5 steps to feel better fast
The other day before a big test at school, I asked my daughter how she was feeling. She confided, “Mom, I’m kind of freaked out.” As a cognitive-behavioral psychologist and parent coach, this was my sweet spot. After talking about and empathizing with her feelings, I said, “Let’s tweak your freak.”
This phrase I made up on the spot—Tweak Your Freak™—has become our favorite new household slogan when someone is feeling anxious or stressed, and I’ve started using it with my patients, too. It’s a silly and catchy name for five steps, drawn from my background in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and human development, that can help anyone feel better faster.
CBT as a practice includes many more techniques and strategies, but I like these five, especially for families, because they are simple, effective, and easy to remember. Used regularly, these five steps can also build better mental habits and improve emotion regulation skills.
The first three steps—Notice, Name, Reframe™—go together. They are the cornerstones of basic CBT. Notice your thoughts, name them, and then reframe them; that is, see them from another (more constructive) perspective.
Steps #4 and #5 are intended to harness the power of your body to calm your mind, via breath and body posture.
1. Notice: This step is just as it sounds. Notice your thoughts. This is the first step toward being able to change them.
When teaching this to young children, I find it useful to tell them to pretend their thoughts are butterflies flitting around inside their head, and them ask them to take a butterfly net and catch one.
2. Name: After noticing our thoughts, we label them. This helps us to see the pattern of our thinking over time, and also helps us begin creating some distance and perspective.
When labeling your thoughts, try to do it as if you were observing yourself, like an anthropologist studying other cultures. For example: “I am having the thought that my boss is angry at me and is going to fire me.”
Phrasing it this way helps us take a step back from our experience and helps us to see our thinking as what it really is: our brain’s interpretation of what it is experiencing.
3. Reframe: The final step in modifying our thinking is to change our interpretation or perspective about what is happening. I call this Reframing.
Reframing is not denial—we are not trying to trick ourselves into believing something that isn’t true. Instead, we are trying to teach ourselves to see the situation from other, more constructive, perspectives that are equally valid based on the evidence we have. Most of our thoughts are based on limited information, and we often jump to a conclusion (e.g. I’m going to get fired) without even noticing that we are focusing on partial information.
A key part of reframing, then, is to collect evidence to challenge the thoughts we identified and named in steps one and two. Start by looking for evidence that supports the opposite of your anxious thought. For example: “My boss seems really angry right now, but last week she complimented me on my work.”
From there, use your new evidence to reframe your anxious thought: “Even though my boss is angry that I made a mistake in the presentation, she knows I do good work. She is probably just blowing off steam, and there may be other reasons she is frustrated that I don’t even know about.”
4. Change your posture: This technique, which relies on our body to calm our mind, is useful anytime. Based on the facial feedback hypothesis, the underlying idea is that how we hold and move our bodies can influence our emotional experience.
You may have already heard that mimicking a smile can convince your brain that all is well and make you feel happier (aka the “chopstick trick”). Interestingly, recent research suggests that if you know your fake smile is intended to make you feel better, then the technique may not work as well.
That said, a growing body of research supports the idea that our bodies powerfully influence our emotions, such that “power poses” and other physical movements (such as hugging yourself) can improve confidence and mood.
So, use your body to help direct your mind and mood: when you want to feel happier or more relaxed, put your face and body in a posture that conveys those feelings.
5. Breathe: Our breath is one of the most powerful tools we have for influencing our health and well-being. When we are feeling stressed or anxious, our breathing tends to become more shallow and rapid.
Step #5 to Tweak Your Freak™ is to pay attention to your breathing, and shift it into a slower and deeper rhythm. To slow down your breathing, try inhaling through your nose for a count of 5, then exhaling as if you were pushing the air out of a small straw in your mouth for a count of 10. Initiate the breath from your belly (it will move in and out if you are).
So, the next time you find yourself “freaking out,” here's a recap of the five steps to Tweak Your Freak™:
4. Change your posture