Here's a tip that might help you manage things like strong emotions, ruminations, and overstimulation. I think it can help a bit with concentration as well.
I think "sensory integration exercise" is the technical term for this, but autism resources often call this stimming, especially when the action is a repetitive motor movement. It's also got a lot of overlap with one of the numerous things pop psychology refers to as "mindfulness." A deliberate plan for regular exercises daily is called a sensory diet in resources about sensory processing disorder.
What are sensory integration exercises, and why do they help?Stimulating one's own nerves is something pretty much everyone does for comfort. To some degree, it's one of those "everyone does it but no one talks about it" things, but some of us benefit from a wider variety of exercises done with a deliberate plan.
If you do an image search for "stressed," you get pictures of people doing things like
- Rubbing their head or face.
- Squeezing their head between their hands.
- Squeezing the bridge of their nose.
- Pressing their head against something (or banging their head against something, but those are usually jokes)
- Pulling their own hair
- Screaming or yelling
- Biting something
- Eating, or other references to food, hot coffee, and hot tea
Those actions are kind of "iconic" for stress. They're associated with stress because many people are inclined to do things like that when they feel stressed. Why?
Most of the stuff that's commonly considered legitimate "relaxation techniques" also involve self-stimulation: deep breaths and concentrating on the breath feeling, stretching/yoga, systematic tensing and releasing muscles, listening to music.
Those of us with sensory issues or other neuro-atypicalities end up doing more of this and/or uncommon actions, which is why stimming is considered weird when we do it, even though typical people do it too.
I think when people do self-injury, it's because of the same instinct, but they are so distressed that normal stimulation is not enough.
How do we do it?It's hard to figure out the exact mechanics of how stimulation-vs-overstimulation works (and it probably varies a little from person to person) but I think the key point of helpful stimulation is that it's predictable and that you are in control. Repetition isn't strictly required, but it often helps make things predictable and easy to do.
Here are all the activities I can think up. (Sorry, some of the actions are redundant from my post on sensory issues, but I wanted the whole list in one place.) Don't consider these your only options; the potential list of actions is pretty much infinite.
List of sensory exercise ideas!
Breathing exercises: Breathe deeply enough that you feel some pressure (stretching?) in your torso. Counting is optional; I feel like it just distracts from the helpful part.
Listen to music. In order for this to help, it may need to be recorded music that you've heard many times before. (Avoid live music, unfamiliar music, or unfamiliar covers of familiar songs, etc.)
- In situations where you need to concentrate on reading, writing, or any other task involving words, you may find it better to use music without lyrics or lyrics in a language you don't know. Be careful of instrumental versions of songs that normally have lyrics, because it might make you imagine the lyrics in your head.
- Soft or slow music is widely considered more relaxing, but my preferred music is very upbeat and percussion-heavy, and preferably fairly loud. I don't think the type of music is very important. Familiarity is what matters. Just try to find something you like enough that you don't dislike hearing it over and over and over.
Draw or color:
- Color in a coloring book
- Just doodle randomly (Example activity: Spend a couple seconds making large curving scribbles on a paper, then fill in the resulting shapes with different colors or different geometric patterns. Or even just shade them all uniformly with your pencil.)
- Drawing an actual picture could be good, but only if it isn't too much work.
Look at fire (candle, fireplace, etc)
Look at some relaxing animations such as these.
Take a bath or shower. I feel like it's more effective for this purpose if it's slightly hotter than you would normally consider ideal.
Massage yourself, such as by rubbing your arms or wedging a tennis ball between your back and the wall.
Pushing on things to feel pressure in your arm joints or torso muscles:
- Do some basic exercises such as kickboxing actions or push-ups. (If you can't do normal push-ups, you can put your hands on a wall or chair so it takes less strength.) Some exercise machines can be good, but watch out that they don't make a weird noise or something that gives you bad stimulation.
- Press your hands together as hard as possible in front of your chest (prayer pose) for several seconds. I like this one because it's available in a lot of situations.
