Whether it’s dissociation, anxiety attacks, self-harm, addiction, or meltdowns… How can we start to self-sooth, and keep ourselves safe?
I am writing this article, because I recently began writing posts about my experiences of anxiety, self-harming behaviours, and addiction – with the view of sharing my experiences (and their relationship to self-love); But felt that, before I started to stacking up my ideas and beliefs around self-love and recovery, I should address some of the support that I find, or have found, helpful: to serve as a foundation for some of our upcoming content.
I have overcome addiction, recovered from several self-harming behaviors, and managed anxiety for as long as I can rememeber – so this is something I feel particularly connected to – having worked at for a long time in my personal life, and for most of my career too.
So: in upcoming posts around experiences of self-harm, addiction, managing emotions, and entering recovery – when I talk about delaying, distracting, and self-soothing as a form of emotional endurance – allowing us to break away from automatic or learnt behaviours, that don’t serve us now, or in the longer term.
This is what I’m talking about:
Delay & Distract
I like to think about delaying and distracting like gaining some distance from the emotions we have coming up. This can be physical distance, if you are able, or psychological distance. Physical distance uses techniques that will move your body, and psychological distance involves distraction from emotions and/or engaging in behaviours opposite to your impulses; For example, ‘when feeling negatively about myself, I will invest in myself’.
When you start employing a particular way of coping, it is similar to water running down a mountain – finding the dips in the land and running a stream into a river. Marking the land deeper and deeper, and the connections in your brain stronger and stronger, each time; Reinforcing the links between the feelings coming up and the behaviour you use to deal with it. Breaking these links will be more uncomfortable to begin with, and then – with time – become second nature, as your coping mechinisms before were.
I found delaying and distracting especially helpful when in recovery from substance use and self-harm: because it creates time and space, to move away from automatic behaviours and routine ways of managing difficult emotions.
This technique doesn’t simply tell you not to do things, or condemn ways of managing your emotions into being purely good, or bad. It puts you back in control and offers you more of a choice.
Delaying yourself reacting by using form of distraction for a period of time (30 minutes +) will create distance from your emotions, and make you more preceptive to how you would really like to proceed.
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Ways of finding distance & delaying a reaction:
• move into a different room • move your body in a way that you find relaxing or releasing [Yoga, boxing…] • go outside • invest in yourself or your body [paint your nails, have a long bath, get into the shower and putting on some tunes, massage some lotion or butter into your skin, buy yourself some new lounge clothes to change into] • watch some video you have been planning to • read a nice book [no studying or self-help] • listen to a podcast or audiobook that you have been intended to • explore our Media Club • watch a film or programme that makes you feel good • go out to a cafe and get yourself a drink •
Comfort & Ground
When emotions rise and you are trying to resist engaging in automatic or harmful behaviours – envisage grounding yourself in the present using comfort or decompression, which employs the five senses. Touch, sound, smell, taste, and sight.
This grounding and comfort can appear very differently to almost everyone, but using your environment to ground will send your body and mind the messge that ‘you are safe’, and make you feel much more secure in your body, thoughts, and feelings.
Stimulation or ‘stimming’ can be comforting to some, whilst quiet and darkness can be soothing to others. Preferences when it comes to employing the senses in grounding will all be personal, but the technique will work for anyone – once individualised.
Getting grounded isn’t about denying your emotions: it will allow your feelings to come up securely and safely, without engaging in behaviours that you don’t really want to. Giving yourself space will mean gathering up your inner people, regrouping, and soothing yourself through emotional overwhelm.
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Ways of using your senses to ground yourself:
• pressing your feet into the ground, mattress, or sofa as though you are ‘anchoring’ • nesting in blankets, cushions, pillows, and/or your duvet • hold a warm cup of tea, infusion, or hot chocolate • gently massage some lotion into your hands or feet • hold your own hand • touch your finger and thumb together in a ‘mudra’ • rub your own arm, shoulder, or thigh – as if comforting someone to/whilst crying • make, and play with, putty or slime [this can use smell and sight senses also] • stretch, practive Yoga or Restorative Yoga •
• light some candles • change the light, by opening or closing the curtains [whichever is more comforting to you] • light your fire or log burner [if you have one] • select a comforting or nostalgic film or program to watch • use bath bombs or melts •
• remind yourself out loud that you are safe, loved, and valued out loud, with mantras • put on some soothing music • light your fire or log burner • listen to meditation or sleep sounds • light a ‘crackling candle’ [I have a WoodWick one that I light, to listen to when I am in the bath and need to de-compress] •
• light some incense • make a herb tea and take in the smell before sipping • burn naturally scented candles you like • use aroumatherapy/essential oils [you can research some that may be benefical for you ahead of time] • use comforting bath or shower products •
• get yourself a cool glass of water • get together a small amount of comforting or nostalgic snack foods to enjoy mindfully [if food is a benefical comfort to you] • get yourself a warm cup of comforting herb tea or hot chocolate • enjoy some chocolate •
You still have more choices.
Sometimes, even after we have done all we can to self-sooth, we need some input and support from others. Asking for help is something that has taken a long time for me: but, I have come to realise that turning to others and asking for help, is another form of self-care.
Self-love does not mean doing everything on your own. We are socialable animals, and there have been many studies indicating our need for human connection. Some examples of this include: ‘I understand that I am happier and less stressed when the enviroment I live in is tidy – but I am unable to clean the house myself, so I employ someone else to clean and tidy at home’. That is a form of self-care. ‘I know that I need to be listened to, in order to feel heard and understood, so I regularly speak to friends and a life-coach/counsellor’. This is a form of self-care.
