Self-Soothe and The Emotional Mind

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MacLean’s Theory of Triune Brain (Image courtesy of

Emotions are a complicated subject and often difficult to define. Academics and practitioners have proposed a wide array of theories to explain emotions often leaving the reader confused about the subject. Each of us has felt the effects of emotions within our personal lives.  Paul MacLean, a leading neuroscientist and researcher, proposed a theory called the Triune Brain. The basic concept is that there are three separate systems in the brain that affect how an individual makes decisions and acts. The oldest, most basic system according to the theory is the Reptilian Brain, also called the Amygdala, which is responsible for the survival instinct and basic life needs. The next highest brain the Mammalian Brain, also called the Limbic System, is responsible for emotions and feelings.   And the newest brain system the Monkey Brain, also called the Neocortex, which is responsible for language, higher order thinking, and rational thinking to name a few of its capacities.   What follows is a pratical way to effectively manage the emotional mind. We will examine the contributions of Dialectical Behavior Therapy as a means to soothe the emotional reactive mind.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) a cognitive behavioral based-therapy founded by Dr. Marsha M. Linehan in the late 1980s to help individuals with urges to self-harm provides the most easy to follow technique. DBT poposed a radical way to cope with the emotional mind. According to DBT self-soothing techniques are a way to regulate emotions and care for self. Think of a baby. Their natural capacity is to soothe themseleves using their five senses. This technique works by using sight, seeing, hearing smelling, and touch (See instructons below) in the face of difficult experiences.

In times of emotional upheavel the ability to nourish one’s self and remain calm can be a difficult task. For example, imagine you were in a fight with a friend or significant other. The emotional charge of anger that arises from the conflict creates tension in the body. Whether we realize it or not emotions affect our body and mind in unison.  In the moment one way to apply this technique is describe what you feel with your senses. Perhaps you feel your feet touching the ground or the leg of your pants against your skin. In essence this skill is a mindful practice. The goal is to discover what helps you to feel comfort like a child sucking her thumb for the first time feels safety.

You might also use the sense of hearing. Perhaps trying to fid the lowest sound in the immediate area. And then the loudest sound. Trying to take in all stimuli as best as you can. Then moving to the sense of smell. Perhaps you smell cologne or perfume or food that is cooking in the background. Self-soothing skills work to provide distraction. It is an opportunity for you to meet your own needs. In a sense to be self oriented. Checking in with yourself allows you to know best what needs you need met.  Moving from one sense to the next until you are able to tolerate the emotional experience and find that inner sense of peace.

The most imporant piece of this is to be like a child a be creative with this skill. Things we should avoid are harmful things that we often believe “help” us to self-soothe. These include alcohol, drugs, money, compulsive shopping, gambling, and other harmful behaviors that provide a high with minimal relief of distress. The skills of self-soothe are acquired at an early age that we begin to loose this skill as we age. It is for this reason alone that we need to make a conscious effort to practice this skill on a daily basis. The stream of possibilities to use this skill is endless.



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