The heART of self-soothing
You are in the middle of backroads – a dusty country in the middle of nowhere. You are dry and patched and you look at your gas tank.
The gas light just turned on. The needle is pointing towards empty.
Anxiety begins to swell in your chest. The next miles are full of agitation as you search for the next fuel pump.
Then, just when anxiety is about to blossom into a full-blown panic attack, you see a sign in the distance: gas station in 2 miles.
You release a loud breath of relief you didn’t know you were holding.
Has this ever happened to you?
This is precisely how I felt for most of the first year after my mother’s death. My tank was empty. All my resources had been depleted after months of constantly being in fight-flight mode.
This is what the trauma of grief does: it keeps you in an agitated state of being overwhelmed with a highly hyper-aroused nervous system. All your resources – physical, emotional, mental, psychospiritual – are funneled towards bringing you back into equilibrium.
What has driving on an empty has to do with self-soothing?
Self-care is like your quarterly car maintenance service so that your car thrives and continues to function properly. On the other hand, self-soothing is like the fuel your car needs to run daily.
Self-soothing helps you survive the present moment. Unlike self-care, it is not a luxury, but a necessity, but no one really teaches you how to self-soothe to survive those desperate moments of life.
When you are in the grips of overwhelming emotions, or despair has you in a choke hold, it can be hard to remember the things that help you self-regulate. It is essential that you learn the art of self-soothing because there is only one person who is available to soothe and comfort you 24 hours a day and that person is you.
Self Soothing Rituals
A self-soothing ritual is a cave that provides you not only safe shelter but also nourishment and resources to tackle the lingering stressors that besiege you in grief.
When you are frazzled, or completely ruffled, a self-soothing ritual softens and smoothens the rough edges. It transports you to a safe cocoon where you can begin to heal and restore and replenish depleted resources.
In this article, I provide you with five self-soothing rituals curated specifically for grief symptoms that will help you nourish and nurture yourself not only at the physical level but also at the emotional, mental, and psychospiritual levels.
The art of ritual
As Renee Becker says, “rituals are actions done in purposeful ways that symbolize something much more than the acts themselves. Rituals give purpose to action and always serve to connect us to something else, generally something greater than our own solitary lives.”
- Step 1: Create a sacred space
- Step 2: Write or say your intention
- Step 3: Invoke energies greater than you
- Step 4: Enact ritual steps (the different rituals in this article)
- Step 5: Express and release
- Step 6: Close your ritual
- Step 7: Reflect and root the experience
Depending on the ritual you perform and your intention, some of the steps might not apply.
5 Self-Soothing Rituals
We typically have 2- 3 primary senses through which we experience the world and so the rituals here combine the different senses to enhance your experience. Experiment with them and tweak them as necessary.
If you are feeling extremely anxious, you can start by performing a grounding ritual to calm your nervous system, and then follow up with any of the self-soothing rituals here.
For this first ritual, I will lay out the different ritual steps as an example
Ritual 1 – Silky Soak (Physical Anxiety)
For centuries many cultures have used baths for their natural healing properties like the Turkish Hammam or the Japanese sentos. This bath ritual is my take on a bath that can help calm down your nervous system in those moments of extreme anxiety when it feels like ants are crawling down your skin.
“Immersion in warm water releases the bonding hormone oxytocin which can counteract feelings of loneliness. Our brain experiences the same feelings as if we were getting physical affection or attention from a loved one.” —Dr. Tara Swart, neurologist
Silky Soft Soak - Ritual Flow
Total Time: 20 – 40 minutes
Step 1: Create a sacred space
- Fill your tub with hot water (make it as hot as you can tolerate)
- Pour in two handfuls of dead sea salt + Himalayan pink salt
- Add in a few drops of essential oil of your choice. I like using lavender and rosemary essential oil
- Make yourself a cup of tea depending on when you take the bath and your intention, for example, valerian root or chamomile tea will help you relax
- Switch off the lights and light some candles and place them around the bathroom
- If you don’t have a bath pillow, you can roll up a hand towel to support the back of your neck
- Add in some crystals like rose quartz for self-love or any other crystals that you have handy
Step 2: Write or say your intention
- Speak out loud or read your intention for the ritual. A sample intention is “I soak up love and my body releases tension and stress and softens”
- Open the ritual space by lighting a candle, putting on a special playlist you have for this time
Step 3: Invoke transpersonal energies based on your individual beliefs. It could be as simple as calling forth your ancestors, mother nature, or gods and goddesses from your belief system to support you.
