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15 Tools to Stay in Your Executive Functioning

If you’re someone who’s always looking for one more trauma-informed resource to add to your toolkit, you’re in luck. This list of 15 trauma-informed tools includes great coping strategies, mindfulness exercises, and grounding activities.

Practical Trauma-Informed Tools for Resilience and Executive Functioning

When we’re stuck in our trauma, we can’t access our executive functioning. It’s why we sometimes act in ways that don’t make sense (or in ways we’re not proud of).

No matter what role you play in the world we live in today, maintaining access to your executive functioning skills is essential for success in both your professional and personal lives.

Our executive functioning skills are an intricate set of cognitive processes. From inhibition to emotional regulation, our executive functioning skills form the foundation of effective decision-making, goal achievement, and stress management.

If we want to tap back into our ability to think with a level head and make logical decisions, we need to use tools that help us escape the trauma brain state.

The tools on this list are our personal favorites at Chefalo Consulting; and it’s important to acknowledge that not every tool will work for every person. We recommend that you try out a few new tools, take the ones that work, and leave the ones that don’t.

If a tool doesn’t work for you, that’s okay! It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the tool (or wrong with you). It just means that it’s not the right fit right now.

1. Use Your Safety Plan

A safety plan is a tool that can save your job (or your life) if you take the time to:

  • create your safety plan

  • update your safety plan as needed

  • share your safety plan with others, and

  • put your safety plan somewhere accessible.

We offer a free safety plan template (which includes a sample safety plan) and a digital self-care menu to make the barriers to this task smaller for everyone. Learn more about creating your first safety plan here.

2. Cross Your Toes

Try to cross your big toe over your second toe. If that’s too easy, try to cross your second toe over your third toe. Connecting your mind to your body in novel ways like this can help us stay in our executive functioning.

You can find tons of guided brain gym exercise videos online for free by searching brain gym exercises on YouTube. I encourage you to find your favorites and add them to your safety plan!

Chefalo Consulting regulars might recognize this tip from another article: 9 Silly Methods for Emotional Regulation That Actually Work, which provides even more resources for your toolkit!

3. Stress-Reduction

Trauma happens when we experience things as too much, too fast, or too soon. The “too-muchness” of something is dependent on an individual.

I’ve met many people who dislike the nails-on-a-chalkboard sound or the sound a fork makes as it scrapes a plate. For some people, these sounds are unpleasant but bearable. For others, especially for someone in the midst of a trauma state, these sounds are too much.

Any tool that reduces the “too-muchness” of the world around us is an excellent trauma-informed resource. Here are some examples:

  • noise canceling headphones

  • earplugs

  • sunglasses

  • comfortable, familiar clothing

  • predictable circumstances

  • a written plan

The specific tools that will help you reduce day-to-day stressors will be unique to you. What other tools can you think of that might help?

In some situations, there’s very little we can do to reduce our stress. In this case, removing ourselves from a situation is often the best course of action, which leads us to our next tool.

4. Go-to Catchphrases and Behaviors

Sometimes, when we’re triggered in the presence of other people, we freeze and become stuck in the uncomfortable situation, which pushes us further into a trauma state. Go-to catchphrases that are easy to remember and re-use are ideal for these situations where you just need to take a break from whatever is happening.

Your catchphrases should be authentic to who you are. Here are some examples of what these can look like:

  • “I’m feeling overwhelmed. Can we take a 10-minute break?”

  • “I need to step out. Can we touch base in 15-minutes?”

  • “This is a lot for me. Can we pause?”

Keep in mind that each catchphrase can be paired with a behavior. In the cases above, the behavior is taking a short break from whatever is happening—a meeting at work, a party, a conversation at home, etc.

However, the behavior you pair with your go-to phrase is entirely up to you. Other behaviors might include:

  • sitting in silence, which can give you time to brainstorm and process

  • physical contact, such as a hug or holding hands with a loved one

  • leaving a situation or place, such as disengaging from a meeting that’s run over

  • laying down, because being horizontal can regulate our bodies

  • stretching or movement, which can help us stay present during a meeting

5. Imagery and Storytelling

When we’re stressed out and losing touch with our executive functioning, we need to ground ourselves. One way to do this is to establish a sense of safety while accessing our memory.

