Self-care: Finding tools to handle difficult emotions

By Rebecca Irvine

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, April 7 2014 5:05 p.m. MDT

Learning to self-soothe when experiencing emotional challenges helps improve general well-being.


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A frustrated mother from Centennial, Colo., recently complained about her young son crying in the car on the way home from school each day. Worried, the mother spoke with teachers, volunteered in the classroom and regularly watched her son happily learning and playing on the school’s online cameras. After several weeks of investigation and study, the mother determined her son was experiencing an emotional release after the strain of the school day.

Although it was a relief to this mother to know the crying after school was not caused by something more serious, the back seat breakdowns gave her a lot of stress. To help maintain her own sanity, she set out on a mission to help her son learn new ways to find release from his negative emotions.

“Self-care means choosing behaviors that balance the effects of emotional and physical stressors,” writes licensed psychologist and author Christine Meinecke, Ph.D., at psychologytoday.com. "Also essential to self-care is learning to self-soothe or calm our physical and emotional distress.”

A commonplace mistake many make is depending on a parent, friend or partner to soothe pain. Of course, many loved ones are happy to help comfort those in times of need. The mistake is in believing others are obligated to be a constant font of emotional support, notes Meinecke.

“Self-soothing is a basic skill important for emotional and physical well-being,” writes Karyn Hall, Ph.D., for validatingparenting.com.

Here are five different strategies to consider when learning to self-soothe:

1. Physical activity

When people get angry or stressed they often feel an abundance of energy and high cortisol levels develop in the brain. Neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley have found that chronically elevated levels of stress hormones in the brain, which are intended only for short-term duty in emergency situations, can lead to physical damage of brain cells. Regular physical activity is one of the more effective ways to reduce stress and lower cortisol levels.

“Physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals that can leave you feeling happier and more relaxed than you were before you worked out,” states a report by the Mayo Clinic on managing anger.

Woody Livingston, of Glendale, Ariz., has found this advice to be personally effective: “When you grow a garden you can work out stress or frustration when needed," Livingston said.

For adults, exercise can be as simple as playing a favorite sport, jogging, cleaning, walking a dog, jumping on a trampoline, biking or playing on a playground would be more effective activities for younger children.

2. Relaxation tools

Relaxation tools are those designed to help decrease the heart rate and slowly release negative emotions. They are intended to help individuals develop a sense of calmness and well-being. For example, soothing music is a therapy tool commonly used in hospitals to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs of individuals.

“Music therapy has a wide range of applications,” reports Dr. Walter Quan, Jr., Oncologist-Hematologist of St. Luke’s Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. “We see some patients whose blood pressure does come down and seems to stay down through regular use of music therapy.”

“Music has the power to help you fight stress and even manage pain, and healing music works whether you prefer heavy metal, country, opera, or something else entirely,” writes Madeline Vann, MPH, for the website EverydayHealth.com.

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