Step 4: Ritual Flow
- When you are ready, immerse yourself in the beautiful sanctuary you have created holding your intention in your heart
- Apply a facemask of your choice if you want
- You can spend the time listing to a soothing playlist, a chakra sound bath, or reading poetry from a book like the Poetry Remedy which is my bathtub experience staple
- Let yourself soak for at least 20 – 30 minutes and add more hot water to the tub as it cools
Step 5: Express and release
- Choose your favorite body scrub or create your own by combining brown sugar and coconut oil
- Move your hand in a firm, circular motion, paying close attention to those drier areas like your heels, legs, and elbows
- As you move your hands, imagine your body softening as you let the hot water seep through the pores of your skin
- You can also release any physical anxiety by making sounds
Step 6: Close your ritual
- Once, you feel complete, dry off with a fluffy towel or special bathrobe you set aside for your experience
- Thank your body and any forces that came to support you
- Turn off the music, unplug the bathtub and blow out any candles you lit
- Turn on the light as an indication of returning your bathroom to a normal space
Step 7: Reflect and root the experience
- After your ritual, hydrate and make sure to moisturize your body with slow gentle strokes
- Relax and do whatever you need to do like be journaling about your feelings, expressing gratitude, meditating, or just listening to music
Ritual 2 – Butterfly Cuddls (Emotional Overwhelm)
There will be many moments where the intensity of your emotions outmatches your ability to handle them, and you need a time-out. It might be fear, anger, regret, guilt blame, sadness, loneliness, or anxiety that might come knocking at your door.
When you begin to feel overloaded and overwhelmed with all the different feels in that are part of grief’s entourage, cortisol surges in your body while serotonin stores, begin to deplete.
The ritual below will help decrease cortisol and boost oxytocin and serotonin release in your body which help you feel saved and loved.
I have only included the ritual flow here, but don’t forget to enact all the other ritual steps here like setting your intention.
Butterfly Cuddls – Ritual Flow
Total Time: 15 – 30 minutes
- Light a candle, burn some incense, or use an essential oil like frankincense or lemon in a diffuser
- Change into comfy clothes and snuggle under a fuzzy blanket in a sitted position and allow the sounds of this soothing playlist to wash over you (or any other playlist that calms you)
- Perform the Havening touch or what I call butterfly cuddls by crossing your arms over your chest so that both palms rest over your shoulders.
- Begin to gently strong down both arms until you reach your elbows and repeat strokes while saying a mantra to yourself like “I am safe in my body” or repeating your intention for the ritual
- Next, place both palms under your armpits instead of your shoulders and really lean into the warmth from your body
- You can also stroke the sides of your face with a soft and nurturing touch
- If tears come as you stroke yourself, allow yourself to cry for as long as you need to. Crying is self-soothing and will make you feel better
- Once you feel complete, snuggle up with a hot water bottle or castor oil pack, and reflect on the experience
Ritual 3 – Story Time (Mental Ruminations)
Sometimes your mind will rehearse the events leading up to your loved one’s death over and over as though if you told the stories enough times or reviewed it from a difficult angle, you would find a loophole that will lead to a different ending.
This can be frustrating and very dilapidating and when you begin to feel the cycle start, you can start off with a grounding ritual for ruminations to stop the cycle and then follow that with this self-soothing ritual.
Story Time - Ritual Flow
Total Time: 20 – 30 minutes
- Brew a cup of peppermint tea and add some raw honey to it
- Put on music that relaxes you and can open you up to the moment and get you into a flow state like this one
- Take out some paper and coloring crayons or just a pen if you don’t have crayons
- Silently or out loud, ask yourself the question “what’s the story here?”
- Select a color that speaks to you at the moment and begin to draw whatever comes to you
- If you don’t have crayons you can begin to free-flow, write and/or draw
- Imagine that you are a stenographer and just write down the stories, the scenarios, and the events that your mind has been replaying
- You can add images to them – there is no set way it should look
- Continue this process until there is nothing left to write or draw
- If there is someone you trust, you can call them and share your experience with them otherwise you can watch a favorite comedy routine, play a game, continue listening to music or just sit in silence
Ritual 4 – Cocoon of Sound (Pits of Despair and Depression)
At some points on the journey of grief and loss, you feel hopeless. The burden is too heavy, and you feel like you cannot go on anymore and you are on the verge of giving up.
