mental health

Teaching Emotional Recognition & Regulation: DIY Calm Down Kit

Building a Calm Down Box to recognize and regulate your emotions



What is a Calm Down Box?: This is a personalized kit to help identify your most intense feelings and learn healthy coping strategies you can use to regulate them. A Calm Down Box uses all 5 senses so that  you can explore what your body and mind connects with the most. When you experience overwhelming emotions, you can move through items in the box, using each item to locate the source of your intense feelings.

Why should I use one?: Being able to recognize and understand your own emotions is important for self-regulation and mental wellness. It also helps to build self-awareness and mental strength to handle stressful situations whenever you encounter them.

Who else can use it?: This box is great for all ages! Toddlers beginning around age 2 will connect with the variety of stimuli and activities within the box and enjoy learning about emotions. Teaching children how to use it is a powerful way that parents can model positive emotional self-awareness (and learn better practices at the same time, as many of us were not taught these skills when we were younger).

Where should I keep it?: Calm Down Boxes should be easily accessible so you can find them in a hurry. You can also keep these items grouped in an area of your home; here in Austin, schools call these “Peace Corners,” where kids can take themselves when they need a break. Keeping these goodies in a box or bag makes them simple to transport on trips around town or on vacation. 

When is a good time to use it?: Calm Down Boxes are always good to have on-hand, but can be especially useful during major life changes or difficult transitions. During those moments, it can be soothing to redo your Calm Down Box,  exchanging or adding an extra item or two. These also can make thoughtful gifts for a child when they are going through a family change (death, divorce, moving) or having a tough time at school. 

*IT IS IMPORTANT TO INTRODUCE AND PRACTICE USING THE CALM DOWN BOX WHEN CALM. Ask your child to notice any changes in their body after using an item. You can also use imaginative play to “pretend” an emotion and use the box to help process it. Remember, all feelings are ok. Your goal is to help the behavior associated with the emotion to be a helpful and not harmful one.

Below are my personal recommendations in each sensory area.


TOUCH: Touch is calming for a lot of people.  Here are some of my favorites with Amazon links for purchase:

Magnetic Sand is fascinating to use and therefore a great way to self- regulate. You can keep it in a plastic container with a lid to minimize the mess.

These fidget toys work well both for for touch and visual senses.

Play-doh is another visual and touch sensory experience. Did you know that you can also make your own?


Squishies, stress balls, and soft stuffed animals are great as well.




Bath and Body Works has a lot of trial-size lotions in various scents.  Put two or three in your box.  (Tip: They tend to have great sales on Black Friday.) Adults can use scented oils and candles to provide a scent.


Tic-Tacs, suckers, or salty snacks can be helpful to have in your box.


Moody Cow Meditates  and the Sparkle Wand (these two items go together).  You can also make your own glitter jar DIY, which is fun for everyone. 


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Mandala Coloring Books can be amazing in calming down one’s body and mind. It can be a great activity to do before bed if you or your little one has an active mind.

Bubbles!  Bubbles are great ways to calm down with breath, sight, and touch.  A fun activity can be assigning an emotion to each bubble and then pop it away!

Journaling - Writing about how you feel can be eye-opening. Here’s a list of prompts here and here to reduce anxiety.  Adults/older kids can also utilize gratitude journals or stationary to write appreciation notes to those they care about. After you have figured out what is going on and why, remembering something that you are grateful for and expressing it can help change a mood. 

Breathing balls.

Emotion Cards and Books:  These nurture emotional intelligence and help children understand what they’re feeling.  You can also help them by making observations, like, “ It looks like you’re feeling disappointed that you have to stop playing.”  Here’s a short, helpful video about helping your children understand their emotions in the moment. My 2 year-old loves these feelings and dealings cards.  We also have a large poster of feeling faces he can go to show me how he is feeling.


Create a playlist or use a pre-made one on Spotify.

Use noise-cancelling headphones, because sometimes it’s silence that we’re needing.

