Inspired by recent events, today I thought I'd have a think about what self-soothing is, why it's important, and how we can do it more successfully as adults.
Today has sucked. It started off well, and then a series of misunderstandings and a growing sense of overwhelm has threatened to tip me off balance. It doesn't happen often, but when it does I rely on my self-soothing strategies to get me through the rest of the day.
What is self-soothing?
Self-soothing is actually a term that we tend to apply to children in the first instance. It refers to a child's ability to soothe itself (e.g. to stop crying) rather than relying on an adult caregiver for external soothing. When babies are very small, they need us to cuddle them, feed them, distract them from their distress. As they get older, they can do these things themselves - calm themselves down instead of becoming overwhelmed and upset.
What happens as we grow up?
As we get older, we learn some ways to manage distress when we're around others, and some ways to manage it when we're alone. Not all self-soothing strategies are created equally, and some can do more harm in the long term than good. But the important thing to note is that the need to soothe yourself to manage difficult feelings never goes away - it's something that toddlers learn to do, but it's something that adults also need to do (and adults have a wider range of options available to them than toddlers!)
What are some examples of self-soothing?
Anything that you do that helps you to manage feeling of distress can be classed as self-soothing. Things that soothe the difficult emotions in you might not soothe the same emotions in others; it's a highly individual thing, often based on things you learned as you were growing up. Presented without judgment, some examples of self-soothing behaviours are:
How do you self-soothe?
As I'm writing this, I've got a cup of tea to my right hand side, which I'm occasionally remembering to sip on. I've got a hot water bottle on my back, because it makes me feel calmer and more relaxed, and I've been doing some deep breathing, which always helps me to feel centred. I spent a bit of time earlier venting to my partner, and in about 20 minutes I'm going to watch a rugby match and yell at the TV, which always makes me feel better! Sometimes, I go for a jog. Sometimes, I eat too much chocolate. I hope that they cancel each other out.
How should I self-soothe? I don't know what I'm doing!
Don't panic - I can guarantee you that you do know what you're doing, or at least you know a little bit about what makes you feel better. Naming your emotions can be helpful if you're not sure what's going on (e.g. "I feel sad today" or "I'm feeling overwhelmed") and that can help you to decide on a strategy for self-soothing - for me, running doesn't work if I'm feeling overwhelmed as it's just another thing I have to do. Relaxation doesn't often work for me when I'm angry, as I just need to talk it out. Chocolate works in all situations, which says more about me than it does about the soothing powers of chocolate! Once you've decided on a strategy, you may need to try it more than once to see if it does make you feel a bit better - and don't be afraid to ask friends and family how they self-soothe, to get more ideas.
What if my self-soothing strategies are bad for me?
Let's be honest here - alcohol, cigarettes, skin-picking and other things that alter your consciousness in some way or force you to stop thinking about the thing that's distressing you are popular options because they work. If they didn't have a pay-off (e.g. I don't have to feel distressed because I don't feel much of anything) we wouldn't use them. Unfortunately, they also have downsides, and come at a cost to your health, both physical and mental, with over-use.
If you soothe by using strategies that you know deep-down aren't helpful for you, then therapy can help you to replace those strategies with things that are less harmful. I never suggest stopping a self-soothing strategy immediately unless it's posing a serious risk to your life/health, as if you haven't replaced it with something else, you may turn to even more harmful strategies to manage distress. It's better to learn some healthier methods first, whilst gradually stopping the things that aren't as helpful long-term.
So that's my blog on self-soothing. I hope you found it helpful - now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a rugby match to go yell at!
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects