What are soothing emotions, and how can I soothe myself more?
Dr Shelley Kerr
The other day I went for a walk through a nearby village with my family and some friends. It was a gorgeous autumn day; the kind where the sky is clear and sun is shining, yet the air is crisp and reminding you you’re alive. There was lots of chatting and catching up, as well as interjections from our little ones as they wanted to show things they were discovering on the way and interruptions from us as we helped our kids stay safe on the roads. We were on a mission to discover the scarecrows that had been placed around the village as a charity fundraiser.
Eventually, we came across a playground and our kids ran off to explore the swings and slides. They were happily playing together, and I felt a swell of sympathetic joy as I heard their giggles in the background. My partner and friends were chatting as they organised drinks for us and attended to their dog, so for the next few moments I sat happily with myself. This wasn’t an energetic or interactive moment as our walk had been before; for me it was a moment of peace and contentment. It’s this quiet moment of calm that I want us to focus in on. The air was cool and statue-still, so the warmth of the sun that caressed my face was somehow magnified in contrast to the crisp air around me. I could hear my loved ones nearby and felt comforted by their presence. There were no demands or difficulties I needed to address; in that moment I was complete. Inside my body, I felt at ease. My heart slowed, my muscles could relax. My mind was still, open to this moment. I was there.
If we wanted to describe my emotions in this moment, we could say this was a moment of ‘soothing’ for me. This term comes from Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and Professor Paul Gilbert’s ‘Three Systems Model’ of emotions. These emotions are not widely discussed in other psychotherapies, yet they’re absolutely worth knowing about. Moments of soothing can bring us balance – in ourselves and our emotional lives as a whole. They are important to our mental and relational health. And they are also tricky to find in our busy, active, often stressful modern lives.
As you’re reading this, you might already be starting to consider how and when ‘soothing’ feelings show up for you. Let me take you into some of the theory and science so you can understand your soothing emotions some more, and then I’ll invite you to begin a more personal exploration of the place of soothing in your life.
What are soothing emotions, and how did they develop?
In CFT soothing emotions are defined as one of our three core emotion regulation systems. In his book The Compassionate Mind (2010, p190), Paul Gilbert explains that our soothing and contentment system helps us find balance and are “a major source of our feelings of well-being and connectedness”.
These are emotions that give us a sense of peace and ease. They are calm, pleasant feelings felt with the activation of our parasympathetic nervous system; the part of our nervous system that puts the breaks on and slows us down. This system draws on the natural endorphins and opiates we have in our brains, leaving us with a gentle, easy happiness.
As much as our soothing emotions are important for balance, we also know these are the emotions that can be hardest to cultivate in our busy modern lives. Much of our lives we spend rushing about, with tasks to do, things to achieve, and problems to solve. This stimulates our other emotion systems, threat and drive; getting us up, ready for action and able to address and overcome any difficulties that come our way. The downside is that to much of these other feelings can tip us out of balance and leave us vulnerable to being stressed, overwhelmed, and open to various difficulties with our mental health. Soothing emotions in contrast help us feel settled, both in our bodies and our minds.
It’s great when our soothing emotions are stimulated naturally, like my moment in the sun the other day. However, for us modern humans it’s often the case that finding balance and accessing our soothing emotions needs to be a deliberate job. We can feel ashamed about resting and downtime. It doesn’t always fit with the productive, successful people we want to be, or whom we imagine others expect us to be. We might worry about being lazy or idle. What helps towards this cause is understanding what soothing emotions are, knowing their evolved place in your life, knowing how you can recognise them when they show up in your life, and getting to know the ways you can stimulate and cultivate more of moments of soothing in your life.
To help us understand our soothing emotions, it helps to understand how these developed for us humans. To understand this, we need to travel a long way back in our evolutionary history. Many creatures, such as reptiles, need ways to conserve energy and rest. The most ancient version of soothing emotions facilitated this, coming online during periods where there were no threats to worry about and no needs to be addressed. We can call this the ‘rest and digest’ version of soothing emotions.
