Working with What You’ve (Always) Got: Focusing on the Senses to Get Through an Emotional Crisis
Every person goes through times when everything seems to fall apart. It may be a major life event or a seemingly small thing that pushes us over the edge, but it can feel as though the rug has been pulled from under our feet and we are struggling to regain our balance. Going through a crisis is never easy and it is all the more difficult in a situation when there is no quick resolution in sight. It can also be especially challenging for someone who frequently struggles with difficult emotions, has tried different solutions in the past, and feels as though nothing works.
At times we may wish that we never experienced emotional distress. However, since emotional distress is an inevitable part of life, eliminating it entirely would not be realistic. Our emotions teach us something about ourselves and the situation; for example, when we feel overwhelmed, it suggests to us that we need to take a step back and take care of ourselves before moving on. In any case, such emotions force us to pay attention to them and try to resolve whatever is causing us to feel this way.
In some situations we have little or no control over what is happening, or cannot resolve the difficulty right away. During those times we may experience especially painful emotions, which could motivate us to do things that can lead to additional problems, such as getting into a bad argument with a loved one, hurting ourselves physically, or using illicit substances in order to numb emotional pain. In this kind of a case scenario, all we really need is a way of getting through that situation without making it even worse.
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), which was developed specifically for individuals who have difficulty regulating their emotions, can help precisely with that type of situations. It includes a set of skills, called ‘crisis survival skills’, which teach you how to get through emotional crises. In order to be able to get through a challenging situation without worsening it, these skills teach you ways of tolerating strong negative emotions until their intensity decreases. While this will not resolve the problem, at the very least you will have prevented unnecessary complications and additional problems on top of the existing one.
One such crisis survival skill is called Self-Soothing and it involves grounding yourself by focusing on the five senses. In order to use this technique, you will need to engage in comforting tasks that involve each one of the senses. Here are some examples:
Sight – focusing on something pleasing to the eye, such as the nature, flowers, or a painting you like;
Sound – listening to music you enjoy, sound of the rain, or a voice of someone you care about;
Smell – using your favourite body lotion, smelling lavender, or burning a scented candle or incense;
Taste – eating some chocolate or fruit, while savouring it;
Touch – taking a bubble bath, petting a cat, dog or another pet, or holding a fuzzy blanket or a toy.
At a time when you are not in distress, try to identify items for each of the five senses that usually give you a sense of comfort and joy. Have this list handy to be able to easily find and use it in a difficult situation. You will likely find that some items work better than others and may need to edit and expand your list over time.
If you struggle with frequent emotional crises and would like to learn new ways of gaining control over your emotions, at CBT Psychology for Personal Development we can teach you additional skills for tolerating emotional distress as well as other strategies to help to prevent, minimize, and resolve emotional crises in the future.
Written by: Jane Mizevich, Ph.D., C.Psych.
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