It’s been days and there are no calls or visits, and the emptiness and loneliness are suffocating. In times, like this, you barely have the will or strength to get out of bed let alone practice any of the myriad self-care or self-soothing techniques.
In my experience, I have found out that music is my savior, and it is my hope that this ritual can clear the clouds of despair.
“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears - it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more - it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.” ― Oliver Sacks
Cocooned in Positivity – Ritual Flow
Total Time: As long or as little as you need
- Listen to your favorite music as you snuggle under your blankets
- Wrap your arms around yourself in a self-hug and imagine that the sounds and frequency are bathing your body as though you were in a shower
- Allow yourself to completely relax
- If you feel slightly better, read some of the quotes, affirmations, and poems below to help shift your mood
- Repeat any quote or affirmation that resonates with you like a mantra as you breathe in and out through your chest as though there was a nose there.
- You can also listen to a podcast episode to inspire hope
- When you feel sufficiently better, you can light a candle or burn some sage and look at photos of people and places that have positive memories attached to them as a reminder of the different parts of your life and that things have not always been this way, nor would they always be. That there are people who can support you and new opportunities and experiences on the horizon
- Watch a funny movie, your favorite comedy routine, or America’s funniest videos
- Also, try to practice the Electric nutrition grounding ritual from this article daily or as often as possible for maintenance
Quotes I Love
“Never. We never lose our loved ones. They accompany us; they don’t disappear from our lives. We are merely in different rooms.” — Paulo Coelho
“Listen to me. Rigo, You have had many ups and downs in your life. Too many. And you will have more. This is life. And this is what it does. Life brings you to your knees. It brings you lower than you think you can go. But if you stand back up and move forward, if you just go a little farther, you will always find love”.
I have found love in you. And my life, my story, it will continue after I am gone. Because you are my story. You are your father’s story. Your uncle’s. Rigo, my body fails me, but you are me. So you go now, give me a beautiful life. The most beautiful life ever. Yeah? And if life brings us to our knees, you stand us back up. You get up and go farther, and find us love. Will you do that?
– Isabel Diaz on her bed to her dying son (Life Itself)
A Poem to Hold
The Peace of Wild Things (Wendell Berry) - Listen
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
An Affirmation to Ground Down
I am surrounded my love
A podcast to bring hope
Afterlife: What happens when we die (2011) – Paul Perry ponders the question 'what happens when we die'' through a series of interviews with subjects who have had near-death experiences, as well as renowned experts in the field of NDE research.
Ritual 5 – Daily doses of wow
When we are grieving, it helps to ensure that our tanks are constantly filled so that we don’t wait for them to be on empty when we enter the danger zone. With daily doses of self-soothing, we learn to stabilize ourselves so that we don’t dip into critical areas. Here are some daily dose rituals you can practice to keep you nourished and nurtured.
- Touch: daily self-hugging
- Taste: ritualize one meal that offers you comfort – really be present and feel the textures and taste the flavors
- Smell: Have a spray bottle with essential oils like lavender which you can mist yourself with or light a candle, or put on a diffuser
- Hearing: Spend 10 – 15 minutes daily listening to music that warms you and centers you in your body
- Sight: Read a poem a day. I really enjoy any of Mary Oliver’s poetry book ‘Devotions’ or David Whyte’s book ‘River Flow’
Beginning your journey
These are just some ideas to get you starting on your self-soothing journey. Tweak and personalize the rituals to meet your unique needs. For example, when I experience mental ruminations, washing dishes soothe me.
It might be helpful to curate some of the items mentioned in the ritual when you are feeling relatively ok. For example, purchase any bath salts, candles, essential oils, or teas you will need. Here is a good opportunity to get your needs met when people ask you what they can get for you.
Look for books, podcasts, and blogs and create your own green book of quotes, affirmations and images that soothe and comfort you as well as make you feel more grounded, secure, and embodied. I have a host of playlists on my phone for different moods and handwritten quotes and affirmations.
Create your self-soothing box with items you will need and if possible, write out your ritual on a piece of paper so it is handy when you need it.
My self-soothing box includes items like essential oils (lavender, patchouli, frankincense, myrrh), teas like peppermint, lemon/ginger, chamomile, valerian root, incense, sage, palo santo, a host of candles, a few poetry books like Mary Oliver’s Devotions, David Whyte’s River Flow, and the Poetry pharmacy.
Offer yourself compassion
As impossible as things may feel right now, trust that you are going to be ok. Use your self-soothing rituals to take cover from the storm until the sun rises in the East.
It always does.