Lucy talks about the importance of relaxation and how to use our senses to self-soothe
We are living through anxious times. A global pandemic, climate change, economic insecurity, social disconnection, the list goes on... and it’s likely we can each add a personal collection of fears and worries, perhaps about our relationships, our health, or our ability to cope. It is easy to gather up anxiety, until we find ourselves feeling stretched and overwhelmed. Our bodies hold and express this tension, with symptoms such as headaches or stomach problems, and if trauma is part of our history, we can find ourselves in an almost constant state of fight-or-flight. So what can we do?! Well, fortunately there is an antidote to all this fear and a skill that we can all practice: relaxation!
When you are relaxed, your heart beats more slowly and your blood pressure is reduced. Your body feels better and it is easier for your mind to consider solutions. You are no longer in a continual state of emergency, attempting to confront a stressful situation or run away from it.
The ability to relax is an essential skill for coping with anxiety, yet we often treat relaxation as an afterthought or a treat. We may assume it is something we either can or can’t do. However, we can always learn new relaxation skills – there are lots of approaches - and with a bit of practice and an open mind, it is possible to expand our relaxation repertoire.
Today, I would like to suggest a number of very simple relaxation and soothing activities, based on using our five senses of smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch. Trauma often encourages a numbing-out from our bodies, rather than a tuning-in, but if we can develop our ability to self-soothe via our senses, we will always have access to a source of wellbeing.
The activities below are merely suggestions for finding a moment of peace, and if one of them doesn’t work, or perhaps makes you feel worse, then don’t do it and try something else. There is no right or wrong about your response to an activity – remember that each one of us is different and what one person finds relaxing, may not work as well for another. I invite you to browse the list of suggestions and perhaps just try something if it appeals…
Smell: This is a very powerful sense that can often trigger memories, so make sure to identify smells that make you feel good.
- Burn scented candles or incense in your room.
- Wear scented oils or a perfume/cologne that makes you feel happy or confident.
- Go somewhere with a pleasing scent, like a bakery, and take in lots of deep breaths.
- Bake your own food that smells good, like biscuits or apple crumble... (yum!)
- Lie down in your garden or a local park and smell the grass and outdoor smells.
- Hug someone whose smell makes you feel calm.
Vision: A large part of our brain is devoted to our sense of sight and the things we look at can have a powerful effect upon us:
- Go through old magazines or newspapers and cut out pictures that you like. Make a collage with them and write an inspiring message on it. Hang it on the wall or carry it with you in your bag/wallet when you go out.
- Find a place that’s soothing to look at, perhaps your garden, or a park. Or find a picture of a place that you find beautiful and calming.
- Draw or paint your own picture, one that makes you feel good.
- Find a photograph of someone you love or admire, that you can refer to for inspiration and reassurance.
- Feed the birds some seed and watch them enjoy it.
- Watch your favourite funny programme or film.
Hearing: Certain sounds can soothe us but honour your own taste. Find what works for you.
- Listen to soothing music; it doesn’t matter which type appeals to you most. Experiment with different genres to find what helps you relax. This may or may not be different to what you usually listen to.
- Listen to books. Most local libraries will provide access to audio recourses for free. You don’t even have to pay attention to the storyline – sometimes just listening to the sound of someone talking can be very relaxing.
- Open a window and listen to the peaceful sounds outside. If you don’t live in a peaceful area, visit a park or somewhere that you will be able to listen to relaxing sounds.
- Listen to a recording of birdsong or running water. Many people find these sounds soothing and there are lots of apps available now that offer free options.
- Listen to a recording of a relaxation or mindfulness exercise. Again, there are lots of apps available now or CARA staff can help you find resources.
- Listen to a positive friend – sometimes focusing on the thoughts of someone else can help distract us from our own worries.
Taste: This is another powerful sense that can trigger feelings and memories, so again be sure to choose tastes that make you feel good. If eating is a problem area for you, perhaps in terms of binging or restricting your intake, you may want to try some of the other sensory activities listed first.
- Eat your favourite meal. Eat it slowly and mindfully – with attention. Notice how good it tastes.
- Eat a soothing food, like ice cream or chocolate – something that makes you feel good.
- Drink something comforting, perhaps a herbal tea or a hot chocolate. Give yourself time to sit down and enjoy your cuppa, without trying to get anything else done.
- Suck on an ice cube. Bring your attention to the sensation of it melting in your mouth.
- Try a type of fruit you don’t usually have, or buy a lovely ripe example of your favourite fruit and savour the taste. Again - give yourself the time to enjoy the experience and bring your attention to the fruit – explore its smell, feel and taste.
Touch: We sometimes forget to consider touch or may avoid it altogether if we have experienced trauma; however, tactile sensations can be very soothing and grounding.
- Carry something soft or velvety in your pocket, like a piece of cloth, so that you can touch it when you need to.
- The old classic: take a warm bubble bath and relaaaax.
- Baths not for you? Take a shower and alternate between hot and cold water. Let it hold your attention and enjoy the feeling of the water on your skin.
- Learn to give yourself a hand massage, or use a scented oil to massage any aching muscles.
- Play with a pet. Stoking an animal can be very soothing. If you do not own a pet, you may like to consider volunteering for a local animal rescue or signing up to something like Borrow my Doggy, where you can look after other people’s dogs while the owners are at work or need help.
- Wear your most comfortable clothes, like your favourite old t-shirt and baggy joggers. Give yourself permission to be as comfortable as possible.
Adapted from: McKay, M., Wood, J., & Brantley, J. (2007). The Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Skills Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications Inc