Life can be difficult sometimes. Learning how to soothe yourself and practice self-compassion are important ways to manage anxiety, stress, and depression.
Keep reading to learn about some of the latest research and advice from the best experts in the field for ways to both soothe yourself and practice self-compassion. These tips and techniques can help you cope with painful situations that arise.
First, slow down
Take a moment to notice if you’re beating yourself up for something (or many things). Now stop, and ask yourself what you would tell a friend who was in this situation. How would you respond to her/him? Then tell yourself the same things.
We are often much more compassionate with others than with ourselves. Being a good friend to yourself and offering yourself kindness and compassion is the best way to have your own back and to be a soothing, comforting presence for yourself in your struggle.
Connect with your heart
Kristin Neff, PhD, author of the book Self Compassion, advises that when you are feeling anxious, to put your hand on your heart and tell yourself that it’s going to be ok. That YOU are OK!
Take slow deep breaths and relax your body, and keep your hand on your heart as long as you need to. We hold our breath when we are anxious, which tends to make us more anxious.
This simple exercise is THE best thing we can do to calm down and feel a little bit better immediately. Touching your heart also triggers a release of oxytocin, a calming hormone. Navy seals employ a specific type of breathing called the 4x4x4x4 breath – you breathe in to the count of 4, hold your breath for 4, and release the breath to the count of 4, and do that 4 times. This usually has me feeling more calm by the second time!
Neff also advises us to have a mantra that we can tell ourselves that will soothe us during tough times. She has an autistic son, and when he acts out, she tells herself (with her hand on her heart):
“This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. Let me be kind to myself in this moment, let me give myself the compassion I need.”
She says this simple phrase always helps her calm down, guides her to figure out what she can do for herself, and then she can attend to her son.
Create your own mantra
Create a meaningful phrase for yourself (or just use hers) that you can memorize and tell yourself instantly when your anxiety goes up.
One of my favorites is, “I’ve got this.”
Another simple mantra is to keep repeating to yourself whatever it is that you are needing more of. For example, “May I have peace,” “May I have love,” “May I have relaxation,” “May I have gratitude,” “May I have joy,” “May I have self-compassion” etc. Repeat as needed.
When I went through a tough time a few years ago, I realized it was time for a mantra of my own. I believe the best mantras are phrases that feel true to you. Even though my life has been filled with various struggles throughout the years, when I really looked at all that I’ve overcome and accomplished, the phrase that resonated with me the most was, “Things always work out for me in the end.” This phrase was a lifesaver in calming me down, and actually turned out to be true.
Tiny Habits author, BJ Fogg, PhD, recommends saying, “It’s going to be a great day,” every morning when your feet hit the floor or when you first look at yourself in the mirror.
If you’re struggling with something very painful and it seems absurd to you to say that (he went through a very hard time as well) then he suggests changing it to, “It’s going to be a great day….somehow.”
If you can’t even say that, then just give yourself compassion for this difficult time, and come up with another mantra that you can say genuinely.
Confronted by tragedy
Lucy Hone is a resilience researcher whose expertise was put to the test when her 12-year-old died in a tragic car accident. She says the following 3 strategies saved her in the years that followed:
1) Know that suffering is a part of life—terrible things will happen to you. Terrible things happen to all of us.
Hone says, “The real tragedy is that none of us seem to know this any longer.” We live in an age where many of us feel entitled to have perfect lives. Shiny, happy photos on Instagram are the norm, when, as all of us know, the very opposite is true.
2) Carefully choose where you are directing your attention—our brains are wired to see the danger, the threats and the bad.
It is concerned mostly with our survival. It is up to us to train our brains to see and to accept the good. Hone had to remind herself often, “You cannot get swallowed up by this—you’ve got so much to live for. Don’t lose what you have to what you have lost.”
3) Ask yourself: Is what I’m doing helping me or harming me?
Do you really need that glass of wine, another hour spent on social media, to rehash a repeated argument with a family member etc. Take control over your decision-making by tuning in to, “Is the way I’m thinking and acting helping me or harming me? To get that promotion? To pass the exam? To recover from a heart attack?”
To expand on the advice by Lucy Hone, practice gratitude. There are things in life to be grateful for that we overlook in times of suffering and stress. But what we focus on expands, so turn your mind to noticing what you are grateful for (or could be if you paid more attention) and research tells us that you will feel better.
Practice telling yourself 3-5 (or more!) things that you are grateful for in life every night before you go to bed and every morning when you wake up. I’ve had many clients who were really struggling and truly believed they had very little to be grateful for.
However, when they really tuned in to what was going right in life, there is always something. If we have a roof over our head, clothes on our back, and one person in the world who truly cares about us, we have much to be grateful for. If three to 5 is too many, then when your head hits the pillow at night, come up with one thing from your day that you can be thankful for, and that is good enough.
Ask yourself better questions
When bestselling author Geneen Roth lost ALL of her money (over a million dollars) in the Bernie Madoff scandal, she turned her focus from her initial shock and panic and negative questions such as, “How could I be so stupid?” and “What in the world am I going to do now?” to more compassionate questions like, “What do I have enough of?”
