by Laura Ross Wood, LMSW
A very useful psychological concept is the idea of “flooding.” Flooding basically means that the body and mind are overwhelmed. This state of “fight-flight-freeze” causes blood pressure to rise at the same time that empathy, creative thinking, and communication crash. It can lead to feeling hopeless, getting defensive or angry, wanting to run or get away, feeling frozen, or shutting down. This can be tough in relationships and life situations.
Wondering if you’re flooded? You can use a device like a pulse oximeter to check, or you can check yourself. To check with just a watch, take two fingers, and find your pulse about two inches straight down from one ear on your throat. Once you find it, watch a clock for 15 seconds while you count your heart beats. Multiply this number by 4 to get your beats per minute (BPM). For most people, 100 BPM = flooding (if you’re an athlete, it might be 80 BPM).
If you find yourself flooded, try some of these, and find what works for you. It’s very important to practice these when you’re calm, so you can call on them when you need them! To be effective, this exercise should last a total of at least 20 minutes, which is enough time to diffuse the stress hormones in your system. As you practice, remember to breathe deep and keep your mouth moist by keeping spit on your tongue (these are body hacks to tell your body that you’re safe). Pull your shoulders back and open your chest. If you typically have “distress maintaining” thoughts, see if you can focus on something else for a bit, so your body really has a chance to quiet and return to normal.
A nice way to come back from this state is a progressive relaxation that includes deep breathing. Follow this sequence to help yourself return to homeostasis (a more stable state).
- Place your hands on your chest and belly. Take 3-5 deep breaths. With every inhale, expand your belly, moving your hands out. With each exhale, use your hands to help move your belly in.
- As you’re able, lift your right leg, and tighten all the muscles, and flex your toes toward your knee; hold that there, and take another full deep breath. Release. Repeat with your left leg.
- As you’re able, tighten your lower back, and take another deep breath. Release.
- As you’re able, stretch your arms out in front of you, and clinch your fists. Deep breath here. Release your fists, hold your hands still stretched tight out in front of you, and drop your arms.
- Bring your shoulders up toward your ears. Deep breath. Drop them back down.
- Circle your shoulders clockwise in opposite ways at the same time – one is forward, one is back; one is up, one is down… deep breath. Switch directions… deep breath. Release.
- Drop your neck back. Breathe deep. Drop your neck forward. Breathe deep. To the left… breathe… to the right… breathe. Release.
- Circle your lower jaw one way… breathe… the other way… breathe…
- Clinch your eyes tight… breathe. Release.
- Finish by taking a couple of nice deep breaths.
* This progressive relaxation is from Dr. Julie Gottman.
In this is a popular breathing exercise, the time each count takes is up to you – a four count may take you four seconds, two seconds, or eight seconds. Breathe naturally and deeply.
- Inhale through your nose for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Blow out your exhale slowly through your mouth, making a sound for a count of eight.
Affirmations and arm squeezes
Another way to help yourself feel better is to work with some affirmations while squeezing both of your arms with your opposite hands rhythmically (also a nice self-hug).
To do this one, take a few deep breaths, and give yourself a big hug. Begin to squeeze your upper arms with the opposite hands.
Tell yourself the following slowly and with purpose (and feel free to add your own):
- I’m safe
- I’m loved
- I’m worthy
- I belong
- I matter
- I’m lovable
- I’m good enough
- I’m okay
Sit quietly for a moment. Then:
- Notice five things you SEE.
- Notice four things you FEEL.
- Notice three things you HEAR.
- Notice two things you SMELL.
- Notice one thing you TASTE.
This is just a guideline; you can change up the senses you’re focusing on any way you like!
Centering and grounding
Read this before you begin, and then follow the steps. It’s okay to open your eyes and check on what’s next…
- Sit quietly in a chair with a back. Place your feet flat on the floor, at least 12 inches apart. Open your chest and draw your shoulders back.
- Moisten your mouth – see if you can let some saliva sit on your tongue.
- Place one hand on your chest, and one hand on your belly. Close your eyes. Push your belly out and in so your hand moves as breathe in and out. Breathe deep for a bit, feeling your hands rise and fall with your breath.
- Notice all the spots on your body that feel supported right now. Focus on feeling cradled and held, supported. Breathe deep for a bit.
- Locate your center… where do you feel it? Breathe into your center, gathering and stabilizing yourself.
- Focus on your feet on the earth. Begin to imagine drawing the strength of the earth up through the soles of your feet, and allowing it to fill you up.
- Do this for as long as you’d like.
Read these steps before beginning.
Get yourself into a comfortable position. Take some deep breaths. Roll your shoulders and your neck. Close your eyes or relax your gaze.
- Place your hands on your stomach and begin to slowly inhale. Feel your belly rise with your breath.
- Move your hands to your chest and breathe a little deeper, feeling your breath filling your lungs.
- Place your hands onto your collarbones or sides of your throat, and allow your inhale to come into your throat. Hold for just a moment.
Finally, exhale, and allow your breath to first leave your throat, then your lungs, and then your belly. Repeat this exercise for 5-10 rounds of deep breaths. Once you have practiced this skill a bit, you can just rest your hands and focus on your breath.
Read these steps before beginning.
- Look around, and name three things you see.
- Sit quietly, and name three things that you hear.
- Move and feel three parts of your body.
