Mindfully becoming in touch with the five senses is a body-based way to slow down the stress response and initiate the relaxation response. Our five senses gather information about our world. This information travels quickly to the emotional brain, where it is interpreted by comparing it to our existing emotional memories. Thus, our emotional reaction forms quickly. The body reacts with the secretion of its molecules of emotion, stress hormone or relaxation hormones. As the emotional reaction is already forming in the body, the information travels up to the higher brain center, for reflection and cognitive interpretation.
The DBT self-soothe skill empowers us to create positive and relaxing experiences for ourselves, at the time of a stressful emotional reaction as it occurs. We can also use the body's senses to intentionally nurture, comfort and de-stress at the end of the day.
The DBT self-soothe skill intentionally uses the five senses to send positive sensations to the brain, thus, interrupting automatic stress reactions and associated cognitive rumination. Marsha Linehan, as part of her broad ranging Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) developed this self-help tool, self-soothing skill involving the use of the five senses. Research shows that soothing via the five senses with activities that feel comforting and nurturing help manage spiraling anxiety and depression.
You deserve self-care
First of all, let's talk about an ingrained attitude of avoidance when it comes to self-care. It's not selfish to engage in self-care. Many of us feel like self-care is self-indulgent or like we are taking an irresponsible break from work and family. Actually, self-care and knowing how to self-soothe is an important part of managing emotions in a healthy way. Maybe healthy management of emotions wasn't modeled for us as we grew up. Perhaps we got messages that we need to be work-horses or be self-sacrificing or that screaming and yelling to be heard was "normal" behavior. However, currently we have a wealth of sophisticated research that shows that a more nuanced approach to emotional health reduces anxiety, depression and stress. It is time to re-imagine how to manage our emotional health.
It's okay to engage in nurturing and comforting self-care. It's okay for to create positive experiences for yourself.
The DBT Self-Soothing skill is a self-help self-care tool that helps to manage emotional distress in another way, focusing on using our five senses. Out in public, this unobstrusive skill won't take away from other aspects of your life... except maybe excessive worrying! This healthy self-care skill helps you focus on your own emotional health rather than on everything going on around you and worrying about everyone else's priorities. Using sensory input, you mindfully slow down stressful thoughts and emotions, take a step back, take some time to notice your own thoughts and feelings and set up healthy boundaries.
Learning some emotion management skills is healthy self-care, not selfishness. And healthy self-care builds up a reserve of pleasant experiences and positive emotions that you can draw upon when needed. When you are running low on energy and patience, and feeling anxious and/or depressed, these are usually the indicators that some self-soothing nurturing would be valuable for your mental health.
Our senses are a pipeline to our emotional brain
The five senses are a short cut to the emotional brain. Brain-wise, we process our world from the bottom up. We gather sensory input from the world through our senses, then perceive this input. Our perception are influenced by encoded memories of our previous experiences.
Our perceptions pass through the lower brain to assess for safety before moving up to the upper brain to process ideas and thought. So, we can manage our emotions by taking a step back, slowing down and being mindful of the inputs to our senses, which feeds our mood.
The process of using the five senses to self-soothe
Sometimes, individuals have a natural affinity for one sense over the others. Some people will lose themselves in the sight of the colors of the sky and trees or in the colors of a Monet painting. Other people's attention are immediately held captive by the sound of a guitar or lovely voice. Still others are pulled by the scent of lilac trees in the spring or the smell of leaves in the fall. Taste is another compelling sense that goes right to the emotional brain. And for others, touch is their primary emotional language.
So, start with whichever sensory pathway appeals to you, and then expand to the others as you become more adept at focusing on your senses.
Take a deep breath and allow yourself to mindfully experience the world around you. Notice how you feel inside and also notice what is happening externally. Notice how you can experience both at the same time. Notice the shift in your attention and mood.
Look at the moon and stars in the sky
Notice the trees around you
Watch the flames dance in a fireplace
Watch the colors of the sunrise or sunset
Look at fabric colors in a fabric store
Go to a nursery and look at the shapes of the flowers
Create a pleasing playlist
Listen to the ocean
Listen to the birds
Listen to the leaves in the trees
Sing in a choir.
Change your shampoo to a favorite scent
Use a scented lotion
Put lavender essential oil on a tissue and sniff as needed
Burn a scented candle
Bake cookies or bread
Put cinnamon in a small pot and let that aroma fill your home
Sniff the rosemary herb
Go to a nursery or arboretum and smell roses
Enjoy the scent of coffee or tea.
Slowly enjoy a peppermint or butterscotch candy
Drink some soothing tea or coffee
Enjoy some clear water
Enjoy fresh orange juice
Enjoy some maple syrup on your oatmeal
Mindfully eat one piece of chocolate
Enjoy a soothing bath, combining scent and tactile feeling of comfort
Soak your feet in warm, scented water
Warm a lavender flax seed compress in the microwave and use the warmth on your neck
Keep a soft fabric in your pocket, like velvet or cotton and feel the fabric during the day
Keep a smooth stone in your pocket and rub the stone to ground yourself.
Hug someone or a teddy bear or a pet
Feel the sun on your face as you take a walk
Enjoy making a mixed media collage, with soft feathers, yarn and fabric as materials
Get a massage
Burdick, D. (2013). Mindfulness skills workbook for clinicians and clients. Eua Claire, Wisconis: PESI Publishing.
DBT Self Help (2022). Self-Soothe - DBT Help. Retrieved February 29, 2023 from https://dbtselfhelp.com/dbt-skills-list/distress-tolerance/self-soothe/
Linehan, M. (2015). DBT skills training manual (2nd ed). New York: The Guilford Press.
Rogers, N. (1993). The creative connection. Palo Alto, California: Science and Behavior Books.
Self soothing: DBT. Retrieved February 27, 2023 from https://dialecticalbehaviortherapy.com/distress-tolerance/self-soothing/
Farrar, A. and Farrar, F. (2020). Clinical aromatherapy. Nursing Clinics, 55(4). (Retrieved February 27, 20232 from https://www.nursing.theclinics.com/article/S0029-6465(20)30047-5/fulltext
Pope, T.P. (2021). Why self-care isn't selfish. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/06/well/live/why-self-care-isnt-selfish.html