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Soothing Yourself

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By Bob Mueller

Sometimes a problem looks and feels severe when I am hungry, exhausted, overwhelmed or stressed.  It’s hard to trust who I am when I feel pushed around by my own moods and emotions.

Knowing how to soothe myself can radically change the situation.  Soothing yourself is a skill that is easily learned but must be practiced.  It switches off the response in the brain that produces a racing heart, limited thinking, tense muscles, sweaty hands, sleeplessness and even panic, anxiety and depression. 

Soothing yourself is possible.  Here’s how you do it.

Recognize the symptoms of panic, anxiety or mounting fear.  You will feel them in your body.  Know that you are capable of switching to soothe.  Tell yourself, “I can deal with this.”  This powerful message will affect you physically as well as emotionally.  It doesn’t matter that you don’t know how you can deal with it; what matters is that you will. 

Write down what the issue is.  Putting it “out there” on a piece of paper makes space in your mind.  It also gives you a little distance.  Describe it in as few words as possible.  Ask yourself, “Does this need my attention now?”  Often when you are in a panic, you are least creative and effective.  Give your mind something else to chew on.  Your mind can only think about one thing at a time.  Moving your body also helps.  Switch from victim to problem-solver posture.  Sit up straight.  Breathe deeply.  Put your shoulders back.  Your mind will immediately benefit.

Know that as long as you are in a panic, thinking will be distorted and so will your reactions.  Take your time.  Focus on calming yourself first, and only then on dealing with the issues or problem.

Sometimes you need to get some physical distance from what’s worrying you.  You won’t take the problem with you if you tell yourself that you are in the process of dealing with it.  Do something that is physically demanding.  Digging your garden, walking briskly, swimming, cooking: what the activity is will be less important than taking action, changing your environment and, with that, your thoughts and feelings.

If your mind keeps taking you back to the same issue, just repeat the same steps: “I can deal with this;” writing down the problem; switching your attention; doing something physically demanding.  Also remind yourself that you will put your most creative self to work as soon as feel more physically and emotionally at ease.  Boredom with repeating the same steps can actually be helpful.

What you are feeling may be a genuine emotion like sadness.  Feel the sadness without the panic or self-blame.  Remind yourself that whatever you are feeling, it will pass.  Even if you are thrown by a genuine tragedy, the acute stages of grief, disbelief and rage always pass.  But often what we panic about is anything but tragic; it can be extremely soothing to acknowledge this.

Do not underestimate the power of you own imagination.  It is your imagination as much as the events themselves that have produced those powerful symptoms of stress or anxiety.  Harness that same imaginative power now to support you and to see what needs to be done – if anything.  Write down what you imagine their answer would be.  The insights you are looking for will be helpful, kind, supportive and manageable.

Know that some problems are not going to be solved; they will only be outlived.  Recognizing the truth of that can also be oddly soothing.

Remind yourself that whatever is happening is not all of who you are nor is it how things will always be.  Sometimes all that is needed is for you to remind yourself with quiet conviction, “I can deal with this,” rather than focusing on what’s disturbing or wrong.

Bob Mueller is senior director of mission & stewardship at Hosparus. The views in this column are those of the writer.