Psychology Hacks

Psychological .

 

Introduction

This page offers you some positive coping mechanisms to help us calm and regulate our emotions in times of distress. These are essentially first aid techniques to help soothe us when in an uncomfortable state and restore the body and mind back to equilibrium.

These techniques are not long-term solutions, however, the more regularly we practice them, the more we can call them into action when we do need them. Neuroplasticity, the remarkable ability of the brain to completely ‘re-knit’ itself means that if we continue to do something regularly it will

Instructions

You can either practice these alone or with a trusted confidante, just ensure you are in an emotionally safe space with no distractions. Remember that we are all unique. What works for one individual may not work at all for another. Scan down the list first and see which seems appealing. Read through it the give it a try. Ideally, experiment with them all, several times, at least until you are certain you have mastered at least one. Then you can make an informed choice about which ones you can have in your very own psychological ‘toolkit’.

If you want to know more then scroll down to the References Websites section at the end of this page for more in depth reading. Alternatively, if you would like to understand more or would benefit from assistance in practicing them get in touch. We’re here to help. Call 07801 079 555 or email luisa@myfamilypsychologist.com

  1. Breathwork

We all breathe continuously without even thinking about it. Inhaling oxygen is a necessary part of existence. Yet experiencing stress or emotional dysregulation can create shortness of breath and rapid breathing, as the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts. “Stress effects on the body” (2023).

In addition to transporting oxygen to the blood and being essential to life, deep breathing has been a significant part of ancient healing practices for millennia. When you hold your breath, CO2 levels in your blood increase, which increases the cardio-inhibitory response (lowering your heart rate). This activates the parasympathetic nervous system (we discuss the parasympathetic nervous system later at number 10) resulting in a calming and relaxing effect enabling us to breathe slowly and relieve stress.

Breathwork is powerful but simple relaxation technique that aims to return breathing to its normal rhythm after a stressful experience. It has been proven to benefit individuals experiencing anxiety, anger, depression, trauma, including complex post traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), as well as helping managing physical pain, aids digestion, improves immunity, and helps with insomnia. “17 Breathwork Techniques to Improve Your Physical & Mental Health” 2023).

Whilst breathwork is a powerful and effective stress management technique, if you suffer with any breathing difficulties such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) then consult with your GP before practicing any of these.

Abdominal Breathing

Abominable breathing, also known as belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, is a technique that essentially trains your diaphragm to open up your lungs. You can help your body breathe more efficiently.

It has also been shown to improve sustained attention, affect, and cortisol (a stress hormone) levels (“The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults”, 2017).

Here is how to do it:

Step 1: Sit or lie down on a comfortable flat surface.

Step 2: Relax your shoulders then lower them downward away from the ears.

Step 3: Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.

Step 4: Breathe in through your nose until you cannot take in any more air. Do not strain or push.

Step 5: Feel the air moving through your nostrils into your abdomen.

Step 6: Expand your stomach and sides of the waist. Your chest should remain relatively still.

Step 7: Purse your lips as if sipping through a straw.

Step 8: Exhale slowly through your lips for four seconds and feel your stomach gently contracting

Repeat these steps above several times for best results.

Box Breathing

Box breathing, also known as four-square breathing is a deep breathing technique that can help you slow down your breathing. It works by distracting your mind as you count to four, calming your nervous system, and decreasing stress in your body. The process of counting refocuses us from panic allowing us to handle and control the stress response. It has also been shown to help with hyperventilation, lowers blood pressure, and decreases cortisol. “What Is Box Breathing?” 2023).

Box breathing is used routinely by Navy SEALs. It was developed by Mark Divine, a former Navy SEAL commander in 1987. It is a quick way to get the nervous system under control. The technique helps them stay focused and precise during critical operations. It is an accessibly super power we can all have! (“Why Do Navy SEALs Use Box Breathing?” Undated)

Here is how to do it:

Step 1: Breathe in, counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs.

Step 2: Hold your breath for four seconds. Avoid inhaling or exhaling for four seconds.

Step 3: Slowly exhale through your mouth for four seconds.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1 to 3 until you feel calmer.

If 4 seconds is too much, you can start with two or three seconds to help you start practicing.

Below is a diagram demonstrating box breathing. Some people find it useful to move a forefinger in the shape of an imaginary square to aid the process.

