Calling upon and accessing cognitive resources when managing feelings of anxiety and depression is hard, to say the least. We often intellectually understand strategies for dealing with these feelings, but utilizing those tools when in a state of emotional strain can feel impossible. When helping clients manage feelings of anxiety and/or depression, I often try to provide pneumonic devices or mental shortcuts in order to simplify the process in order to help remembering, and employ, their strategies. One such shortcut is the mantra, “relax, distract, cope”.
The first step in cooling off is calming our bodies, even just a little. It is a mighty task to engage our rational minds and decision-making skills as our body’s gear us up for fight, flight, or freeze. Thus, we must first get our body calm. Take time to make a list with yourself, your spouse and your child to determine which calming strategies are right for your family. Does everyone need a break and a place to go to take a few deep breathes, can you all count down from 10 together, or do you like to use fidget toys to squeeze out the tension? Grounding, i.e., bringing our minds back to the present, can be particularly helpful as our minds are usually whirling with “what ifs.” A simple grounding technique called 5-4-3-2-1 engages many of our senses to draw thought back to the here and now. Start by naming 5 things you can see in the room, then 4 things you can feel with your sense of touch, then 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and finally 1 thing you can taste. The last two can be your favorite smells and taste if nothing is present. Tip: Practicing relaxing strategies every day, even when calm, can build muscle memory and make them easier to access when in the heat of the moment.
Distraction can be a wonderful strategy. Finding something other than our worries to focus on, like a favorite tv show, book, or song can be tremendously calming. Other distraction options include texting a friend, playing on electronics, or exercising. Keep in mind, distraction is not the same as avoidance/numbing. If you are worried about an elevator stopping, helpful distraction is chatting with a friend while on the ride, while avoidance would be taking the stairs. Similarly, we can watch a tv show or play on our phone for a half hour, but 7 hours into a binge we know that we are trying to numb out the worry.
Once your body is back to a low to moderate stress level, then we can begin to cope. Coping means something different for everyone, and usually involves some form of facing our fears and thinking through situations in a more realistic way. This means finding helpful thoughts and alternatives to the narratives that anxiety is telling us, using calming skills, and slowly and intentionally facing our fears. Create a coping plan with a professional, or refer to resources, such as Anxiety Free Kids by Bonnie Zucker, Ph.D., Freeing your Child from Anxiety by Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., or reliable online sources such as https://anxietycanada.com/.