The first step to soothing yourself is to recognize that you are in distress. That may sound silly, but you can be so cut off from your feelings that it takes a while to notice that you are sad, scared or mad. Or, you may use alcohol, drugs, food or activities to avoid experiencing distressing feelings. At other times, you may experience an instantaneous flood of feelings pushing you to immediate action, rather than experiencing and soothing your distress.
When you notice your distress, seek to understand what triggered your feelings. Think about recent events, conversations, thoughts or dreams. Does your distress seem in proportion to the triggering event? If you have just gotten a diagnosis of cancer, a high level of distress makes complete sense. If the triggering event was an off-handed comment by a friend and your distress is huge, you may want to look deeper. Read Understanding Reactivity for more information.
Remember that your feelings make sense in some context. If your sad, scared or mad feelings seem too large to simply be about the current situation, the feelings are probably coming from earlier experiences. For example, if you experienced physical abuse as a child, someone raising their voice may trigger feelings of terror. Your child self “knows” that when someone raises their voice, they are about to hit you. If you get extremely angry when someone is late, you may be experiencing feelings that come from earlier, larger betrayals.
As you come to understand the context of your feelings, develop empathy for yourself. Of course someone who was yelled at and hit would be afraid of someone’s raised voice. Of course a child betrayed by a parent would be extremely angry. Be gentle with that part of yourself that is afraid or angry, even if the level of fear or anger is not “rational” or “appropriate” to the current situation. Think about how you would talk and soothe a child in the situations that occurred in your early life and be as kind and encouraging toward yourself as you would be toward that child. Talk to that part of yourself that is in distress. See what memories may come up, what assurances are being sought. Be there for yourself in ways that perhaps others were not.
If you have a spiritual practice such as prayer or meditation, use it. When you are in distress, you need to quiet yourself, physically and mentally. You need to center and ground yourself spiritually in order to regain your perspective.
Be patient with yourself. Distress and reactivity release chemicals in your body. Understanding the context of your feelings, expressing empathy for yourself and coming back to your center may not make you feel better immediately. It takes time for the chemicals of reactivity to clear out of your system.
If possible, speak with or spend time with people you know to be safe and able to comfort you. Often your early experiences were made even harder by the fact that no one was there for you. No one comforted you. Your adult self can now reach out to others who can listen and care. Whether or not they are available, you are still responsible for being there for yourself.
Treat yourself kindly. Take a soothing bath. Fix a nice meal. Play pleasing music. Wrap up in a favorite blanket.
Continue your journey of self-awareness and healing. Understanding the history and context of your distressful feelings does not mean giving in to them, being overwhelmed by them or getting stuck in them. The more you understand and heal your history, the more you learn to soothe yourself, the more you can live joyfully in the present.