To use this tool, you’ll need to look back at photos of people, places, or things that make you feel safe or loved. As you look through your photo album, try to recall when the photo was taken and anything you can remember about your experiences with that person, place, or thing.

When looking at photos of things that make us feel safe, we can re-establish our sense of safety. By intentionally recalling details about these things, we engage our brain’s memory and can get back to our executive functioning.

6. Working Memory Exercise

When we’re in a trauma state, our working memory is offline. Forgetfulness often stems from trauma. This memory exercise can help combat trauma brain and get back online.

Think of the moment you woke up today. What was it like? How did it feel? Then, run through your day. What happened after you woke up? How did you get out of bed? Then, what did you do?

Try to do this somewhat quickly until you get to the point you’re at right now. I love doing this exercise at the end of a long day, especially a stressful one. However, this exercise can be done at any time of the day to get back into your body.

7. Task breakdown

When we are overwhelmed with large tasks, we might fall into a reenactment, feeling like a victim who can’t do anything to change the situation. Whenever you feel like things are “too hard” or you don’t know how to accomplish a goal, this tool can help.

The great thing about this tool is that it works for all kinds of goals, whether you’re tackling a new project at work or struggling to get out of bed.

This is the tool: break down your task into the smallest possible steps. Keep breaking it down as much as you can. Then, look at each item on your checklist as a separate, manageable task.

For example, let’s say, hypothetically, you’re lying in bed in the morning, and you can’t seem to get out (no matter how many alarms you snooze). Starting your day feels overwhelming.

Instead of telling yourself, “I need to start my day,” you can break down the task:

  • Sit up or prop myself up.

  • Put feet on the floor.

  • Stand.

  • Walk to the bathroom.

  • Pick up my toothbrush.

  • Take the cap off of the toothpaste.

  • Put toothpaste on my toothbrush.

Each of these tasks on their own is significantly more manageable and less likely to cause overwhelm. By only focusing on the next step, you can take things one step at a time, which will further reduce overwhelm and help you take action.

This method can work in your personal life and your work life. Any big task you’ve been putting off becomes much more approachable when “I need to do that” transforms into “I’ll take one small step.”

8. Positive Affirmation Cards

Affirmations are one of those things that work wonders for some people and don’t work at all for others. However you feel about affirmations, you need to know one thing: affirmations don’t work if they’re not believable.

If “I love myself” feels like a lie when you say it, no amount of saying it will change how you feel about yourself. Unless you use an affirmation that feels more truthful to you, such as “I care about my health and well-being” or “I like the way I feel when I take care of my body.”

Over time, you'll make the shift so that the unbelievable affirmation becomes believable.

To use this tool, create a collection of cards with affirmations that feel true to you. Here are some of my favorites:

  • People care about you.

  • You’re a good friend.

  • If it doesn’t get done today, there’s always tomorrow.

  • Progress, not perfection.

  • You are capable.

  • You can do hard things.

Ideally, your affirmation cards will be the gentle reminders you need the most when you’re in a difficult place. They will speak to your insecurities and remind you that you are loved, worthy, and capable.

Creating affirmation cards can be a healing process alone; however, this exercise is designed to create a tool you can rely on when you need support.

9. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves tensing and then relaxing specific muscle groups in the body.

This technique promotes relaxation and reduces physical tension and stress. To do it, start with one end of your body (such as your feet) and slowly move to different muscle groups, consciously tensing them for a few seconds before releasing the tension and allowing the muscles to relax fully.

This practice helps to increase body awareness, release muscle tension, and promote a state of calm and relaxation.

10. Take a Mindful Minute

Sometimes, I hear people say, “I don’t have time to meditate,” as a reason for not being mindful. But mindfulness is much more than meditation, and mindfulness gives more than it takes.

