By Karyn Hall, PHD
One of the skills a young child must learn is to comfort himself when he is upset. One way he learns to do this is by being soothed by his parents or caregivers. Touch and holding are two ways caregivers comfort children. Gradually the child learns ways to calm himself. These activities are critical for the healthy development of the young child.
Adults may have others to comfort them as well, such as good friends who offer companionship or spouses who give hugs. But self-soothing is a basic skill important for emotional and physical well-being.
Self-soothing is particularly important for the emotionally sensitive, yet many don’t think about, forget, or discount the need for and effectiveness of self-soothing activities. In upset moments, it’s hard to think about calming yourself. Plus, self-soothing does not come naturally to everyone and requires thought and action.
A stress response is a natural part of our survival pattern. The amygdala is believed to be the part of your brain that processes basic feelings. The amygdala plays a big role in sounding an alert for threatening situations and triggers fight or flight behaviors. This works well as long as there truly is a threat that you need to run away from or defend yourself against. Otherwise your body suffers from being on high alert when it doesn’t need that reaction.
Feeling like you are being threatened when you aren’t is unpleasant and exhausting. Those who have suffered traumatic experiences may find they are easily stressed and often are in the flight or fight state when there is no current danger. This may be because in addition to being part of the threat alert system, the amygdala also seems to be involved in emotional memories. The more intense the situation, the stronger the memory, according to Michael Jawer in his book, The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion.
Early trauma, in infancy, childhood, or even before birth, is believed to influence the programming of the body’s stress activation system (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPA system), making the set point lower than it is for those who do not experience such trauma. The result is that people who have experienced early trauma are more hyper-vigilant and more likely to experience stressful reactions. They are prone to debilitating conditions such as migraines, allergies and chronic pain. Being more reactive to the world in general seems to result from early trauma. Active, purposeful self-soothing would tend to be more difficult for these individuals and also more necessary.
Creating sensations that say there is no emergency helps calm the body’s alert system so the brain (prefrontal cortex) can regain its ability to think and plan. If you are sipping hot tea under a soft blanket or lazing in a bubble bath, then there must be no reason to run at full speed to the nearest cave!
Whatever the reason or origin of emotional sensitivity, self-soothing can help. Marsha Linehan recognized the importance of self-soothing and included these skills when she developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Self-soothing is part of finding a middle ground, a gray area, between being detached or numb and experiencing an emotional crisis or upheaval. Allowing yourself to experience the uncomfortable emotions (without feeding them and making them more intense) enables the emotions to pass. Soothing yourself helps you tolerate the experience without acting in ways that are not helpful in the long run, or blocking the emotions, which makes the emotions grow larger or come out in ways you didn’t intend.
Know Your Self-Soothing Activities: Usually soothing activities are related to the senses. Different people are comforted in different ways and may prefer one sense over another. Sometimes what is soothing for one situation is not the same as what is soothing in a different situation.
When your alert system is firing danger, then physical activity may help, like playing a fast-moving game of racquetball or going for a walk.
When the upset is more about feeling hurt or sad, activities such as sipping hot tea or petting a dog may be more effective. The smell of apple pie baking, a beautiful sunset, the softness of a dog’s fur, the song of birds singing, the taste of chocolate or the sensation of rocking. Reading a good book can be soothing for some. Being with a good friend, someone you feel safe with and loved by, can be soothing.
Some may be best soothed by focusing on a specific sense. Some people are more visual than others and some are more auditory. Experiment with the different senses to see what works best for you. You may want to create a self-soothing box full of options that you know are effective for you. When you are upset hunting for a special song or even remembering what is soothing is difficult. Put a list of your self-soothing activities in the box along with some of the objects you might need.
Create Self-Soothing Experiences: A self-soothing experience involves more than one sense and have a overall feel of valuing the self. Having your favorite meal at a table set with cloth napkins and pretty dishes while listening to music you love would be a self-soothing experience for some. A bubble bath with your favorite scent, a favorite drink, and listening to a book on tape could also be a self-soothing experience.Other Self-soothing Activities: Performing an act of kindness for others can be soothing, particularly if you are feeling disappointed in yourself. Often helping those who are less fortunate is effective in that situation too. Accomplishing tasks such as cleaning your house or organizing your closet can help with uncomfortable feelings. Writing, playing, and laughing can all be soothing by helping you detach and feel more in control of your emotional experience.
Focusing on your sense of meaning may be soothing. This meaning might be about knowing your purpose in life or it might be about a spiritual connection. Focusing on what is truly important to you can help you let the less important go. Consider prayer or meditation.Finding out what works best for you through practicing self-soothing in different situations will help you manage your emotions more effectively. You may want a way of reminding yourself to self-soothe and what to do as people do not think clearly when upset. Motivation to self-calm in tense moments can be low. Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston and www.DBTSkillscoaching.com, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant with TreatmentImplementation Collaborative (Ticllc.org) as well as a therapist and certified coach.
Hall, K. (2012). Self-Soothing: Calming the Amygdala and Reducing the Effects of Trauma. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 15, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/emotionally-sensitive/2012/04/self-soothing-calming-the-amgydala/
Last updated: 4 Apr 2012
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 4 Apr 2012
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