What can you do for yourself when it is 3 am, you are stressed out to the max, you can’t sleep, and tomorrow will probably bring another stressful day? If you can’t shut off the worry and mental anguish, you will not be able to get to sleep, so you will probably also be exhausted tomorrow and will have to face your day with insufficient rest. Many people reach for prescription sleep aids or anti-anxiety meds at this time. I know that all of us must do what we feel we need to do to take care of ourselves, and judging each other doesn’t help any of us. Still, for me personally, I am never happy with how I feel physically when I consume one of those drugs.
I have found other ways to cope over the years that work better for me. A few of my favorites can be found here, all of them made as easy, short and simple as possible, on purpose. Perhaps you have already tried one or two of these on your own. Whatever you choose, I’d encourage you to do something for self-soothing every single day. Not only will it really help you, but making a habit of self-soothing emphasizes that we are important too and deserve as much care and attention as we give our loved ones.
A long hot bath
If we are trying to calm down, a long bath can be very soothing and calming. Why not go all the way and stay in there an hour, treating yourself to candles, music, yummy smelling essential oils, flower petals in the water, or anything else you’d find relaxing or would give you pleasure. Yes, you’ll have to refresh the hot water, and you might have to make sure the candles are safe, but an hour like this is an absolute joy. Personally, I like to add salt, or baking soda, or Epsom salts or other magnesium salts to the bath water, or bath salts, or even a cup of strong tea like ginger, my favorite. Just plain hot water is fine too. Sometimes stores sell bath balls that bubble up and release scents, so you might pick up a few to have on hand. Playing with these bubbly balls can make you feel like a kid again, and you will feel the money was well spent.
Focusing on our senses
When we are very upset, we are swirling around in our own minds, hardly aware of our bodies. When we explore our senses intensely, we are gently prodded to feel, and not think. Here’s one possible way of doing this.
Look around you and choose five things that you see. Describe them, study them, and really look at them intently. Notice their shapes and colors, areas of light and shadow, any contrasts, areas that are fuzzy and some that are clearly defined. Really look at your chosen objects and allow your attention to be completely absorbed by what you see.
Once you have fully explored the five things you have selected to look at, find four things you hear. Even in a quiet home in the woods there are sounds, trees rustling, the wind rattling the windows or other house sounds, an occasional animal sound, maybe the sound of something cooking, or a fire crackling. In a city, you will have much to choose from. Really listen, and even observe if you can hear sounds coming from far away. My QiGong teacher Robert Peng used to encourage us to listen like that, to sounds from far away. It is amazing how calming it can be, and how much you can hear if you listen.
Let yourself enjoy the sounds as long as you like, and then find three things you can touch. This can be as simple as touching the clothing you are wearing with your fingertips, or putting the palm of your hands on the wall you are sitting next to, or feeling the floor with your feet either in socks or with bare feet. There are other aspects of touch you might explore as well, such as temperatures, textures, and any other sensations. Our skin is our largest organ – all 8 pounds and 22 square feet of it – and it does a remarkable job of helping us feel the world around us. Experience as much as you can with touch on your skin.
Next find two things you can smell. Really revel in the scents of these things, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. Maybe you smell something cooking, or the cleaner you used on the floor, or for those of us with pets, the smell of a beloved animal. You can throw the game a bit in your favor if you gather up your favorite scents for this, but whatever you choose to smell, see if you can sink your whole consciousness into the experience of smelling the two things you have chosen. When we smell something, the molecules of that odor go up into our nose to our olfactory receptors which have a neural connection to our brain. Truly, we can change our brain and its mood almost instantly with scent. Memories are often associated with smells too, but right now we want to simply revel in the act of smelling.
Last, find one thing to taste. Obviously, it would be wise to avoid possible toxins, so becoming too wildly adventurous about what you decide to taste might not be smart, but even if you stick to tasting something that is obviously food, say a raisin, really taste it and see how broad your experience can be. For those of us who are really stressed out, it is a sad fact that many of us eat without ever tasting our food.
Take a moment after all this sensing and note where your anxiety, stress, or revved up feelings are now. You’ve given your brain a few moments off, some minutes without any thought about your problems. Just observe how you feel. Even if you are only a tiny bit calmer, perhaps you can imagine how much better you’d feel after a period of time, if you repeat this exercise or find other ways to get away from the chatter in your head about your problems. Obviously, you can also vary the order of the senses, and the number of individual sensory experiences you find for each one.
Paying attention to our breathing is amazingly effective at calming us down in a hurry, especially at times of enormous stress. Nothing is more beneficial. We have to breathe all the time anyway, so no matter what else is going on, we will always have the companionship of our breathing.
There are many different ways to go about this, but perhaps the best way to begin is by keeping it ultrasimple and just focusing on your breath going out and coming in, maybe pausing for a few seconds when the breath changes over. Some doctors have shown that a moderate pace, with a count to four or five on both the inbreath and the outbreath balances and optimizes many physical processes. This has worked very well for me at times of great stress and I practice it regularly. You can also add pauses in between the in and out breath, that is, breathing in for a count of four, holding for a count of two, exhaling for another four or even six counts, followed by another two counts of holding between the exhale and the next inhale. There are apps you can download to your computer or your phone that will help you maintain a count easily.
