Tools for Emotional Regulation


When we feel emotionally overwhelmed, we often will leave our window of tolerance, which is the place where we can comfortably cope with emotions and situations that come our way. When we operate outside of our window of tolerance, we may be hyperaroused (flooded, over activated & anxious) or hypoaroused (shut down, dissociating). It’s important to have some tools that will bring you back into your window of tolerance and eventually expand your window of tolerance. One of our best weapons for emotional regulation is a tool we always have with us - our breath. There are a number of ways we can use breath to help us soothe when we feel activated. Breathing helps access our parasympathetic nervous system rather than continuing to live in our fight, flight or freeze sympathetic nervous system. Here are a few simple exercises for you to try when you feel emotionally overwhelmed.

Root Breathing
Remove your shoes, either standing or sitting, and notice the connection to the earth through your feet. Scan your body, imagining roots expanding feet deep into the earth, continuing to grow and expand to give you support. Imagine breathing in nutrients, strength, and calm from the roots, exhaling out any tension. For a guided recording, click here.

Self-Compassion Moment
Recall an unpleasant experience and notice how you feel in your body. Say out loud to yourself “This is a moment of suffering,” validating the painful moment rather than minimizing it. Say out loud to yourself “I am not alone in my suffering” and imagine others who may have gone through something similar. Finally, wonder “May I be kind to myself?” Think about what it is you need to hear to make you feel comforted, and say that to yourself aloud. For a guided recording, click here.

R.A.I.N. Breathing
In a moment of distress, breathe deeply and mindfully notice the following:
Recognize what’s going on
Allow whatever is going on to go on
Investigate with curiosity (what are the negative thoughts, where do I feel that in my body?)
Needs - Nourish yourself, what do I need?
For a guided recording, click here.

Tactical breathing
This is a breathing technique used to help you focus, not for relaxation. It’s a great tool for when you feel emotionally flooded, stressed, triggered, or need to re-direct your thoughts. Imagine tracing a square, inhaling for four counts up one side, holding for four counts across the top, exhaling for four counts down the other side, and holding for four counts across the bottom. Continue for a few repetitions, adjusting as needed.

Butterfly Hug
Place one hand on your shoulder, right below your collarbone, and cross the other on the other side. Slowly tap your hands on shoulders like a butterfly flapping its wings. As you tap slowly, breathe deeply and think of a positive memory, peaceful place of comforting person.  

5-4-3-2-1
Name 5 things you can see in the room with you.
Name 4 things you can feel (“chair on my back” or “feet on floor”)
Name 3 things you can hear right now (“air conditioning” or “tv”)
Name 2 things you can smell right now (or 2 things you like the smell)
Name 1 good thing about yourself

Somatic Experiencing
Place one hand under the other armpit next to heart, the other holding shoulder as you breathe slowly and deeply. This self-hug feeling can help self-soothe and provide a container to hold emotions. Similarly, practice placing one hand on your forehead, the other on your heart. Notice physical sensations (warmth, heart rate, mind/heart connection).

Using Essential Oils
Place one drop on hands, rub and smell for grounding.

Bite Size Mindfulness for a Busy Bay Area Life

Life in the Bay Area is fast paced, which makes learning how to slow down an equally challenging and important task. Mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment, fully experiencing and noticing one thing at a time. Over time this trains our brains and bodies to slow down. Practicing mindfulness has a host of positive effects, like reducing stress and depression, cultivating gratitude, and adding a few new coping skills to the tool belt.

Like any new skill, mindfulness takes practice before it feels natural. Your thoughts will wander, and that’s perfectly okay. Without judgment, imagine those thoughts floating away like a cloud and gently return your attention to the exercise.

Here are a few small mindfulness activities to try in the midst of your day. Set a timer for 3 minutes and start practicing.

Mindful Breathing:
Sit comfortably in a chair. Close your eyes and start to breath in slowly through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Notice where you are most aware of your breathing - your chest rising and falling, the sensation of air through your nostrils, the temperature of the air as you exhale, your diaphragm expanding, etc. For a few minutes practice focusing only on your breathing.

Mindful Counting:
Repeat the exercise above, settling into a mindful state. This time mindfully countdown from 10 to 1, counting each exhale. Let your counting anchor you to your breath. Notice that your counting may get slower as you relax.

Mindful Taste:
Put a mint, candy, or ice cube in your mouth. For a few minutes mindfully observe each sensation - the texture, temperature, shape, size, taste, and smell. Notice how this changes over the exercise.

Mindful Walk:
Take a slow walk around your neighborhood, soaking in the sounds, smells, sights and textures you come across.

If you’d like some more guidance on mindfulness, try these free apps with daily guided meditations: Calm, Pacifica, Aura.

Practicing Gratitude in the Midst of the Struggle

Practicing gratitude when life is smooth sailing is easy, but practicing gratitude in the midst of struggle is where new muscles are developed. Celebrating Thanksgiving can be really challenging for those who are grieving or in the midst of a painful season of life. When pain is in the forefront, offering gratitude is often the last thing we want to do. Try a little experiment with me -- put your hand directly in front of your face with your nose touching your hand. What can you see? Just your hand! Now gradually move your hand away from your face. Notice how your vision changes. Similarly, expressing gratitude does not erase pain, but it does help provide a larger perspective. Here are a few challenges to try to help you practice gratitude:

  1. Keep a daily gratitude journal. Fill the pages with moments small and large that you are thankful for. Even on bad days, push yourself to find at least 3 things you are thankful for -- for example another day of living, health, the sun rising, a favorite song playing on the radio, a smile from a stranger, etc. This discipline will become more natural over time as you continue to practice gratitude daily.
  2. Tell someone you love the reasons you enjoy and appreciate them. Be intentional and specific.
  3. Go on a nature walk to enjoy the beauty around you. Leave your phone at home and let yourself stop at whatever catches your eye. Savor the textures, smells, sights, sounds, etc
  4. Write down as many things you can for which you are thankful for about a trying situation. In a particularly hard season of my life I used this challenge as a discipline. I pushed myself to write down 50 things I was thankful in the midst of my pain and anger. I was amazed to see the small ways hope and healing and joy were surrounding me, but how often I struggled to see it. Writing down the names of people that had come into my life, deeper relationships, more awareness of myself, engagement with my feelings, etc. was a great reminder of the growth I was experiencing in my pain.
  5. When a negative thought invades your mind, intentionally reframe the thought to find the positive. For example, if angrily stuck sitting in traffic, I may remind myself that I now have some extra moments to myself or to prepare for my day.
  6. Create a visual gratitude board. Cut and paste images, quotes, or drawings that represent gratitude or things you are grateful for.
  7. Share your moments of gratitude daily at the dinner table with family and friends. Create a daily rhythm of practicing gratitude in a community. Not only can gratitude be contagious, but sharing together also provides accountability for this new practice.
  8. Thank people for a job well done. Whether this be a barista after a good cup of coffee, the grocery store clerk, coworker, friend, your partner, or your child, be intentional about thanking them for their effort.
  9. Volunteer for an organization that uses your gifts and passions. Volunteering with others in pain can also provide a wider perspective on life.
  10. Remind yourself of ways previous struggles and challenges produced growth of character in your life. Reflecting on the ways you have overcome previous struggles can enable you tap into strengths and skills that will help you cope with your current struggles.

Remember that practicing gratitude does not necessarily mean that you feel grateful, and that’s okay. Keep with the discipline and your thoughts and feelings may change over time.