The effect of Soothing Emotions
In these soothing emotions, our bodies are slower and more relaxed. Our heart rate slows, our muscles relax, our attention tends to be more open, and our thinking unfocused and broad. This is a quieter state of being. This subtlety can be trickier to notice than the high energy, intense emotional states that come with anxiety, anger or excitement. Some emotion words that people use to describe these sorts of states are:
calm, content, relaxed, tranquil, peaceful, at ease, comfortable, soothed, settled, easy going, placid, restful, sedate, serene, stable, composed, easy, even-tempered, measured, untroubled, unruffled, halcyon, quiet, still, balanced.
As time went on, mammals evolved with a very different childrearing strategy to our reptilian ancestors. They had far fewer young, held them close, and invested much time and energy into rearing them. With this nurture these young were more likely to survive into adulthood and to reproduce and pass on their genes to the next generation. With the evolution of mammals came motivations to both care for young, and for young to receive this care. Paul Gilbert calls these twin motives our ‘caring social mentalities’. These are hard-wired into us humans too. We both seek care from others and are motivated to care for others. For us these motives stretch across the lifespan. Caring motives enable the survival of our babies and children. As American psychologist Louis Cozolino says, for us humans it’s really ‘survival of the nurtured’ that is more accurate than the classic evolutionary trope ‘survival of the fittest’. And it’s not just children. Caring and being cared for are essential for the wellbeing of all humans throughout our entire lives.
The Importance of Caring
Caring for each other is what helped humans survive many challenges over our evolutionary history. We now understand that our caring connections and ability to cooperate accounts for much of our success as a species. Our brains are also wired to attune to and connect with each other. We feel safest when we know others think positively of us; when we know they respect, like and care for us. When we have this sense of being valued by others, the world feels a safer place. We don’t need to worry about being rejected or hurt by others; we know we have a secure place in the group. We also feel the hope and possibility that comes from this care – we now have people we can cooperate with, share resources, and create meaningful relationships with.
Care has positive effects on our body and nervous system, so our emotions are regulated and we feel soothed and settled. These emotional experiences of ‘safeness’ with others accumulate over time and help us develop secure relationships (the gold of parenting). When safeness infuses our close childhood relationships, we are also gifted with a lasting blueprint of closeness and connection that helps us find nourishing relationships over the rest of our lives too.
The absence of threatening or difficult experiences is not sufficient for the development of this sense of safeness. It’s not enough that your parents didn’t hit or hurt you. Instead, a sense of safeness and easy access to soothing emotions develop only when we have been gifted positive relationship experiences from important others. These are experiences such as being seen, valued, accepted, and encouraged; when we have important others nurture and listen to us.
Whilst we all have soothing emotions wired into us, the more caring experiences we have had throughout our lives the more readily we are able to access our soothing feelings. As Paul Gilbert (2010, p195) says, “the soothing system is alert to the signals of being cared for by others and that others are being helpful and supportive (rather than cold, critical or rejecting)…”. Soothing emotions evolved to serve our caring motives. Soothing emotions aren’t compassion, yet as we’ve been exploring you can see they do have a special link to compassionate behaviour and receiving care. When we feel cared for and connected, our soothing feelings come online, which then serves to enhance our experience of this care and compassion.
In the same way as our earlier soothing emotions, these affiliative versions of soothing feel calm in our bodies. Our parasympathetic nervous system is online. Our heart rate is slowed, blood pressure is regulated. Our thinking is clear, steady, and broad. We have access to our frontal cortex, so our minds are open and accessible. Our minds are at peace, free, and we have the mental space to be reflective and insightful. Our breathing is easy and regulated; often we breathe deeply and slowly, into our bellies. Our eyes are relaxed. We feel open to connecting and interacting with others.
Some words that people use to describe these emotional states are:
connected, secure, togetherness, affection, fondness, tenderness, friendliness, safeness, encouraged, grateful, thankful, understood, tolerant, accepting, patient, certain, steady, loved, pensive, thoughtful, supported, united, allied, affiliated, freedom, assured, affirmed, held, amicable, gentle, blissful, harmonious, congruous, compatible, coordinated, of one mind, sympathetic, empathetic, liked, on the same wavelength, cordial, heartfelt, welcoming, warm-hearted, open hearted, open, sincere, cosy, warm, neighbourly, agreeable, present, attuned, pleasant, companionable, cooperative, good humoured, kindly, affable, approachable, good natured, gracious, benevolent, benign, accommodating, considerate, hospitable, collegial, reciprocal, collected.