When I’m feeling a sense of urgency driving me, I like to take a “mindful minute,” which is 60 seconds of mindfulness to help me slow down. Very rarely does my sense of urgency feel so strong that I cannot give a single minute to take a break.

A mindful minute is not one thing. It could be a breathing exercise or a meditation, but it doesn’t have to be. The goal is to slow down, and we can do that in many ways.

How could you take a mindful minute?

11. Reset!

If I’m feeling frantic, overwhelmed, or scattered, I cannot function well. Sometimes, in these moments, my other techniques fail. That’s when I like to call for a reset. Like a mindful minute, a reset isn’t a rigid action. It’s more of a mindset shift.

When I reset, I do something (such as walk around the room, splash water in my face, or stretch) while telling myself that this activity will reset my mind. When I return to the original task, I’m not starting in the middle of where I left off. I am starting over as if it were a new day.

This tool for shifting my mindset helps me notice when I’ve skipped important steps in my work or reprioritize when there’s a lot on my plate.

12. The Who’s at The Table? Exercise

This is a fun exercise that increases our capacity for emotional regulation and positive self-talk. The “table” is an imaginary table in our minds, and our emotions sit at this table.

By giving us an understandable scenario to frame what’s happening in our heads, we can put what’s going on in our minds into words. Who’s at the table is an exercise that might involve talking out loud or journaling. It looks like this:

  • Worry is controlling the table. He keeps saying, “Something bad is going to happen! I can feel it! We need to evacuate, NOW!”

  • Fear agrees with worry and screams, “GO NOW!”

  • But I’m in charge of this table, not worry or fear. So, I tell them, “Worry, you have been very helpful in warning us to help us prepare. And fear, you, too, have helped me avoid danger. But I am sure there is no danger right now.”

  • Reason agrees. She says, “I know that it seems scary right now, but you’re going to survive this presentation. Running away is not the best decision.”

  • I remind everyone, “It’s going to be okay.”

13. Labeling

Labeling is a meditation where we watch our thoughts and feelings bloom in our minds, without getting carried away by them. When we see a thought or feeling arise, we simply say thinking or feeling.

Try not to judge your thoughts and feelings when you do this exercise. It can be helpful to use a guided meditation to bring you back if you get carried away.

14. Box Breathing

Box breathing is a mindful breathing exercise. By engaging in this controlled type of breathing, we can improve our impulse control and focus, which both help us maintain our executive functioning.

To box breath, you inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, and pause for four counts. You can repeat as many times as you like and extend the count for however long is comfortable for your body.

15. Beat Decision Paralysis with Task-Initiation

This advice is the scientific equivalent of just do it, which is generally not great advice. However, the truth is that starting a task, regardless of what that task is, can help us get back into our executive functioning and out of trauma brain.

So, if you can’t find the motivation to do one thing, start by doing another thing instead.

For example, maybe you don’t want to do the dishes (and maybe this chore has been looming over you for several days, making you feel all types of feelings and negative thoughts).

Instead of trying to motivate yourself to stop relaxing and start the dishes, see if you can motivate yourself to do something else: such as scrolling on social media while you stand in the kitchen or getting a snack.

If you’re feeling trapped in procrastination mode or decision paralysis, telling yourself, “I’m going to sit in front of my computer” or “I’ll make a cup of tea” instead of “I need to finish that project today” is a shift that can work to help you “just do it.”

Final thoughts: Building Your Trauma-Informed Toolkit

As you continue to collect more coping strategies in your trauma-informed toolkit, keep in mind that some tools are more or less accessible depending on the situation or need.

It’s important that you embed tools that work for you into your daily, trigger, and crisis self-care strategies on your self-care plan.

For example, breathing exercises can have a massive impact when practiced daily, and they can help you wind down when you’re triggered—but in a crisis, you might need to rely on a different tool.

As you build your toolkit, you can share what works for you with those around you. And as you embed these practices into your life, you'll become more emotionally available. This is how we create transformative change that creates more positive outcomes.

While these 15 strategies are some of my favorites, there are countless other tools for taking care of yourself. What tools work best for you? Share your tools in the comments below!


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