Emotions are like waves; they rise and fall. When negative emotions run high, we might make unwise decisions to avoid our feelings.
Many self-help books will tell you to think positive thoughts or focus on what is good in your life, but the reality is that it is difficult at the best of times, let alone when you are in a negative headspace. Psychologist Julia Smith says
“The best approach to dealing with difficult emotions is to identify the feeling and acknowledge that it will pass while trying to soothe yourself through it.”
Self-soothing is a set of behaviours that you know helps you feel calmer when experiencing negative emotions. Our brain tells us we don’t feel safe when we feel negative emotions. Therefore, we need to reassure our brain that we are safe by feeding it new information.
The brain uses all the senses to determine safety; it will also scan the body to understand your current physical state (including muscle tension, heart rate and breathing rate). So any behaviour that engages your senses or addresses the physical distress you might be feeling will help.
I know it sounds cliche, but one of my self-soothing techniques would be to make myself a cup of tea. Others could be having a warm bath, listening to calming music, chatting with a friend, slow breathing, physical activity or using relaxation techniques.
Using smell is one of the quickest ways to reassure your brain that it is safe. Spraying a scent you associate with feeling safe can shortcut this process. It might be a smell you associate with a loved one or something like lavender that has a calming effect. Julia Smith says that
“If you feel overwhelmed when you are out, putting lavender smell into a soft toy on a keyring can be a good idea. That way, you have easy access to it when you begin to experience negative feelings.”
Another approach is to create a self-soothing box containing all the things you know you will find soothing. When you feel emotional distress, your brain’s usual coping mechanisms go out of the window, so having the box to hand and easily accessible can make a real difference.
It could be as simple as putting some things in a shoe box, like a note to call a particular friend, some lavender or a calming scent, tea bags or a pen and paper you can use to write down any emotions you are feeling. Everyone’s box will be different; what you find self-soothing will be different from mine. The point is that it contains the things that help soothe you and hopefully steer you away from engaging in unhealthy habits.
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