Six Essential Strategies for Navigating Tough Emotions and Situations

Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD

Licensed psychologist and wellness consultant

Ways to self-soothe during periods of overwhelm or overstimulation

Recently, both in and out of my therapy sessions, I’ve observed a recurring theme: the need to return to the “basics.” These basics are the foundational skills that help us navigate difficult emotions and situations. Although they may seem simple, implementing these skills effectively in the moment is often more challenging than we expect.

Many of my sessions start with a thorough description of a tough situation or experience. While it’s crucial to verbalize these experiences, what happens next is even more important. As humans, and yes, even as psychologists, our instinct is to jump straight into problem-solving. However, it’s essential to first address our basic needs and physiological responses to stress.

Before we attempt to tackle the problem, we need to ensure that we’re not in a heightened state of alert. By taking care of our internal needs, we calm our body’s stress response, allowing us to think more clearly and gain a broader perspective. This shift is vital because when our bodies don’t feel like they’re in a crisis, we can approach problems more effectively.

Navigating tough times can sometimes feel like walking in the dark without a flashlight.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

A photo of the Northern Lights taken in Oklahoma on May 10, 2024 
(Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman via USA TODAY Network)

Let’s go back to the basics (nothing quite like nature to help us do that). Here’s what to do when it feels like your mind and body are crying out for help.

Below are my six favorite strategies for grounding ourselves, calming our bodies, and reducing sensory overload:

1️⃣ Mantras for Grounding: Find a few words that help you stay present. Repeat them softly to yourself:

  • “Be here, now.”
  • “Here. Here. Here.”
  • “Feet planted.”
  • “Gentle. Gentle.”
  • “I am safe.”

2️⃣ Orienting Exercises: Like a game of ‘Where’s Waldo?’ these simple tasks help reassure your brain that you are physically safe:

  • “Where’s my name?” Look around you for objects that start with the letters in your name (e.g., CAROLYN could be Chair, Air vent, Red pen).
  • “Where’s the rainbow?” Identify objects around you that correspond to the colors of the rainbow and beyond (ROYGBIV, plus white, black, silver, gold). 🌈 To see this in action, watch this reel I created (it was by far the most fun I had creating a reel).

3️⃣ Soft Belly Breathing: This technique involves deep, focused breathing which creates a sense of calm in your body:

  • Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, thinking of the word “soft.”
  • Exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds, focusing on “belly.”
  • Repeat until your body and breath feel calm.

🎧 Practice with Dr. James Gordon in this guided audio meditation

4️⃣ Engage Your Hands: Focus on tactile activities that engage your senses:

  • Try coloring books, painting by numbers, making bracelets, baking, or gardening.

✍🏼 Explore a few of my personal picks for some inspiration  

5️⃣ Reduce Sensory Overload: Minimize unnecessary stimulation:

  • Dim the lights or use an eye mask if needed.
  • Consider earplugs or soft background noise like brown noise to reduce auditory distractions.

6️⃣ Take a Mindful Walk: Use this time to gently engage with your environment:

  • Count birds, or if in a noisy city, count recurring sounds like car horns.
  • Engage with the feeling of each step, repeating “left, right” as you walk (you can do this indoors).

I encourage you to experiment with these strategies and find what resonates with you. For me, soft belly breathing is a go-to that helps reset my day.

Regardless of the strategies you choose, give yourself a moment of gratitude for taking the time to care for you. Prioritizing yourself is in itself important.

Remember, you’re not alone in this journey. We’re all learning and adapting together.

All my love,
Dr. Carolyn

Caught in anxious patterns like people pleasing or perfectionism?