here, a white noise app may release your inner Zen, a playlist may help you escape, or a podcast or radio station could help you feel happier.
If your anxiety is rendering you paralysed, putting pen to paper is another tool. In one US study, anxious students who wrote about a stressful task completed it more efficiently – thought to be because worrying takes up cognitive resources. And let’s not forget the power of a good cry. Research shows it has a self-soothing element – it activates the parasympathetic nervous system (which promotes the ‘rest and digest’ response that calms the body); increases oxytocin, the ‘love’ hormone; and ups natural opioids, which soothe pain.
Finally, there are the classic comforts we all know: baths, a massage, buying ourselves flowers. ‘These acts should be part of your general lifestyle, as they can help you feel calmer overall, and less likely to react poorly when things go wrong,’ says Seltzer. So the next time that happens, reach for the things you know benefit you.