Image by https://www.psychotherapistaustin.com/blog/box-breathing

2. Cognitive (thinking) Restructuring

Thought work involves directly working with the thoughts that our running through our minds. Often it is difficult to identify the specific thought. One way to help us do this is to think of a thought as a like a statement or a sentence that is in our mind. Working with thoughts falls broadly under the category of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which continues to be one of the most widely used and researched psychological therapies. Your therapist will go into more in depth aspects of your thinking patterns and styles, however here are some techniques you can try alone.

Thought Challenge

When we experience a distressing thought we can question or argue back with the thought. We can challenge its validity. One of the ways we can do this is to apply a scientific approach. Imagine you are in a court of law and are examining the available evidence. After all, a thought is not a fact, it is an opinion.

Firstly, consider what evidence there is that supports the thought you have. Then, we consider the evidence there is that does not support the though. For example, if after a partner has not texted us we might think “he doesn’t love me.”

Now let us think about what evidence there is that supports this. This might only be the fact that he has just not responded to our text. Or, there may be more background in that it has happened before or there have been other events that have lead you to that thought.

If we look at the evidence against the thought we often find there is a lot more evidence to disprove the thought. For example, “he took me to dinner last week, we are going on holiday in the summer, and he said he loved me last night.”

Thought Reframing

Through reframing is a useful technique that takes some of the distress away from the though. We change the origins painful thought to one that is more balanced or if appropriate a positive one.

You can reframe a sentence or even just a phrase or a word. Have you ever heard a girl being described as ‘bossy’? A way of reframing that word would be to change it to ‘having leadership qualities’.

If the distressing thought is for example *I’m useless, I can’t do anything right” you can reframe this to something more balanced. Like “This is hard but most people would find this hard. There’s many things I have got right before so I’m just going to give it a go.”

Another example might be “Why can’t I sleep. I should be asleep. What’s wrong with me?* A more helpful way to reframe this would be “I’m not tired just yet. It might be because I woke up late. There’s nothing wrong, I’m just not tired.”

You can reframe bad news as well as thoughts. For example, if something changes or ends. A job or a relationship. Think of it as a new beginning rather than an ending. If someone says something you find hurtful you can reframe that too. For example “He’s likely not intended it to be hurtful. It’s a little insensitive but it isn’t about me.”

Other Thought Hacks

Ask yourself what would you would say to a good friend who was having this thought?

Ask yourself whether the thought is helpful? Even if it is true. Is it helpful. Will it solve the problem?

Write the thought down exactly as it is and put it to one side. Often just the process of writing it down gets it out of our heads. You can then revisit it later and see if you still believe the thought.

3. Connection

Social connectedness is the degree to which we have a number, quality, and diversity of relationships that create a sense of belonging, and being cared for, valued, and supported. Those of us with stronger social bonds have a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those who have fewer ones. “How Does Social Connectedness Affect Health?” 2023).

As with breathwork, the benefits of social connection are an increased sense of psychological wellbeing, reduced loneliness, anxiety, and low mood, as well as having similar physical benefits such as reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and dementia. (See reference above).

Find your Group

We are social animals who have an innate need for belonging. Finding like-minded individuals who get your references to a cult TV show, seem to almost intuitively understand your humour, or simply listen and take an interest can be a game changer in mental health. Many of us stay with the same people out of habit or fear of rejection from others we do not know. We have all heard of the notion that we can feel lonely in a room full of people. This might be a cue you simply are not with the right people.

Whilst it can be comforting it is important to broaden your horizons and build relationships with those on your wave length. Some ways of finding the right people for you might be to explore online groups for those with similar interests. From gardening to Star Trek search around and make connections. They may be online initially, which can have its own benefits, it is important to involve face to face socialising. Nothing is a substitute for live face to face communication allowing us to pick up on social cues, feel the connectedness, and avoid the traps of miscommunication that accompany text only connection.

Although mixing with those who understand you and share the same interests is important, it is also important not to limit yourself too much to only certain types of individuals. This may create a narrow minded perspective or echo chamber for our existing views. If you are feeling brave enough, mix with others you may not have actually considered socialising with before. This can broaden our horizons, challenge our perspectives, and dispel negative expectations of interactions with them. “Crossing Divides: The benefits of having friends who aren’t ‘just like us”. 2018)

Talking

Talking does not always have to involve conversing about personal difficulties or deep seated emotions. The benefits of just talking in general alone are numerous. Positive conversations trigger a neurochemical cocktail of dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and other biochemicals that give us a sense of well-being. “The Neuroscience of Conversations”. 2019).

