Growing up, my family was really close with my aunt and uncle and their 3 kids. Every summer we packed into a big house together on the beach for a week, each year we alternated hosting Christmas gatherings, and enjoyed many other visits due to the sheer number of birthdays and important occasions to celebrate. It was always super fun.
One visit I came upon one of my cousin’s stuffed teddy bears that sang a catchy song. I sang it so many times that day that it was converted to memory. It went like this,”Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect, and whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect I’m afraid.”
As time went on, that song stayed with me. I found I naturally used it whenever I was feeling spooked, unsure or when I was doing something for the first time. I remember singing that song over and over as I got past my feelings of being scared or needing courage.
I had totally forgotten about this song until literally the other day. NPR was on in the background and they had a short story about the 1950’s movie, The King and I. I’ve never seen the movie and wasn’t really paying attention to the story when I heard the song being sung. It was a song I had sung a thousand times before and yet this was the first time I learned that it was a well known song from this popular movie!
I tell you this story to illustrate something that I stumbled upon that was profoundly helpful to me growing up, although I didn’t know it at the time. What I stumbled upon through the repeated singing of this song, was a way to help me regulate my body and emotions when I got scared. Singing this song over and over in my head allowed me to let the wave of frightened and worried body sensations or feelings of dread and anxiety wash through and past me. As a kid, it gave me a tool to help me tolerate my discomfort and soothe myself during those tough times.
A humongous part of transforming our anxiety (and I’d say enjoying life too) is to have healthy tools we can use to help us soothe ourselves, regulate our emotions and tolerate discomfort.
What I mean by that is when we start to feel our anxiety rise or when we start in on a panicky episode, that we are able to “weather it”, to soothe ourselves as we see it through.
We are able to tolerate how it feels in our bodies and how uncomfortable our thoughts and emotions are without needing to do anything impulsive, drastic or unhealthy to try to make it all stop and pretend it isn’t a part of our being human. I say this because so many women use food, alcohol, avoiding or isolating themselves in their attempt to tolerate discomfort. I can relate, that was totally my experience in my early twenties.
To really get the benefits of tolerating discomfort, it’s critical that we’re anchoring it in the understanding of ‘easing and staying present’ versus ‘finding a distraction and ignoring’.
It isn’t going to be insta-warm fuzzy. But the empowering feeling you will get when you “know” you got this becomes a close runner up!
Now sometimes we experience anxiety when we are avoiding doing things we should be doing (like taking care of our health or planning for retirement) or doing things we shouldn’t be doing (like spending more money than we make or being deceitful to a spouse) or are in an unhealthy relationships, personally or professionally. I won’t go into detail about these but it is important I make the distinction that I’m not advocating learning how to tolerate discomfort in those anxiety provoking situations.
If you resonate with any of those, please reach out to me or another professional who can help you tackle those barriers in order to get to the relief that you are seeking and deserve.
Okay, back to ways to feel even-keeled when the proverbial waters get rough. Since we know with anxiety that we are mainly operating out of our emotions and physical reactions, a great place to start with self soothing is through our senses. Finding something that soothes one or more of our senses can be extremely effective in calming our nervous system and moving through our intense emotions.
My suggestion is to pick a couple ideas to put in place so you have a bona fide plan when you feel your anxiety rising. Let’s stop leaving things up to chance or wishful thinking, our lives are too precious for that.
Ideas for Sight: Carry a picture with you of someone/something/someplace that makes you feel comforted or happy, and pull it out when you start to feel anxious. Put it as the screensaver on your phone. Keep a vase of fresh flowers in your office. If you can, regularly go outside to a pretty place and take in the sights. Look at your favorite book of art or nature. Light a candle and watch the flame. (I have a child- proof battery operated one that I love!)
Ideas for Smell: Use a soap or shampoo with a scent you really like or that reminds you of something comforting. Get a small bottle of lavender essential oil to smell or dab on your wrist each day. Smell the flowers in your office or home, bake a loaf of bread or anything that smells like comfort food. Light a scented candle, or recall the scent of your grandma’s perfume.
Ideas for Hearing: Have a couple songs you love downloaded on your phone to listen to. Listen to the birds outside. Sing a song in your head or listen to a guided meditation. (Tara Brach has some good free ones at tarabrach.com.) Call a friend whose “Hello?” is comfort enough. Repeat a prayer or mantra in your head or aloud.
Ideas for Touching: Wear a piece of soft clothing you can either feel on your skin or touch. Keep a smooth stone in your pocket to rub. Pet an animal. Take a warm bath. Knead dough. Make yourself yawn. Feel the soft cushion or mattress below you.
Ideas for Tasting: Drink a cup of herbal tea. Chew a piece of gum. Cook a favorite dish. For this category, really be aware to avoid foods or drinks that aren’t good for you. Those should not be used for soothing purposes.