The ability to soothe intense emotions is an important skill but one that people often experience a great deal of difficulty with. Our mind throws lots of reasons why we shouldn't prioritise activities that soothe our senses. Paul Gilbert (The Compassionate Mind, 2009) argues that effectively managing emotions requires the development and balance of 3 basic emotion systems:
However, an inability to soothe ourselves can lead to emotional intensity that feels out of control, on going mental health problems (depression, anxiety) and feelings of stress. It is vital that we attend to our 3 basic emotion regulation systems in order to keep our emotions balanced. You can learn to self soothe and below are a number of strategies of things to try.
The first step in self-soothing is mindfulness (we will blog about this in a separate post). In brief, mindfulness is the skill of noticing and being present in the moment without judgement. It can help to notice the obstacles our brain throws at us when we attempt to self-soothe. Notice these without judgement, our brains have well trodden neural pathways so these negative evaluations and criticisms will inevitably show up, but try to just notice them and let them pass, like a cloud in the sky.
The best way to learn to self soothe is to think about the 5 senses and how you can soothe each sense.
Hearing: Soothing music or sounds (nature)
Touch: Mindfully applying hand cream, taking a bath
Vision: Dim lighting, candles, soothing colours
Smell: Scented candles, clean clothes or bedsheets
Taste: Sweet tastes (chocolate)
Combining senses can help further develop your ability to self-soothe. It is important to practice this skill, even when you don't feel the need to be soothed. Self-soothe can be particularly beneficial either when you notice your emotional intensity/stress rising or when you are coming down from an episode of intensity or stress. Often at the peak of distress, self-soothe can be very difficult to achieve. We will write other blog posts on what to do when you are at the peak of emotional intensity focusing on strategies to reduce the levels of distress in helpful ways.