By Susan Finley, Ed.D., NCC
Mindfulness is the ability to steer clear from worry and anxiety bringing one’s attention to the present moment. Feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped to deal with life’s challenges is not uncommon early in sobriety. The use of drugs and alcohol is no longer an option, nor is it effective for easing pain in the long term. The more you practice healthy coping strategies, the better equipped you will be at self-soothing in times of distress. Practicing mindfulness by using our 5 senses is the ultimate form of self-care.
While a stable support system is important, an individual’s therapist, family, friends, and acquaintances cannot be there 100% of the time. It is imperative the individual learns and practices a multitude of self-soothing techniques, affording them the ability to cope when overwhelming thoughts and feelings come to the surface. There are a number of self-soothing exercises to practice mindfulness. The following techniques use our 5 senses. It is a good idea to try them all to see which ones work most effectively, and practice them often!
Touch—Making physical contact with an object is one of the best ways to bring a person’s mind back to the present. While running cold water over your hands or splashing your face, focus on the temperature fully. The change in water temperature will bring a change in mood. If you have an animal, pet it or brush its hair for a few minutes experiencing the softness of its fur and the calming effect it has on both of you. Some individuals find that aligning their breathing with a pet helps them to slow down and regulate their own breath. In nature, pick up a rock and hold it in both hands. Running your fingertips over the surface, study its sharpness/smoothness observing any cracks or imperfections. Handle the leaves of a tree carefully reviewing each vein—the source of carrying food and water throughout. With your shoes off, walk through the lawn taking notice of how each blade of grass feels between your toes.
Taste—Choose healthy foods and avoid waiting until your stomach is growling to eat. Being hungry has a direct effect on mood, making us feel irritable and short tempered. When you get your food, fully experience the taste and texture. For example, hold a grape in your mouth for 5 seconds before eating it. Notice the texture, size, and changes in taste as you bite into it. Experience the act of eating fully, reminding yourself that you are taking care of your body and mind by nourishing it with healthy food.
Smell—Aromatherapy has been effective in treating people experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, and even problems with sleep. Lavender is perhaps the most common essential oil recommended to reduce stress: put a few dabs on your wrist, blend into your skin and breathe in deeply. You may even put a few drops of lavender in the shower-the steam will activate the aroma which helps ease the tension of stress headaches and migraines. A few drops on your pillow may help with getting a better night’s sleep.
Sight—Acutely viewing your surroundings and being fully immersed in the moment works wonders when experiencing distress. Choose a color and then play a game of finding all the objects in the room or in a painting that match that color. Focus on the shape, texture, and size of varying objects in the room. Go outside and experience nature taking the time to see the clouds passing in the sky, or the leaves on a tree.
Hearing—Stop and listen to all the sounds around you. Can you decipher what each sound is and where it is coming from? Are there birds chirping, people talking, music playing, or cars driving by? Try to identify each exclusive noise with its origin.
The regular use of mindfulness will assist in putting life’s stressors their into proper perspective. Remember, much like all learned skills, it requires practice and reinforcement for the self-soothing techniques to take full effect. If something feels awkward or unnatural at first, give it a few more tries. The unhealthy, old strategies used to numb emotional pain did not develop overnight either. Try to release any pressure to do them perfectly; allow yourself the time and patience you deserve during the healing process.
Susan Finley, Ed.D., NCC is an educator, published researcher, and social media consultant for therapists. She is a National Certified Counselor (NCC), Board Certified-TeleMental Health Provider (BC-TMH), and Suicide Prevention Instructor (QPR) under the National Board for Certified Counselors.
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