This change in perspective shifted her focus, which also shifted her emotions and behaviors.
Later, instead of beating herself up for the choices that she made, she got curious about how she made the choice to invest her fortune with Madoff. She learned much about herself in the process, and that self-knowledge lead to growth, a deeper understanding of herself and much compassion.
Roth says, “I could live without money, but I couldn’t live in this ranting mind.” Stop beating yourself up and get curious about your values, your attitudes, and your behaviors, as well as your past experiences and the messages you received about yourself from important others. What you learn will likely enlighten you, help you to heal, and guide you toward a better future.
Practice progressive relaxation
Progressive relaxation is the act of tightening your muscles and then releasing. Start by raising one leg in the air, tighten it, hold it for 10 seconds, and then let it drop. Then do the same with the other leg, and let it drop. Put your arms out in front of your body in tight fists for 10 seconds and then let them drop. Arch your back and then sit straight several times. Bring your shoulders up to your ears for 10 seconds and then let them drop. Breathe slowly and deeply.
Do whatever makes you feel a little bit better
Exercising, meditation, listening to music, taking a walk, going to church, prayer, talking to a friend, etc. Sometimes when depressed or anxious, we don’t do what we know would make us feel better because we just don’t have the energy, or we believe it really won’t help that much.
Gently force yourself to do these things anyway. Research tells us that if we “act as if” we aren’t depressed and just go ahead and do the exact things that we would do if we weren’t depressed, we feel better.
If you have a pet, get close to them. Our pets are often the most compassionate and calming creatures on the planet.
Name your emotions
Your brain calms down when you accurately recognize your emotion and simply allow yourself to feel what you feel (as opposed to denying your feelings, or numbing out with too much TV, alcohol, drugs, gambling, iPhone etc). There is an expression in psychology, “name it to tame it.”
If you feel sad, acknowledge to yourself that you feel sad. Simply say, “this is sadness” or “I feel sad.” Let the sadness be there.
If you feel anxious, name that for yourself and let yourself sit with those feelings for a bit. When we feel our feelings, they often pass through in minutes, sometimes even seconds. We think we will feel this awful way forever, so we try to avoid our negative emotions, but really the sooner we deal with our negative feelings, the quicker they pass.
Write your thoughts and feelings down
James Pennebaker, PhD, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, has found that journaling about negative emotional experiences for 15-20 minutes per day for a week not only helps to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression, but also helps boost the immune system.
Brene Brown, a social scientist who has enlightened the world with her many bestselling books about how to live a brave and whole-hearted life by embracing vulnerability, tells us that looking ourselves in the mirror every day and saying, “I love you” can transform our lives. While she admits this sounds corny, it works.
Another expert who recommends the same practice is internationally recognized mindfulness and compassion expert Shauna Shapiro, PhD, is the author of the book Good Morning, I Love You: Mindfulness & Self-Compassion Practices to Rewire the Brain for Calm, Clarity, and Joy.
Shapiro talks about going through a very painful divorce that was triggering much shame for her and fear about what a divorce would do to her son. Her spiritual teacher encouraged her to practice self-compassion with a simple (but perhaps not easy) exercise: to wake up every day and say, “I love you Shauna.” She too admits to finding this incredibly corny and resisted the practice. So her teacher suggested she simply try “Good morning Shauna.” This she could do. And with her hand on her heart, every morning she greeted herself with this simple acknowledgement, “Good morning, Shauna.”
Finally, after months of saying this, on her birthday, she decided to graduate to the next step. She said, “Good morning Shauna. Happy birthday. I love you.” And she says she truly experienced self-love, self-compassion and the healing of the shame and fear that she had been struggling with. By consistently practicing self-kindness and compassion, Shapiro believes that we can re-wire our brains (and research supports this).
Unhook the critic
If what you are struggling with is not traumatic, but more annoying, such as the constant critical chatter our mind produces, such as “You’re a loser,” or “You’re too fat,” psychotherapist and best-selling author Russ Harris recommends a simple diffusion strategy called “thanking your mind.”
When your mind says, “You really screwed that up,” simply notice the thought, and playfully say “Thanks mind!” or “Thanks for sharing that” and let it go.
Harris believes that it’s not our thoughts that are the problem, but the fact that we can easily get hooked by them, believe them, and feel jerked around by them. When we can learn to unhook from these critical thoughts they lose a lot of power over us.
Growing and learning
Lastly, is there anything useful that you can learn out of this difficult and painful experience? There is often a lesson in there somewhere. Just don’t beat yourself up. Perhaps you made a mistake. That’s okay. You are human, we ALL make mistakes. Do you need to begin making amends to someone? Do you need to make amends to yourself?
You can use this hard time as an opportunity to grow. If you can’t imagine that anything positive or useful can ever come out of this situation, that’s OK for now. You are doing your best. Time may help you see things differently. But for right now, if you can utilize just a few of these techniques to feel just a little bit better, than that is enough.
The only real failure in life or relationships is if we don’t learn from our experiences.
Hang in there.