Focus on right now
The mind spends most of its time either rehashing the past or rehearsing the future. Anxiety tends to focus on the future, but it is certainly colored by proof from the past. Are you fixating on the worst-case scenario? Are you catastrophizing? Are you imagining others’ intentions? See if you can focus on what is real and true right now… what do you know for sure? Check in with yourself and remind yourself that you’re safe, and that you have lots of proof that you are a strong, capable adult with resources, and that you can’t read other people’s minds – in fact, what they think is none of your business.
Move your body
A fight-flight-freeze reaction causes your body to simultaneously release extra energy to help you move to safety, as well as creating a powerful sense of needing to flee and get to safety. Are you sitting still and focusing on symptoms? Try using up some of that energy, and moving to a new space, while focusing on the fact that your body and mind are safe.
Supporting your senses
Take your time, and think SELF CARE, kindness, and self-love. Get creative! See if you can bring some of all of these together at once, like treating yourself to a calming, fragrant bath while sipping something yummy, with a washcloth over your eyes and soft music playing; or eating an apple and noticing the color, shape, weight, smell, sound, and taste of it.
- Take a warm bath: Every nerve is stimulated by the water.
- Take a shower, and let the water run over you.
- Pet and/or spend time with an animal.
- Lie or sit, and focus on feeling supported and cradled (see “Centering and grounding”).
- Breathe deep and feel the breath as it moves through your nose/mouth, throat, lungs, and belly.
- Exercise. Go for a walk. Go for a run. Do some jumping jacks or squats.
- Stretch your body. Roll your neck. Roll your shoulders. Keep breathing while you do it.
- Massage: schedule one if you can afford it, or roll on a tennis ball or foam roller, or use a massage tool on yourself. Squeeze your arms with your hands.
- Give yourself some skin contact, which increases oxytocin (the hormone of love and bonding).
- Go outside. Get your hands in some dirt. Walk barefoot on the grass. Notice the textures and temperatures of the world around you.
- If it’s safe and you’re able, go for a drive. Put the window down and feel the wind.
- Examine something with your hands, noticing the weight, temperature, texture, squishiness or hardness, etc.
- Play with something fidgety like a squishy stress reliever or a fidget spinner.
- Play a musical instrument.
- Rub something soft, satiny, or plush.
- Hug a pillow. Or punch a pillow. Or yell into a pillow.
- Create something with clay.
- Knit, crochet, weave, cross stich, etc.
- Eat something (healthy!) and notice its textures, mouthfeel, temperature… chew it for a while. Swallow with purpose. Notice how it feels in your belly.
- Swing, jump, dance, run, walk, roll, sway, do yoga, touch, move, get intimate, hold hands, get a hug… find your best ways to feel your body.
- Light a candle.
- Try some aromatherapy, with some essential oils that relax you.
- Cook something and focus on the scents of what you’re creating.
- Bake something methodically. Inhale.
- Go outside. Notice the scents around you.
- Close your eyes. Eyesight is your strongest sense – and it’s the only one we can actually turn off! You can also use an eye pillow or eye covering, or rest your hands gently against your closed eyes.
- Visualize a safe place, and fill it in. Imagine a special way to get there, like a secret button or a hidden pathway. Spend some time there, breathing in peace. Incorporate your strongest senses in your imagination – this one doesn’t have to be just visual!
- Focus on an object that pleases your eyes. Notice interesting things about it.
- Focus on an object that pleases your eyes. Allow your gaze to soften.
- Sit in a dark room and breathe.
- Watch a soothing or funny show.
- Read a book or visual story.
- Paint or draw or sketch. Create something pretty or fun or cool.
- Contemplate some art.
- Go outside. Notice the sights around you.
- Organize something.
- Listen to your favorite music. Turn it up. Sing along. Dance it out.
- Sing something.
- Listen to soothing music. Breathe it in.
- Go outside. Notice the sounds around you.
- Turn on a sound machine or a YouTube channel with soothing nature sounds.
- Try out some ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos on YouTube (be aware of triggers like smacking mouth sounds).
- Put on some noise blocking headphones and listen to your breath, or nothing at all.
- Listen to a guided meditation.
- Repeat some affirmations out loud or in your head. Find your mantra.
- Journal… this one can be sight and feel, too.
- Count slowly down from 10 or 100 out loud.
- Talk to a loved one who can listen well, or distract you until you’re calmer.
- Eat some healthy protein, and notice its taste. Avoid sugar, which can worsen anxiety.
- Taste some fruit or honey, and notice its sweetness, simplicity, complexity… focus in on the sweetness of life.
- Make some herbal tea with intention, and drink it slowly.
- Sit and notice the tastes in your mouth.
- Chew gum.
- Suck on hard candy or a lollipop.
- Eat some sunflower seeds.
- Brush your teeth.
And of course, feel free to do whatever works best. Our life’s work is getting to know ourselves a little better each day, and finding out what soothes and calms you is a life skill that will carry you through hard times.
Have any that work well for you that aren’t listed here? Feel free to share in the comments!
Here’s to quiet times —
Laura Wood is the Co-Founder of and teacher of the Blissborn Natural Birth series teacher at Dar a Luz. She’s passionate about lots of things, including helping parents create better births and partnerships, helping people find new ways of doing and looking at things, social justice, attachment parenting, and good writing and design. She has been a hypnotherapist for over a decade. In addition to her work at Dar a Luz and Blissborn, she just finished grad school for Social Work. She lives in the gorgeous North Valley of Albuquerque with her awesome husband and her three cool children.