Ease Feelings of Distress and Emotional Pain with a “Self-Soothing Box”

In times of emotional distress, my natural inclination is to do something to soothe that feeling. But more often than not, the immediate solution is to reach for something sweet (hello donut!) or a glass of wine to calm down. Unfortunately, while these actions do feel good in the moment, they aren’t in line with my health goals. What’s worse is that they can actually exacerbate feelings of low mood. So, these quick fixes aren’t actually the best solution. What to do instead?

I found a genius solution in Dr. Julie Smith’s excellent book, “Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? She reminds us that emotions are not facts but sensations. While you might want to block or numb an unpleasant or difficult emotion, that can further exacerbate the feeling. So what works?

Smith advises that you roll with the emotion instead of denying or rejecting it. It works much like you’d let a wave wash over you instead of trying to fight against the tide and exhaust yourself in the process.

I’ve been sharing my sea swimming experience – something I started in lockdown when the pools and gyms were closed to get some fresh air and stimulate the immune system during Covid. One of my friends reminds us when we dip into the icy cold water, “It’s just a sensation.” It is easy to panic and stop breathing when you feel the intense cold. It’s much easier to stay in the cold water if I breathe deeply and repeat the mantra, “It’s just a sensation.” I hated the feeling of cold water before and wouldn’t dip a toe in. Now I’m plunging myself into the freezing water on a regular basis seeking out the therapeutic benefits. However, painful emotions are sometimes too much to bear. So, you may need some helpful tools to help you get through.  

In times of emotional distress, it helps to prepare ahead of time if you want to avoid self-sabotaging behaviors like wine or chocolate. As Smith points out:

 The reason this is such a great idea is that when you are in emotional pain, at the height of your distress, your brain is set up to bypass your problem-solving capabilities. If you are under threat, you don’t have time to think things through. This is when your brain makes a quick guess for you and acts on impulse. A self-soothing box is something you prepare in advance, when you are able to think through what helps you most in times of distress.

What should you put in your soothing box? Anything that calms you down or helps you put things into perspective. Here are some ideas:
  • notebook and pen that you can use to jot down your feelings
  • letter or note of appreciation from a friend, colleague or boss that makes you feel good about yourself
  • scented candles and a bath bomb
  • the phone number of a good friend you can call to talk things through
  • guided meditation
  • prayers or a beautiful poem you could read
  • photos of loved ones that make you smile

But what if you are out and about and don’t have your soothing box handy? Smith says that, “One of the quickest ways to tell your brain you are safe is through your sense of smell. Finding a scent that you associate with safety or comfort, maybe the perfume of a loved one or a lavender scent that you find calming, can be helpful in helping you focus the mind and calm the body at the same time.”

She suggests re-stuffing a soft toy keyring with lavender so that you can sniff it whenever you feel the need. Alternatively, you could simply carry a small vial of a calming scent or hand lotion. A friend of mine keeps a lovely scented hand soap and lotion in her office desk. When she feels stressed and needs a break, she goes the bathroom and washes her hands. Then, she gives herself a little hand massage with the lotion for a mini refresh on a stressful day. 

The key is to prepare in advance because we are least likely to think calmly and rationally when emotionally distressed. The calmer you are, the easier it will be to let the painful emotions wash over you rather than overwhelm you. 

Smith reminds us that we have more influence over our emotional state than we may believe. I agree heartily. She says that naming our emotions as specifically as possible is helpful. We also should get curious and find out what our emotions are trying to tell us.

Most people aren’t easily able to identify or articulate what they need. So, to help with that, I’ve created the Emotional Index Quiz. This 20 minute quiz is something you’d take in times of calm, not distress, to discover your top four emotional needs and how to satisfy them. Then, in moments of crisis, you’ll know what to do that works for your unique set of personal and emotional needs. We can learn to manage and understand our emotional needs and drivers and put in place boundaries that help boost confidence and self-esteem. All part of an essential tool-kit for weathering the joys and sorrows of life! 

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