How do you deal with overwhelming feelings? Eva Papastergiou, MA psychologist and art psychotherapist for Expat Nest, shares the “self-soothe box”, a technique to bring yourself back to the moment, connect with your body and process uncomfortable feelings.
“Peace is this moment without judgement. That is all. This moment in the Heart-space where everything is welcome.”
Dorothy Hunt, Ending the Search: From Spiritual Ambition to the Heart of Awareness
We’ve all been there… struck by overwhelming feelings. Whether it’s an exam, an early morning flight, or a fight with our family, “big” feelings often feel uncomfortable; it’s hard to think clearly and sometimes even harder to carry on with the day.
Exploring techniques to bring yourself back to the moment and connect with your body can help to calm you and bring a different perspective. The “self-soothe box” is a self-made kit that guides you to ground yourself and reconnect with the present moment. When using a self-soothe box, we aim to signal to the brain and mind that we are safe in the present moment. We aim to to allow ourselves to feel and then manage difficult emotions.
The self-soothe box won’t solve all of your problems, but it can support you in balancing overwhelming emotions and develop distress tolerance. By using the tool you can learn to deal with feelings such as stress, sadness, numbness and anger. The box can be beneficial as it provides a way of dealing with troubling emotions on the spot. It doesn’t address the root of these emotions (therapy usually does) but it does lend a helping hand to day-to-day tasks and overall wellbeing.
What is grounding? What is self-soothing? And how do we do all that?
Grounding is when we bring ourselves back to the present moment, reconnect with our bodies and focus on the space around us. Self-soothing is any behaviour that aims to calm and comfort ourselves during a crisis. It can be observed in babies (for example, thumb sucking), children (rocking) and adults (taking a bath). One of the ways to ground ourselves and self-soothe is by engaging the five senses.
How to make the self-soothe box
1) Choose a box. Any kind of container will do.
2) Decide what you want to fill the container with. It’s important to have a variety of things that will stimulate various senses. For the self-soothe box to work in helping you feel calm, it’s vital to experiment with different approaches and materials and find what works best for you. Consequently, its contents might change over time and/or from location to location.
Here are some examples:
- Smell: your favourite cream, essential oil, room spray, fabric infused with perfume.
- Taste: strong flavoured gum, favourite tea, something sour or spicy.
- Sight: picture of your favourite place, person, pet. Something that brings good memories and warm, fuzzy feelings. (A postcard, card or letter from a loved one?)
- Sound: Note down a favourite song that makes you feel relaxed – this is to bring the song to your mind, or you might actually put it on. (Other ideas: earplugs if noise overwhelms you, or a voice recording of you or someone important to you who talks calmly.)
- Touch: something soft like a piece of fabric, a stress ball, fidget toys, some plasticine or blue tack.
3) Include breathing. Combining breathing techniques with stimulation of the senses can be very effective when it comes to calming ourselves down. A simple yet often successful breathing exercise that you can add to your toolkit is this:
Shift your focus on your breath and start inhaling for 4, holding your breath for 4, exhaling for 4, holding for 4 and repeat.
How to use your self-soothe box
It’s important to have your self-soothe box somewhere accessible – for example, on your desk or nightstand or even in your handbag if it fits inside – so that you can easily reach for it. The beauty of the self-soothe box is that it can travel with you – making it a great tool for global nomads.
Go to your box when you are feeling distressed or overwhelmed. Start by simply gazing at the box before choosing which item(s) you’d like to engage with, whether you’re touching or smelling or holding or tasting (or listening to a song). Give yourself some time to let this experience settle, to find comfort, to feel grounded.
Remember: The self-soothe box is a tool for you to use when you feel distressed. It’s not a substitute for therapy. If you feel that you are struggling, speak to a mental health practitioner. (You can reach out to us at any point.) There’s always a way.
What items would you place in your self-soothe box? Do you have other creative ways to be present and manage overwhelming feelings? We’d love to hear from you!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eva Papastergiou is a psychologist and a registered art psychotherapist. She is passionate about creating an environment of free expression and growth for the people she works with using speech and art-making. She specialises in emotional regulation, anxiety and depression, life transitions, complex mental health and sexual trauma. Her private practice is based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Learn more about her work at www.evapapastergiou.com.
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