Simple ways to cope with unwanted feelings
We all experience unwanted, difficult emotions that can sometimes be overwhelming.
Often our first instinct is to try and get rid of those feelings because they are painful: "I don't want to feel like this; go away!" We distract ourselves by keeping busy, we numb ourselves through alcohol or drug use, or we just ignore the emotional storm within us, pushing it down as if it never happened.
So what is the alternative to resisting or ignoring difficult emotions?
Neff and Germer (2018) suggest being curious and open to the feelings and learning to tolerate and sit with them, adopting an attitude of "I don't want this feeling, but I can stand it". One way to do this is by comforting or soothing yourself when in emotional distress by using your five senses. An advantage to using your five senses is that you can shift your attention to your senses at any given moment to help you cope and prevent feeling overwhelmed.
It is understandable that we seek to move away from internal experiences that cause us suffering. However, living a life where we continually avoid difficult emotions, in the long run, tends to amplify those feelings and can lead to unhelpful coping strategies that cause further problems.
For example, constantly keeping busy is exhausting and not sustainable, just as using alcohol to numb emotions can lead to an overreliance on a substance that also has health implications.
How to self-soothe with your senses
Being open and curious is the first step. You can do this by acknowledging the emotion that is showing up for you, naming it (e.g. here's anger, fear, anxiety etc.). Sometimes it can be helpful to locate where in your body you are feeling the emotion.
Once you have acknowledged the feeling or feelings you are experiencing, bring your attention to one of your five senses; what you can see, hear, touch, taste or smell. You may want to focus on just one of the senses or gently shift your attention to each sense in turn. Finding what is most helpful for you may take some trial and error.
You may notice that your mind starts interfering with thoughts such as "I can't cope with this feeling" or "this is unbearable". This is understandable given that you are in a state of distress, but try and allow this feeling just to come and go, say to yourself, "This feels hard, but I can make space for this", or "this feeling is really intense right now, but it will pass".
Soothing with sight
What sights help you feel calm? Images of nature improve mood and wellbeing (Witten et al, 2022), so going for a walk or looking at pictures of nature might help.
Other examples include:
Watching a candle flicker
Witnessing a sunset
Watching water, such as a river, or simply observing a bath fill-up
Using sounds to self soothe
Which sounds soothe you or help you feel a sense of peace? This can be music or a day-to-day sound like birdsong, which has been shown to reduce anxiety and boost wellbeing (Hammond et al 2022; Stobbe et al 2022). Build up a library on your phone by recording sounds you come across daily that help you feel calm.
One thing to note is that you don't necessarily have to hear an external sound for it to be soothing; you can simply think of a sound or a piece of music.
Soothing touch and textures
Self-touch, such as placing a hand over your heart or hugging yourself, can reduce cortisol responses to stress (Witten et al, 2022). Using touch to evoke a sense of soothing can also include stroking a pet or holding an object such as a smooth stone or soft material.
Mindfully focusing on the different characteristics of the object, such as texture, weight, and temperature further helps generate a sense of grounding and calm. If the object is small enough, you can carry it with you. Other examples include:
Hugging a soft cushion
Wrapping up in a weighted blanket
Doing a craft activity like knitting or crochet
Soothing smells and tastes
Smell and taste can be powerful ways to elicit a sense of calm. To use your sense of smell and taste, you can try the following:
Wearing your favourite perfume or cologne
Baking or cooking food that has a pleasant smell
Using a room diffuser with your favourite essential oil
Having a hot drink such as herbal tea or hot chocolate
Eating a piece of fresh fruit, paying attention to the taste, textures and smells
Self-soothing is a crucial skill in regulating our emotions.
Using the five senses is one powerful way to self-soothe and help cope with difficult emotions.
What soothes one person won't necessarily soothe another, so experimenting with different senses and ways of eliciting a sense of soothing and calm is key.
Stuck for ideas on how to self soothe using your 5 senses?
*FREE* download - Soothing Activities worksheet which is packed with ideas on how to use your 5 senses to help calm and soothe yourself when managing difficult emotions. Click on the image below:
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Hammoud, R., Tognin, S., Burgess, L. et al. (202). Smartphone-based ecological momentary assessment reveals mental health benefits of birdlife. Sci Rep 12, 17589.
Neff, K. & Germer, C. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way To Accept Yourself, Build Innner Strength and Thrive. The Guildford Press.
Stobbe, E., Sundermann, J., Ascone, L. et al. (2022). Birdsongs alleviate anxiety and paranoia in healthy participants. Sci Rep 12, 16414.
Witten, E., Ryynanen, J., Wisdom, S., Tipp, C. & Chan, S. W. Y. (2022). Effects of soothing images and soothing sounds on mood and wellbeing. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 00, 1– 17.