Pay attention to what parts of you move when you breathe. Many of us breathe in a very shallow way or hold ourselves stiff when we are under a lot of stress, so notice whether your diaphragm is moving at all or just feels stuck. Notice whether other places feel stuck or immobile as well, like your ribs on your sides or in back, or your shoulder blades. Notice tension in your jaw, or eyebrows, or legs, or feet, or anywhere that you can let go. In different methods, there are many rhythms, paces, and other explorations you can do with breathing. If you want to go beyond a simple moderate pace of breathing with counting, there is much to explore.
All cultures, in all areas of the world, shake. People of all ages wiggle and jiggle. It can be called “shaman shaking” or labeled as the first of the Four Golden Wheels of QiGong, or called Seiki Jutsu in Japan, or bear other names in India or Africa, but its efficacy both for calming and energizing is amazing. Quakers shake, Shakers shake, Tibetan monks shake, African bushmen shake, and ancient tribal rituals everywhere involve shaking. All little children wiggle and jiggle too. (For more detail, see Shaking Medicine by Bradford Keeney.)
Human beings can find themselves involuntarily shaking after a trauma. If you’ve ever had surgery, you might remember you were shaking as you came out of anesthesia. Some people report shaking immediately after a physical trauma like being hit by a car. (See Peter Levine’s book Healing Trauma for an example.) Shaking is a natural automatic self-healing response our body will generate after experiencing trauma. However, you can also benefit greatly doing it on purpose.
What do you do to get started? Easy! Stand up and start bouncing a little up and down. No, your feet don’t have to come off the floor, though the heels or the whole foot can do so for short periods of time. Mostly just jiggle up and down as though you were a little kid. Let your arms flop around freely and check that you not holding anywhere. You can even make noise with each bounce, wah, wah, wah, just as a kid would, (probably driving any listening parents crazy!). If you keep it up for a few moments, you will find your hands and arms and maybe other parts of you will be tingling when you stop. This is a direct experience of the powerful life-giving force called “qi”. It feels wonderful.
Anytime you are stressed or nervous about something, try a few moments of shaking. Like breathing, you can do this anywhere and you can’t do it incorrectly. If you can’t stand at the moment, you can shake part of you while sitting, gently bouncing on your chair or the edge of your bed. If you are lying down, you can push and pull your body up and down along your spine with your feet and/or hands. These oscillations move up and down, which means you are moving your whole self toward your feet and then moving toward your head, without lifting yourself up off of the bed or floor. It’s not hard or complicated and can be a lot of fun. Also, if a stressful period or even an illness has kept you from regular exercise for a week or two, or more, and you are thinking about a gentle way to begin to move again, try shaking. You can do it as little or much as you wish, and a few minutes of shaking every hour or two gets you back into movement very gently.
For bringing yourself back to your body, all you have to do is just start moving some of you. Move any part of you that you like – a finger, your hand, your arms or legs, anything is fine. Don’t strain, and pay attention to the quality of the movement. If it hurts or feels difficult, slow down and do less. We are trained from birth in our society to do more, but when we are talking about surviving stress, less is truly more. There is no movement you could make that is too small or two slow or too insignificant, as long as you are paying attention. Make it easy on yourself. At your most stressed out moments, some simple easy movements will get you out of worry and back into feeling your body. Make this as much fun as you can. It is a great joy to move our bodies. When you are paying attention to feeling your body’s delicious movements, you cannot be fretting about an ill relative. The two things cannot be done at the same time, so you are giving yourself a break.
Last, but surely not least, try some creativity
Perhaps you are awake enough to write down your thoughts or make up a story or add to your journal. Keeping a pad and pencil by your bed provides you with an easy way to write in the middle of the night. You can even keep track of your dreams, an exercise that can tell you a lot about what your unconscious has to say about your life experiences. You don’t have to turn on the light as nobody is going to be judging your penmanship in the morning. Just write.
On that same pad of paper, with that same pencil, you can also begin to draw in the easiest way possible – just start to scribble. Scribble away, any way you like. You are not formally drawing anything in particular, so just scribble. If you like, and want to try to draw something recognizable, consider drawing a stick figure person. This takes no skill and no one needs to be afraid of it. A fine therapist suggested that the stick figure can be drawn to suggest how you feel at the moment. This doesn’t have to be a big project or cause you any extra stress.
You can also trace the outlines of objects around you with your finger, pretending that the tip of your finger is an actual pencil. My mother was a fine artist and she recommended this to anyone as a delightful preparation for picking up a pencil to draw. You need nothing but your own hand in order to do this, so it is perhaps the simplest way to draw of all.
If you like to mold clay and find yourself awake often due to stress, you might want to keep a package of clay that isn’t too dirty or otherwise yucky by your bed, just for such times. Molding clay uses both hands and both sides of the brain. This helps you to rebalance and center yourself. Squishing clay is a tremendous tension reliever.
Quite intentionally, all suggestions written here are short and easy. Nobody needs new stress in the middle of dealing with the ongoing old ones. If you feel you’d enjoy taking any of these suggestions further and would like to hear some additional thoughts, please feel free to contact me, I’d love to share what I’ve learned.