5 ways to soothe painful emotions

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Mental Health

Ride the waves and tap into self-care with these tips

Have you ever had an emotion that felt ‘too much’, or feared that your feelings would overwhelm you? While emotions have an adaptive purpose – to help us stay safe, make decisions, communicate, and build social bonds – there are times when they become so strong that their intensity hurts.

Although some people experience intense emotions more frequently (such as those who, like me, have borderline personality disorder, painful emotions are part of being human. It is normal to feel large amounts of emotion, especially in response to difficult events such as an illness, or the death of a loved one. Here, we take a look at five ways to soothe painful emotions.

1. Engage your senses

“[This] is an act of mindfulness, pausing and tuning-in to your body, surroundings, and what is happening in the now,” says counsellor Dee Johnson. “It helps with concentration skills, and brings awareness, sharpening your observational abilities.”

If you’re sad or anxious, try recreating a fragrance you associate with comfort, perhaps spraying diluted lavender oil onto a tissue. Experiment with looking carefully at leaves during a walk, and try savouring something fresh, such as a juicy piece of fruit. Explore textures to see what you find soothing; prop a cushion behind your back when you’re writing a stressful email. Play around with sound to see if the chatter of the radio soothes you.

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2. Delve into a story

Stories can take us temporarily into the minds of others, and to diverse locations, providing a short break from whatever is going on in our lives. For some, stories involving crime, war, or horror can exacerbate fear, guilt, or sadness – so genres involving romance, fantasy, or nature may be more soothing options.

Undoubtedly, the cognitive effort needed for reading a book or processing narrative twists can be difficult when emotions are intense, but audiobooks of familiar or childhood stories may be able to offer escapism more easily, and without any jarring surprises. Travel vlogs on YouTube can also be a fun way of momentarily exploring interesting landscapes or cities.

3. The power of temperature

Have you ever felt either uncomfortably hot or miserably cold during times of painful emotions? Sometimes, restoring balance to your temperature helps bring us closer to emotional equilibrium. If you’re feeling chilly, relating to deep sadness, consider taking a warm shower, and snuggling up with a hot water bottle. Conversely, if you’re too warm, maybe due to shame or anxiety, put a damp face cloth in the freezer and then gently rest it over the back of your neck or your brow. Alternatively, try soaking your feet in a bowl of cold water, and see if that settles you.

4. A safe place in your mind

Imagine you’re visiting a location that makes you feel safe and comfortable. It might be somewhere you know well, a place you have been to in the past, seen in a film, or an entirely made-up place. Some people find it tricky to visualise a scene in great detail, so browse Pinterest or Instagram to gather inspiration for how it might look, feel, and sound. The more detail you can generate, the more vivid your mental picture will be.

“Painful emotions are often amplified by anxious thoughts”

As Dee explains: “Safe place imagery [is] very helpful for trauma and anxiety – a great grounding technique to remind you that you have experienced safety, feelings are transient, and to give a sense of control as it’s your place to choose to go to.”

5. Make a list, and then put the list away

Painful emotions are often amplified by anxious thoughts (‘what if…’, ‘I don’t know how…’), not to mention a ‘to do’ list that feels unmanageable. List all the thoughts bothering you, and all the jobs preying on your mind. Then put the list out of view and take a break from ruminating, planning, or solving. When your mind wanders to your worries or tasks, gently tell yourself they are safely recorded, and you will take care of them when you’re ready. It’s amazing how worries can dissolve and tasks seem more manageable once painful emotions start to subside.


To connect with a counsellor like Dee to discuss how to process painful emotions, visit counselling-directory.org.uk

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