Conversation helps create better relationships, builds confidence and self esteem, it increases empathy and trust, and aids in developing conflict resolution skills. “Top 5 Benefits of Developing Communication Skills”. 2022).

But what about talking specifically about our problems? Broadly, the same applies only it is even better. Studies have shown that talking about our problems and sharing our painful emotions with a trusted confidante can extremely beneficial, reducing stress and emotional distress. (See last reference cited above).

In neuroscience, studies have found that labelling our feelings reduces activation in the amygdala (the part of the brain that is most closely associated emotions). When we give words to our emotions, we move away from emotionality by activating other parts of the brain associated with language and meaning. During this process we become less reactive and more logically aware. (See last reference cited above).

A word of caution is worth noting in relation to talking about feelings. When it comes to trauma and very powerful emotional experiences, talking about the associated emotions can actually make them worse. There is a fine line between processing the experience to make it manageable and reliving it and therefore re-traumatising yourself. “When talking about your problems actually makes them worse.” 2014). In such instances the choice of person you talk to is critical. If in any doubt consult a psychologist or other well qualified and experienced trauma practitioner.

Volunteering

Volunteering reduces stress and increases positive and relaxing feelings by releasing dopamine. By spending time in service to others, volunteers report feeling a sense of meaning, purpose, and appreciation, both given and received, which can have a stress-reducing effect. It boosts self-esteem, confidence, life satisfaction, as well as forging connections and building relationships.

Reduced stress further decreases the risk of some physical and mental health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety and general illness. In addition, people who volunteer have lower mortality rates than those who do not, even when controlling for age, gender, and physical health. “Helping people, changing lives: 3 health benefits of volunteering.” 2023.

4. Grounding Skills

Grounding techniques are strategies that help connect or “ground” us in the present moment. They are a form of mindfulness (see number 9) which anchors us to the present moment, not the past, not the future, but simply the now. They physically ground our consciousness to the earth and have been shown to help many different mental health conditions.

One appealing benefit of grounding skills is that they can be done at any time, without anyone else knowing that you are using them. One hour of grounding exercises helps improve mood in people with anxiety and depression more than relaxation alone. “Grounding Exercises: Using Your 5 Senses for Anxiety Relief”. 2021).

Water

One type of grounding skill utilises the healing power of water. One such method is to put your hands in water. Focus on the  temperature of the water, how it feels on your fingertips, palms, and the backs of your hands. Notice whether  it feel the same in each part of your hand. Use warm water initially, then cold. Next, try cold water first, then warm. Notice whether it feel different to switch from cold to warm water as opposed to warm to cold.

Sipping cool water slowly can have a calming effect on the body. Take slow gentle sips and notice the feeling of it going down your throat. This will not only distract you but it will rehydrate you. A negative emotions dehydrate us and replenishing with water naturally calms these distressing feelings.

Holding a piece of ice can also induce a sense of calm in times of stress or overwhelm. Again, observe how this feels. Pay attention as to how long it takes to start melting. Notice how the sensations change when the ice begins to melt. You can rub it along your arm to feel the cooling sensation. You can even put it in your mouth or rub it over your face. Ice and icy water slows down the heart rate and creates a shift in your nervous system.

Five Senses

The five senses grinding technique is one of the most widely recognised grounding techniques. It involves noticing and describing our surroundings using the five senses.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Acknowledge five things you can see around you. It could be a pen, a window, or even a spot on the ceiling, anything in your surroundings. Describe them to yourself in detail.
  2. Acknowledge four things you can touch around you. It could be your seat, a pillow, or the ground under your feet. Describe them to yourself in detail.
  3. Acknowledge three things you hear. You may be able to hear your breath. Externally, you may be able to hear a car passing by. Describe them to yourself in detail.
  4. Acknowledge two things that you can smell. This may be food cooking or a perfume for example. Describe them to yourself in detail.
  5. Acknowledge one thing you can taste. This can be tricky but it might be the last thing you ate or drank, like a cup of tea for example. Describe them to yourself in detail.

