Soothing uncomfortable emotions

We experience a range of emotions, including ones that feel good, such as happiness or excitement, and ones that feel very uncomfortable, such as sadness, anxiety or anger. We tend to do what we can to avoid uncomfortable emotions, sometimes in ways that aren’t helpful, such as using food or alcohol to numb feelings. The problem is that these strategies can lead to more problems.

Remember that our feelings are most of the time associated with thoughts, and it is by changing our thinking that we can then feel different. We can also influence how we feel and think by taking action (it may be soothing to sit in the garden, have a bath or a walk on the beach, for example). This is the basis of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). In soothing emotions, we are primarily working with thoughts and behaviours to modify feelings. See Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) tab on this website for more information on CBT.

In this blog, let’s explore a range of strategies that we can use to soothe uncomfortable emotions, taken from approaches such as:
1. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which encourages connection with the present moment (mindfulness). It aims to help the individual handle painful thoughts and feelings, and to create a rich and meaningful life. ACT encourages the acceptance of distressing emotions or events, or in other words, a willingness to experience them, without trying to change or control them. It utilises techniques such as ‘defusion’, which we will talk about, to assist acceptance (Harris, 2007, p 60 & Harris, 2009, p110).
2. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), which has been shown to be effective at helping people manage overwhelming emotions. It uses strategies to help us cope with distress and to regulate our emotions, along with mindfulness and interpersonal skills to achieve this (McKay, 2007, p 1).

Both approaches utilize mindfulness as a lot of our suffering is related to ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. Being mindful is being present, in the here and now. Mindfulness is relaxing, and helps us quit struggling and trying to control uncomfortable thoughts or feelings (McKenzie, p 15). Mindfulness helps us realize that our thoughts and feelings come and go. So have a look at the FAQ section on mindfulness too.

They also both talk about acceptance, meaning that in life there are good events and ones that are not good. There are comfortable feelings and thoughts, and uncomfortable ones. Sometimes having uncomfortable thoughts and feelings will lead us to be judgmental and critical, especially of ourselves, which leads to more suffering. So it is importance to be more accepting (that does not mean condoning abusive behavior towards you), and refocus your attention on what you can do now (McKay p 10).

Defusion is the opposite of ‘fusion’, which means being attached. We can become ‘fused’ or very attached to our thoughts or feelings. The thought can seem to be the absolute truth or something you won’t let go of even if it hinders you. In the context of ACT, defusion means separating or stepping back from our thoughts, images and memories, and almost observing them, and in this way holding them gently rather than tightly. The metaphors of watching our thoughts as if they were clouds floating across the sky, or a bus or train going past, are often used. In ACT, individuals are asked to notice their thoughts. So use these questions to become more aware of your thoughts: ‘Can you notice what your thoughts are now?’ or ‘What is your mind telling you now?’ Also consider whether the thought is helpful, or keeping you stuck?’ (Howell & Murphy, p 165).

Here are a couple of strategies to soothe yourself using defusion:
1. Make yourself comfortable and close your eyes. Imagine a recent experience which triggered some worrying thoughts (choose an uncomfortable, but not distressing, experience). Notice the thoughts. Identify one of them and add the prefix, ‘I am having the thought that … ’ Then identify another thought, but this time say the thought in the voice of a cartoon or television character. Notice your response when you do this. Now think about the worrying situation again and identify another thought. This time try singing the thought to a tune that you know well, such as ‘Happy birthday’. When you have finished exploring these ideas, focus on the sounds that you can hear around you, open your eyes and come back to the room. What happened when you said, ‘I’m having the thought that …’ or said the thought in a different voice, or sang the thought? Hopefully the thought dissipated. You might have even had a laugh at it.
2. Make yourself comfortable and let your eyes close. Imagine that you are sitting beside a gentle stream, and there are leaves flowing past on the surface of the water. Over the next few minutes, observe each thought that comes into your mind. Then take a thought and imagine placing it on a leaf, and let it float by. If a feeling pops up, observe the feeling and say, ‘Here’s a feeling of … ’ and place it on a leaf. When you are ready, gently open your eyes and come back to the room (Howell & Murphy, p 168).

If you are aware of a feeling (such as anxiety in abdomen), rather than a thought, try this exercise called ‘being with emotions’; Identify the feeling you want to work with, such as anxiety. Notice the feeling and where you feel it in the body. You might feel it in the chest or stomach. What shape or colour does it look like? Is it black or red, smooth or prickly, large or small? Then imagine gently breathing into it, and keep breathing in and out to that spot in the body. Then allow some space around the feeling and sit with it for a while. Just allow it to be there, and breathe. Sit with it for a while, breathe into it, and notice what happens with the feeling. When you are ready, open your eyes and come back to the room. You will find that in most instances the feeling lessens. (Howell & Murphy, p 170).

Consider using these tips to reduce stress and to soothe yourself:
1) Relaxation, including simple breathing techniques, meditation or active relaxation like walking. Build relaxation into your day.
2) Doing things you value – Think about what has brought you joy, what has given you meaning. If you prioritise these areas you may feel less stressed because you are no longer trying to spread yourself too thin. Pleasurable activities can also distract you from distressing feelings.
3) Connect with family and friends – good social support can act as a buffer against stress, so surround yourself with people who know how to relax and have fun. Talking about problems is a great way to sort through them and to distress.
4) Be in the moment – engage in activities in a mindful way to enjoy them more. Taking action in the present moment also decreases our stress levels e.g. mindfulness meditation or mindful walking.
5) Use humour – simple ways to de-stress using humour include: watching your favourite comedy show, finding humorous clips on you-tube, listening to what little kids say and trying to see the funny side of a situation.
6) Aim for a healthy lifestyle – eating healthy foods, getting adequate sleep and regular exercise all assist.
7) Challenge your negative thoughts – most people have automatic thinking patterns that can be unhelpful. An example is ‘black and white’ thinking; “If I don’t do (this task) really well, it won’t be good enough and I will have to do it again.” Learn to substitute unhelpful thinking patterns with more helpful and realistic thoughts such as; “I will do my best, and it will most likely turn out fine.”
8) Learn to say ‘no’ and to prioritize yourself – we often worry that people will not like or approve of us if we do not agree to do what they want. It is okay to say ‘no’ and is especially important to decline invitations to do things for others at the expense of yourself.
9) Practise gratitude – even when life is very stressful, we can still be grateful for even the smallest things – the air, the sunshine…… a good cup of tea or coffee! When we practice gratitude we have a happier outlook on life.
10) Self-compassion – avoid too many comparisons with others, and it is important to be kind and encouraging to yourself for all your efforts regardless of the outcome. See my e-book on self-compassion.

If distress is leading to self-destructive behaviours. I would suggest that you get some additional help in managing these. You could see your GP, and look at seeing a counsellor or psychologist to assist.

• Harris, R. (2007). The Happiness Trap: Stop struggling, start living, Exisle Publishing,
Wollombi, NSW.
• Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy-to-read primer on acceptance and
commitment therapy, New Harbinger Publications, United States of America.
• Howell, C., & Murphy, M. (2011). Release your worries: a guide to letting go of stress and anxiety. Exisle, Wollombii, NSW.
• McKay, M. et al. (2007). The Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Skills Workbook. New Harbinger Pubs, USA.
• McKenzie, S., Hassed, C. (2012). Mindfulness for life. Exisle, Wollombi, NSW.


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