In summary, our soothing emotions are pleasant emotions that leave us feeling at ease, peaceful, contented and connected. They evolved to help us rest and digest, and later as caring motives evolved, to help us connect, reflect, tend and befriend. Our soothing emotions also have a special relationship with compassion and caring relationships. Care and compassion naturally stimulate these emotions, helping us to feel soothed and settled. This is important, as our soothing emotions can be seen as a gateway into compassion. If we’re trying to build our ability to be compassionate, developing our ability to feel soothing feelings will help with this aim. This special link to care also means that our soothing emotions are natural threat regulators – when soothing feelings come online, we shift out of threat states and feel calmer. This is helpful to know if you’re all too often feeling distressed and threatened and want to tone down your anxiety or stress. You might want to focus on developing your soothing feelings to get more balance in your emotions in general. If this is you, you can begin by building your familiarity with your own soothing feelings. I’ll take you onto some practical ways to do this in just a moment.
What are the benefits of soothing emotional states?
Before we dive into the ‘how’ to stimulate your soothing system, let’s just spend a few more moments on the ‘why’ it’s important. The short story is that there are a vast number of physical and mental health benefits of engaging our soothing emotions.
You might have heard about Professor Steven Porges’ Polyvagal Theory. And if so, you may have been reading about our affiliative soothing emotions thinking “this sounds a lot like Porges’ ‘social engagement system’”. If so, you’d be right! Gilbert and Porges’ work developed separately, though there’s a clear overlap between the soothing emotion regulation system and the part of the vagus nerve that has been nicknamed the ‘social vagus’.
In his theory, Porges explains that our social engagement system is online when the part of the parasympathetic nervous system called the ventral vagus is active. Our bodies are constantly scanning for cues of safety, within ourselves and within others. When we sense this safety, we can engage with others and connect. We feel calm and sociable. Our heart rate is regulated, our breathing is deep and slow. We are attuned to others and feel a sense of belonging and connection in our social world. This is all sounding familiar, right? We are feeling soothing affiliative emotions.
Now we can measure vagal tone with something called heart rate variability (HRV). High HRV means you have good access to your ventral vagus; you can switch emotional gears and have balanced access to your emotions. In contrast, when HRV is low, we are more likely to have heart problems, poor physical health, mental health difficulties and distress, and even an earlier death! On the other hand, high HRV is linked to having a healthier heart, immune system, digestive system, quality sleep and overall wellbeing. We also know that high HRV is linked to compassion.
Soothing emotions feel good, though this isn’t why they’re important for us to cultivate. They have real, demonstrable physiological benefits for us. They also bring us balance in our mental states. We also know that when we train people in exercises that stimulate their soothing systems (e.g. soothing breathing) or their compassionate minds (e.g. loving kindness, compassionate mind training), we see positive shifts in HRV.
Is it time to bring more soothing into your life? Could you benefit from a body and mind that has more access to contentment and calm? If so, read on and let’s consider how you might begin.
Soothing in Your Life
So, your first task is to begin to attune to the presence of soothing emotions in your own life. The more literacy you have with these emotions, the easier you’ll find it to engage with them. Here are some questions you might find helpful as you track these for yourself. You may want to reflect on these as a journal or writing exercise.
- What versions of soothing emotions show up in your life?
- Which of the emotion names above do you recognise in your life?
- What kind of situations do these arise in?
- What are the activities or events that prompt you to feel this way? You might trace these feelings backwards: what happened right before you felt this soothing feeling.
- When you feel soothing emotions, how do they feel in your body? Notice your muscles, your energy, your temperature, your physical sensations.
- What kind of thoughts come with your soothing emotions?
- Are your thoughts fast, slow, or some other way?
- Are there memories or images that come to mind when you feel this way?
- When you feel these soothing feelings, what happens to your attention? What are you drawn to? Is your attention focused in on something, or broad and open?