 5. Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation are terms often used interchangeably. They are broadly the same. Mindfulness meditation is the skill of being able to be just in the present moment. It is the art of being ‘mindful.’ Not worrying about the future. Not feeling sad about the past. It is a state where we acknowledge and accept our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Ultimately, the aim is to simply accept what is happening within us without judgement or reacting on them.

There are many resources on mindfulness including videos on YouTube and apps you can use on your phone. It can be very challenging to do it without some voice guidance but in the absence of a voice guide here are the steps involved:

  1. Get comfortable either sitting or lying down
  2. Allow the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations to flow through your body
  3. Accept these for what they are. Do not try to repress, deny, or push them away.
  4. Acknowledge that this is happening right now and focus on the only the present
  5. Do not judge what is happening, try not to give it any meaning and focus on your breathing

You mind may wander whilst practicing this. This is not uncommon. If that happens just gently bring yourself back to focusing on the now.  

A useful app to begin mindfulness meditation is called Buddhify. It is either free or costs around £5 on Apple. It is not an expensive subscription you have to subscribe to. The exercises range from approximately two to 20 minutes. It includes different times or states that we can practice them in such as getting to sleep or experiencing overwhelm. Mindfulness mediation does require some practice and patience so persist and practice. If after trying it for a suitable length of time and it is not working for you then stop. It is not for everyone and a different technique may be better suited to you.

Visualisation

Visualisation involves tuning in to a calm or happy place in our heads. It may be a beach, a meadow, a memory of a happy time, or even our bed or sofa. The trick is to be creative here. Visualise every aspect of this peaceful image. The colours, the sights, the smells, the feel in your body, and all the pleasant thoughts and feelings. Get comfortable before you start and decide beforehand what image you are going to call to mind.

Visualising and mentally rehearsing for something challenging that is going to happen in your life, like an exam or  a difficult conversation for example can be a very powerful method of preparation. David Beckham has talked about how he would visualise scoring goals off the pitch when going about his daily life. This mental rehearsal creates new mental pathways, connecting actual life performances with new emotional consequences reducing anxiety and building confidence and skills in mastery.

If you would like to know more about these hacks, assistance in practicing them, or to learn others not mentioned here, get in touch. We’re here to help. Call 07801 079 555 or email luisa@myfamilypsychologist.com

References (Websites)

17 Breathwork Techniques to Improve Your Physical & Mental Health. (October 2021 16). Retrieved from https://www.othership.us/resources/breathwork-techniques

Box Breathing. (November 2020, 2). Retrieved from https://www.psychotherapistaustin.com/blog/box-breathing

Crossing Divides: The benefits of having friends who aren’t ‘just like us. (April 2018 22). Retrieved from https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43784802.amp

Grounding Exercises: Using Your 5 Senses for Anxiety Relief. (October 2021 8). Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/anxiety/using-the-five-senses-for-anxiety-relief

Helping people, changing lives: 3 health benefits of volunteering. (August 2023 1). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/3-health-benefits-of-volunteering#:~:text=Volunteering%20reduces%20stress%20and%20increases,have%20a%20stress%2Dreducing%20effect

The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. (2017 June 6). Retrieved from

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/

The Neuroscience of Conversations. (2019 June 1). Retrieved from https://www.wbecs.com/coach-created-the-neuroscience-of-conversations-by-nicklas-balboa-richard-d-glaser-ph-d/#:~:text=As%20we%20communicate%2C%20our%20brains,a%20sense%20of%20well%2Dbeing

Top 5 Benefits of Developing Communication Skills. (September 2022 12). Retrieved from https://practice.do/blog/benefits-of-communication-skills

What Is Box Breathing? (2023 April 30). Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/balance/what-is-box-breathing

When talking about your problems actually makes them worse. (2019 September 25). Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/25/talking-about-problems-makes-them-worse-walter-mischel

Why Do Navy SEALs Use Box Breathing? (Undated). Retrieved from https://www.medicinenet.com/why_do_navy_seals_use_box_breathing/article.htm

Why Talking About Our Problems Makes Us Feel Better. (2019 June 19). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/your-personal-renaissance/201906/why-talking-about-our-problems-makes-us-feel-better

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