Bring your attention to the noises around you. If possible, go outside and listen.

Beyond the Calm Down Box

Another helpful diagnostic when you are having BIG emotions is “HALT”.  Many times, our emotions feel exacerbated because we’re also feeling one or more of the following:

H: Hungry (or feeling Hot)

A: Angry

L: Lonely

T: Tired

The Calm Down Box is just one method for confronting big emotions and finding healthy ways to cope with them. I highly recommend the movie Inside Out to help change a perspective that ‘negative’ emotions are ones we want to ‘get rid of.’ Also this wonderful train tunnel metaphor helps us understand why we shouldn’t shortcut through emotionally challenging territory - and that doing so actually diminishes our resiliency.   

We have hard emotions for a reason: they give us information, help us form strong, intimate relationships, and build resiliency. Shifting your mental frame about this and keeping a toolbox handy for those inevitable tough days is a powerful action you can take for your own wellbeing.


Premarital Counseling



A long-term investment with immediate benefits

Relationships have a deep impact on your overall health. Strong, long-term relationships reduce stress and anxiety, increase life expectancy, and help people be more productive. However, in relationships where there is a lot of conflict, uncertainty, or instability people find themselves so preoccupied  that it’s hard to concentrate at work or enjoy normal activities. 

It’s important to realize that all relationships will have conflict, but it’s possible for couples to use conflict to bring them closer together. This is a learned skill that takes special knowledge and practice. Generally, people do not want to hurt each other. When couples disconnect or behave differently, it is usually because their defensive instincts kick in. This is why it’s so important to learn how to counteract those instincts by developing the skill for staying connected. 

Premarital counseling is a great way to learn these skills  that has huge benefits. Imagine not feeling stressed when you and your partner fight. Most people will say that their relationships are great 99% of the time but that 1% is incredibly painful. These skills teach couples how to fight well, be emotionally responsible to one another, and to invest in their relationship on a daily basis. It also makes it easier to come in for a quick tune up session if either person notices more fights or arguments. The sooner a couple comes in, the easier it is to repair and re-connect. Otherwise, it’s like an open wound that, without treatment, can fester and become more complicated to treat. If a couple neglects this caretaking and continues to have unresolved issues, these infect many other areas of the relationship, making treatment that much harder. 

An analogy I like to use is that strengthening your relationship is like going to the gym. You can do it on your own, go to a class, or get a personal trainer. Using a personal trainer will help you achieve your goals more quickly and easily, and enable you to make modifications depending on your body and needs. Taking a class helps you complete a full work out when you might otherwise stop earlier on your own. Similarly, using a relationship ‘trainer’ can help you dig deeper, and safely explore insecurities and vulnerabilities. Strengthening your relationship in this way is really hard, mentally and emotionally, but the payoff is tremendous. Trying to do this work on your own can lead to relationship injuries (think of sharing something vulnerable and if your partner rejects or dismisses it, it can create a hesitancy to share things in the future). 

Why is premarital counseling better with a trained premarital couples counselor? 

●      Licensed Couples Counselors pick up on any underlying issues that may impact healthy communication.

○      This can include dysfunctional  family dynamics, past trauma, personality differences, or having ‘non-neurotypical’ brains.

○      For example, look at my article on the ADHD and Non-ADHD couple. Many of common communication techniques won’t work for a couple like this because they need to learn how to communicate specifically with a different type of brain. 

●      A premarital counselor can explain the research and why people are wired differently.

●      Premarital counselors experience working with couples in all stages of their life and relationship.

●      Couples can come back in for counseling with someone who knows their history.

●      Unlike trained premarital counselors, many couples counselors will see premarital couples but will not cover a curriculum, use an assessment, and explore future times that are stressful for most relationships. 

●      Premarital counseling is a non religious approach that can be beneficial for those who may not share the same religious beliefs or identify as agnostic or atheist. 