Here are some more choices that you have, after, or in addition to delaying & distracting, comforting & grounding:
Turning to someone else for comfort, or release
Turning to family, friends or loved ones for comfort can keep us safe, as people can be places of safety for us too – as long as they are happy to be. You can consider who these people may be for you and even have a word with them ahead of time, if they are aware of your need for support or are asking if there’s anything they can do to help. You can write their names and contacts down, or save them in a list on your phone.
There are also people who are there for everyone, because they care, have experience of needing help, and want to support others. We have included the contact details of some of these organisations in our directory; You can skip forward to the relevant section – we suggest Mental Health, unless there is an area you find more suitable.
New resources available for instant support
As well as calling helplines and contacting email addresses that are available for support, such as The Samaritans, there are also apps that can be used for instant support with difficult emotions.
I understand that are several hundred, but the only experience I have of using one is with Woebot: the mental health chat-bot, founded by Dr. Alison Darcey in 2017. The app was designed to use very natural language processing, therapeutic techniques – and comes with the occasional geeky joke. The app’s framework is said “to create the experience of a therapeutic conversation for all of the people that use him”, and I would agree that the resource can be used to challenge negative emotions, and distorted thinking too.
Planning for the future overwhelm
Planning for future overwhelm means that you can be on your side too. There are several ways of doing this, and I reccommend some of the following methods:
Making lists of just about everything allows me to relax about things, and stop them from spinning about in my own head. I list things that I have to do, things I need to remember, and stuff I need to buy – as well as foods that have high levels of iron in them, exercises I can do laying down, and health porfessionals I could see for various symptoms… Planning just makes me feel better: I don’t worry that I’m going to forget anything, and I feel like I have back-up when anything comes up. If you feel that writing things down may help you, you could start by recording some of the things that we have touched upon in this post (like ways that you could delay and distract or use your senses to comfort and ground yourself).
I don’t journal myself (although I do blog and write articles that I feel passionate about), but I do understand that writing and releasing can be very benefical for lots of people. Writing whatever comes up can serve to be a healthy way of processing thoughts and feelings, as well as becoming more familar with articulating them.
Make ‘time to worry’
Setting time aside to worry has helped me significantly, especially when I have been struggling with insomnia and anxiety. This can be positive when worrying in a ‘productive’ way. For example, if there is something on my mind, instead of trying to push the thing away, I choose a good time to put in some support around it and come up with a plan. This could look like, putting aside 30 minutes to plan a trip, or look at things that you can do to tackle a problem in your life. This will work if you can stick to time limits, and get the worry out of you and down on paper or on to a device before it build up – or it’s time to go to bed!
Put your negative self-thoughts away
Putting the negative thoughts you have about yourself ‘away’ can help to manage them, rather than letting them build up inside – in much in the same way you would manage your workload. I am sure that there are many ways of doing this, but I will talk to you about the method I have used: When you feel a lot of ‘negative self-talk’ rising, find some scrap paper and pen: writing a negative self-thought on each small piece of scrap paper until they are all written down and you can not think of anymore. Take each piece of paper you have written on and fold in half, and in half again, before putting in a jar or similar container – and storing in a drawer or cupboard. If you feel as though the things you have written are true; There is no urgency to address them. Once you are feeling more positively about yourself (leaving at least 48 hours), you can revisit your automatic self-thoughts, throw away the ones that you feel are no longer true, and place the ones you still feel need work, back in the jar. The ones remaining can be addressed with a qualified counsellor or therapist. In my experience, I have thrown away (or burnt) most of my notes with hindsight and distance, and worked through my reasoning behind the remaining ones with a counsellor or friend, until I felt ready to let go – having gained more understanding around where they came from and how they make me feel or behave.
Get to root cause of your overwhelm, with the appropriate support
If you have reoccurring moments of emotional overwhelm, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, self-harming behaviours or addiction issues that are effecting your life negativity – I will always reccommend seeking support from a qualified counsellor, coach, or therapist. Having someone who is empathic to your feelings or what it is you are working through is completely invaluable and can provide you with the space, time, and insight that you need to get on your own side. I have seen a number of different counsellors and explored many therapy techniques in order to support myself and grow more healthily. Therapy is not something that people should shy away from anymore than seeing a hairdresser – and is in fact something that most successful and strong people do, for themselves and for those around them. Having someone qualified on your side will make it easier for you to offer the compassion, empathy, and acceptance that you need to yourself as well. It could be the best and most life changing this you ever do.
It is so important that we think about what we are ‘giving ourselves’ – food, drink and exercise, but also how we speak to ourselves, the media, programmes, and films we consume, who we spend time with, and the way they speak to us as well. We are constantly moulding ourselves and every action we take either to pay into, or take away from ourselves, will contribute to our physiology and wellbeing. We can start to practice self-love by thinking about the way we treat ourselves and beginning to consciously act with kindness. The collective covers themes of self-love across our site and social media platforms, if you would like to follow and bring this way of thinking into your life.
Is now a good time?
If you feel ready to tackle emotional overwhelm or change one of your automatic behaviours – now maybe a good time to start thinking about some of the things in this article and prepare. Getting an ’emotional overwhelm toolbox’ or a ‘self-love kit’ together can be extremely helpful. You can do this in a special box, or in a drawer in your house. I suggest getting together some of the items you would need in the moment to employ some of the techniques above:
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You’ve got this.