Really get to know these feelings, as knowing how they feel will help you amplify and enhance them in your life.
Perhaps there are certain things you started thinking about, such as that time you were on holiday in a beautiful place, or that time that your colleague was really caring towards you. Perhaps you imagined things you haven’t experienced but would like to, such as daydreaming about the upcoming weekend and how you’re going to relax, or imagining being with someone who is loving and nurturing.
Maybe there are more external triggers, such as those first few moments of laying in bed on your day off, where you can relax and not have to rush to get up. When you stand under a warm shower or snuggle under a blanket on the sofa at the end of a day. Perhaps when you are meditating or pacing your breathing you find you feel soothed. Or in the company of someone and you have a moment of feeling accepted and at ease. Perhaps a friend shares a warm smile with you.
There can be so many varied and different things that can prompt us to feel soothed. Some will be social, affiliative experiences. Others will be more individual experiences where we feel relaxed and rested. Overall, it can help if you aim for a balance.
It can help to be curious the role of sensory experiences in our soothing feelings. You might see what tactile sensations, textures, tastes, smells, sights and sounds bring your feelings of soothing online. If you’re struggling to identify these feelings occurring naturally in your life, you might try out certain smells, tastes, feelings etc. and see what does feel soothing for you.
A deeper dive....
You might want to explore a little more deeply and consider how and when soothing emotions showed up for you during your childhood. You might reflect on:
- What memories do you have of warmth and connection with others?
- Who comforted you when you felt distressed? How did you share your feelings with others and how did they help you?
- What memories do you have of feeling appreciated and valued as a child?
- Describe the ways you felt a sense of belonging and acceptance in your early life.
You can also take the more detailed ‘Early Memories Of Warmth And Safeness Scale’ for free at www.compassionatemind.co.uk
Building Your Soothing System
Once you know how your soothing emotions feel and what kinds of things prompt them for you, you might consider how present they are in your life. Are they prompted readily and easily? Do they feel in balance to your other emotions, such as excitement, joy, anxiety and anger? Do you feel just as much soothing with others as you do on your own?
If on reflection you feel you could do with more soothing in your life, you might like to start deliberately stimulating these feelings.
Ideas to do this are as varied as the things that prompt them for each of us. Here are just a few examples:
- Indulge in your favourite smell. A smell that leaves you feeling comforted and calmed. As you inhale, really savour the scent and notice the way your body feels as you do this.
- Lay under a weighted blanket, or wrap yourself in a thick duvet. Feel warmth and the sensations of being held.
- Put on some music that makes you feel comforted and at ease. This might be the traditional whale song or sounds of the forest, or it might be some jazz or other music that you enjoy.
- Experiment with some gentle touch, like a hand massage or moisturising a part of your body.
- When you wake in the morning, make time for a few minutes of settling your breath before you get up. Breathe slowly, deeply, and relax your muscles.
- Get a photo of someone you care about. Ideally a photo that reminds you of your connection together, the way you feel at ease with them, and the sense of belonging you have together. Look at this photo and practice connecting with the feelings of connection and togetherness you feel with them.
- Look at a video of an aspect of nature that leaves you feeling settled and soothed. There are abundant videos online of beautiful beaches, forests, woodlands and deserts. Choose whatever scene that stimulates calm feelings for you. As you watch the video, slow your breathing and imagine you’re there amongst the tranquillity.
- When you check out your groceries at the store, you might take a moment to smile and make eye contact with the checkout operator. Notice how you feel when they smile back.
Our soothing feelings have an important place in our lives and our relationships. They can help us find the balance that we need and are an important gateway into compassion, because of their special link with our caring motivations.
Now that you’re more familiar with your soothing feelings I hope you enjoy exploring and cultivating them in your life. We’d love to hear what you discover and the soothing activities that you find work best for you – please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below?
As ever, take good care of yourself as you work on your emotions and step towards self-compassion. If anything in this exploration brings up difficulties for you, remember you don’t have to work through it alone. Reach out for help from a trusted friend, your GP, or a trained therapist.
Dr Shelley Kerr
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