There is evidence that even taking 8 hours before marrying to explore your relationship and learn these skills is huge. Positive outcomes include:

●      Increasing marital satisfaction by 52%

●      Decreasing chance of divorce by 30%

●      Decreasing areas of conflict by 83%

●      Increasing communication and conflict resolution skills

●      Reducing wedding planning stress

One of the reasons I love working with couples, especially in premarital counseling, is that relationships are powerful. They restore, heal and create safety. I love helping couples learn those skills so they can have a better relationship and be able to identify the signs of when to come in for extra support. Ultimately, we know this to be about prevention. No matter where you are in your relationship, stepping into marriage with a strong foundation and the confidence to use these skills will remove many barriers that most couples typically face. Why wait until your relationship doesn’t feel good to take action, when you can make it feel even better today? Check out my Premarital Group and Private Classes today!





Why getting started is often the hardest part

Many friends ask me how to find a good therapist. There are many different types of therapies that work great for some but not for others because each of us is wired differently. I find that certain people connect well with talk therapy while others respond better to activities and tools. Tools can be mental exercises or physical actions to take.

 For example: when you feel anxious, do this deep breathing exercise.


You can think of achieving mental health in the same way you think of physical exercise. The end goal of exercise  is good physical health and there are many ways to obtain it (bootcamp, gym, swimming, yoga etc.). Maybe you prefer running over swimming, and finding out what works for you will better motivate you to obtain your goal. Similarly, the goal of good mental health is resiliency (strength);there are several ways to achieve this. So  if you had a counseling or therapy experience you didn’t connect with, don’t be shy about trying a therapist who uses a different technique.

But first, how to narrow down the best type of therapy for you to explore? Here’s my quick breakdown:

If you want: Tools, activities, ‘homework’

Look for a therapist that uses:  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

Good for: Anxiety, intrusive or repetitive thoughts, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)


If you want: Connection and understanding

Look for: Attachment and Relational Therapists

Good for: Depression, isolation, loneliness, healing from childhood issues


If you want: Direction, problem-solving

Look for: Strength-based, Coaching, Motivational Interviewing, Solution Focused

Good for: People experiencing transition (college, job change, new relationship, etc.)


If you want: Understanding of relationship patterns and behavior, understanding how you’re feeling

Look for: Psychodynamic therapy

Good for:  Personality disorders, childhood difficulties (especially with parents), fears within a relationship (abandonment, etc.)


If you want: Help changing behaviors with addictive substances (caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, drugs)

Look for: Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor (LCDC), Motivational Interviewing (MI), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Good for:  People wanting to make difficult lifestyle changes with a substance that has addictive properties


If you want: Peace, managing turmoil and difficult experiences, tools to connect you to yourself

Look for: Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Good for: Anxiety, depression


If you want: Healing from a traumatic event

Look for: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), Narrative Therapy

Good for: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Acute Stress Disorder, Traumatic Event(s) (car accident, natural disaster, etc.)


If you want:  Support with grief and loss

Look for: Specializing in Grief, Narrative Therapy, Attachment Therapy

Good for: People who lost a loved one, complicated bereavement


If you want: Help with your relationship

Look for: Someone who specializes in couples therapy, uses Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), The Gottman Method (good for left-brain thinkers), and Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT)

Good for: Strengthening your relationship, reconnection, decreasing stress and conflict, extramarital affairs, parenting issues, healing from past hurts


Once you’ve identified which type of therapy you think might address your needs, see if you can set up an initial consultation or time to talk on the phone with a therapist. Tell the therapist what you’re looking for and ask if it they think the two of you would work well together. You can share any concerns or fears that you may have about therapy and see how they respond. You can always bring up what you like and don’t like in your therapy sessions and change therapists if it doesn’t feel like a strong fit.

A good place to start looking for a therapist is Psychology Today.  You can search by location, insurance accepted, and specialties.  

Stepping into therapy can be overwhelming and intimidating. Sometimes the hardest part is simply getting started. Use this guide to arm yourself with more knowledge upfront, and hopefully that will give you the confidence to take this positive step for your well-being, both now and in the future.