- Press your hands as hard as possible against opposite sides of a door frame.
- While driving, push against the steering wheel, so you are squishing yourself against the seat. Only available when you aren't actually turning.
- In the car but not driving (should be okay at red lights), push your hands against the ceiling.
Eating and drinking can work, but it can easily lead to unhealthy results, so be careful about it.
Stretching, such as you would normally do before exercising. There's a few arm/shoulder stretches that you can casually do in most social or work situations without getting too many weird looks.
Sing or hum. Even humming the same note continuously. The key is the vibration in your throat.
Touch something that's pleasant or interesting to touch, such as petting a furry animal, squeezing a squishy toy, etc.
Repetitive motor movements or similar fidgeting.
- Hand flapping (example). If it makes your wrist hurt, keep your wrist stiff or partially stiff and do all the movement in your elbows (and/or shoulders).
- Bounce your knee. When I do this, I'm flexing my ankle.
- Rock back and forth. Often socially unacceptable... unless you are in a rocking chair!
Use an object specifically designed for fidgeting such as a fidget spinner, fidget cube, stress ball, worry stone, or worry beads. There seem to be all sorts of things in the category of "sensory toy" these days! Some objects are designed to be chewed. Some businesses, like Stimtastic, are based around selling stuff just like this, but you can also find things in conventional stores. In some cases you can also use objects that weren't intended for fidgeting. (A classic example is clicking a pen repeatedly.)
In extreme cases, pain might make you feel better, so you can try things like squeezing an ice cube. Another tactic is to put a rubber band on your wrist and pull on it so it snaps against your skin.
If you're feeling unintended physical pain, sometimes it's helpful to press or rub the sore spot. (For me, this tends to make it hurt worse, but somehow it still feels better than not doing it!) Of course, be careful you don't make your injury worse.
When I wake up in the morning, I'm groggy and cranky and can't think straight. There is a sense of urgency because I need to be at work soon. I'm looking at my collection of pill bottles on the kitchen counter, wondering, "Guhhh, which ones am I supposed to take again?" Hand-flapping helps me get on track.
When I'm at my desk at work, trying to concentrate on my job, I find leg-bouncing helpful.
When I'm trying to push through initiation impairment and get something done, I find it helpful to listen to a few pieces of music on repeat.
I used coloring books a lot during my last depressive episode.
When I'm overstimulated or when I'm sad or stressed because of something bad happening, but I'm in a public place and can't be too weird, I tend to use deep breaths or push my hands together in front of my chest.
When I'm jittery (due to medication side effects or something I ate), I go for things like wall-pushups, shoulder stretches, pushing on a doorframe, etc. Somehow shoulder joints are the key here.
I tend to feel compelled to chew the inside of my mouth when I'm driving home from work. (Maybe because I can't use hand-flapping or leg-bouncing in that situation?) To avoid shredding the inside of my mouth too badly, I've started a habit of chewing gum instead.
If you're ruminating on something unhappy and want to stop, rather than trying to stop the thoughts directly, I think it's helpful to soothe the bad emotions with any kind of relaxation exercise, even something that has nothing to do with what you're upset about. The bad thoughts come from the bad emotions.
Often you might feel the urge to do a sensory action that is unhealthy or socially inappropriate. You may be able to resist such actions by substituting another action. Unfortunately, it seems like nothing is ever as satisfying as whatever you felt an urge for, which is why I eat so much junk food and drink so many carbonated beverages. Still, the second-best action is better than nothing.
I'd like to give you more research-based info on this, but unfortunately, there's not a lot. Sensory exercises get the most attention from SPD resources, but SPD is an unappreciated condition. A bunch of the info that's out there uses a bunch of different terminology. Some topics cover things with a lot of overlap but don't match up exactly (e.g. "mindfulness" often involves sensory things like breathing exercises and coloring books, but it excludes a lot of potential exercises, and sometimes includes spiritual or cognitive elements). So you may have to do a bit of experimenting.
Hope this helps.