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Processing Emotions and Relaxation Techniques

Dealing with the stay-at-home order is a stressful and confusing change for many. Everyone is experiencing the impact of the disruption in our daily routine. This can result in difficult emotions. For individuals with autism and intellectual disabilities, it may be even more difficult to understand and process these strong emotions. This resource highlights some ways to help people process their feelings.

Building an Emotional Vocabulary

It is important to have a strong emotional vocabulary in order to identify how you are feeling. Most people can recognize and label basic emotions (happy, sad, anger, disgust, fear and surprise). It is sometimes challenging for people to identify degrees of these emotions, or even more complex emotions. It is important to find ways to teach how to identify emotions based on the individual’s skills.

For people with communication challenges or intellectual challenges, using visuals can help to build this emotional vocabulary. It is also helpful to identify and label changes in behavior that are related to emotions.

For those who have a good understanding of basic and complex feelings, it is helpful to have discussions about these feelings and the impact on a person’s mood and functioning.

Another good way to build a person’s emotional vocabulary is to use strategies like video modeling, social stories, or social-emotional learning resources.

Teaching Coping Strategies

It is normal to feel varying degrees of emotions. However, it is important to be able to deal with strong emotions in healthy ways. For individuals who have difficulty dealing with strong emotions, it is helpful to teach and reinforce healthy coping strategies. This can include strategies like deep breathing, finding helpful distractions, identifying when a person needs a break, or other strategies that have been helpful in the past. It is also important to teach communication skills to be able to describe these difficult emotions to others.

Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques

How does mindfulness help to process emotions? Mindfulness is a strategy that helps by forcing us to be aware our thinking, feelings, and physical sensations. The more you are able to notice these changes in these areas, the more that you will be able to process these emotions.

Mindfulness can be used by many individuals. It can even be adapted for individuals with communication challenges.

If you experience anxiety or stress, you may have heard someone recommend relaxation techniques. There are many types of relaxation techniques that are used to help anxiety and stress. Everyone is different and not all relaxation techniques will work for everyone.

Breathing is the only bodily function that we do both voluntarily and involuntarily, meaning that you breathe on your own without thinking, but are also able to change your breathing when you want to.

During times of stress, there may be changes in body functions – heart rate rises, sweating occurs, muscles tense, and breathing becomes rapid and shallow.

These physical changes, this can affect how people think and feel. If a person is anxious and their breathing becomes faster, this can make them feel even more anxious. To help get rid of those feelings, individuals can practice deep breathing, also called abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing.

Steps for Deep Breathing

  1. Be relaxed in a quiet, comfortable place with eyes closed.
  2. Place one hand on the chest and the other on the stomach.
  3. Take a slow, deep breath in through the nose for a count of between 5 and 10. The
    hand on the stomach should move first and further than the one on the chest. This shows that the diaphragm is pulling air deep into the lungs.
  4. Hold the breath for a count of between 5 and 10, but not so long to be uncomfortable.
  5. Exhale slowly through the mouth for a count of between 5 and 10. Gently squeeze the stomach muscles to completely remove the air from the lungs.
  6. Repeat this cycle four more times for a total of 5 deep breaths.
  7. Should be done at least twice a day to start, or whenever a person notices signs of anxiety

Anxiety and stress can cause a person to think negatively and imagine the worst happening. Imagery can help them focus on positive and pleasant memories and experiences and help combat negative thoughts. Focusing on these types of mental images can help the person feel relaxed.

Steps for Using Imagery

1. Be relaxed in a quiet, comfortable place with eyes closed.

2. Think of a calming place in your mind. Don’t just think of the place briefly, but imagine every detail about it. Go through each of the senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell – and imagine what someone would experience in that place.

3. Here’s an example using a beach.

  • Sight – sun in the sky, sand under your feet, crystal clear water, calm waves rolling in
  • Sound – rustling waves, seagulls in the sky, wind blowing
  • Touch – sand or water under feet, warm sun on skin, wind on skin
  • Taste – saltwater in your mouth, cool glass of lemonade
  • Smell – ocean air and salt water, sunscreen

4. Imagine this scene for as long as possible or at least until anxiety begins to lower. If negative thoughts or imagines try to pop up, return thoughts to the calming place and try to stay focused on the relaxing image.

When people feel anxious, their muscles may get tense and make them feel stiff or sore. Progressive muscle relaxation teaches people to relax their muscles and lower tension. It also helps people learn to identify when they are experiencing stress so they can handle it better.

Steps for Using Progressive Muscle Relaxation

  1. Be relaxed in a quiet, comfortable place with eyes closed.
  2. Tense muscle groups, one by one. Use the diagram and instructions below as a guide, starting from the top and moving down the body.
    • Forehead: raise your eyebrows
    • Eyes: clench your eyelids tightly shut
    • Mouth: open your mouth wide to stretch the hinges of jaw
    • Neck and shoulders: raise your shoulders to touch your ears
    • Chest: tighten by taking a deep breath
    • Stomach: suck in your stomach
    • Arm: tighten your biceps and “make a muscle”
    • Hand: clench your fist
    • Buttocks: tighten by squeezing your buttocks together
    • Leg: squeeze your thigh muscles
    • Lower leg: tighten your calf muscle by pointing toes up
    • Foot: curl your toes under
  3. Hold the tension for 5 seconds for each body part, then release.
  4. Notice how the muscles feel when you relaxed.
  5. This should take about 15 minutes to complete, and be practiced twice a day to start.

A diagram used for Progressive Muscle Relaxation highlighting ways to move forehead, eyes, mouth, neck and shoulders, chest, stomach, arm, hand, buttocks, leg, lower leg, and foot.

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Name Description Type File
Deep Breathing This resource describes how to practice deep breathing. pdf Download file: Deep Breathing
Imagery This resource describes how to use imagery to help with anxiety. pdf Download file: Imagery
Progressive Muscle Relaxation This resource describes progressive muscle relaxation and steps to follow. pdf Download file: Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This information was developed by the Autism Services, Education, Resources, and Training Collaborative (ASERT). For more information, please contact ASERT at 877-231-4244 or info@PAautism.org. ASERT is funded by the Bureau of Supports for Autism and Special Populations, PA Department of Human Services.