There are many ways to self-soothe.
When brought to our attention, they may seem basic and obvious, so much so that we wonder if they can really have any benefit.
The truth is, when we are overwhelmed, stressed out or emotionally raw, we can be swept up by our fight-or-flight response. We become very reactive. We forget that we have the ability to self-soothe.
Beyond that, for some people, the idea of self-soothing is a brand new concept.
What Is Self-Soothing?
You often see the term self-soothing in reference to baby sleep. Baby wakes in the night, cries, then self-settles back into sleep (ideally!).
But it’s not a baby-specific skill. Self-soothing is an imperative tool for everyone to master. It’s the ability to calm oneself in the face of stress, anxiety and panic.
Much like a parent soothes and comforts a distressed child, in self-soothing we “parent” ourselves.
Why Self-Soothing Is A Necessary Skill
Depending on your personal qualities and your early childhood experiences, you may have a natural ability to self-soothe or you may be lacking in this skill.
You may be unaware of it altogether.
During times of high anxiety and stress, do you offer yourself compassionate words (self-talk)?
Or do you admonish and berate yourself if you’ve made a mistake, thus compounding your experience of distress?
When you experience high-level difficult emotions, can you sit quietly and experience the feelings, or do you rush to smother them or distract yourself?
Do you call upon techniques you can use to bring out a sense of calm, or do you immediately reach to someone else for comfort, even though they may not be able to provide it?
Seeking External Comfort Can Backfire
Self-soothing is a necessary skill because even though we might seek comfort externally, or seek to mask or diminish discomfort through distraction or self-medication, none of these sources can truly provide the soothing we need.
Relying on others to give comfort can let us down. Sometimes they are not available. Sometimes they do not properly understand our needs.
When we seek soothing from others and they do not or cannot deliver, it adds to the sense of dismay.
Using substances, distractions or addictions to dismiss the need for comfort may provide temporary relief through numbing.
But the need for soothing does not go away. It just waits patiently until you notice it again. Usually it returns even stronger than before.
But the soothing that we can offer ourselves has a direct, positive impact on our body and mind.
Self-talk, breath, touch, acceptance and present-moment awareness are all ways to self-soothe that can allow you to cope with moments of challenge, trauma and even extreme distress.
5 Ways to Self-Soothe When Stressed
1. Use positive and compassionate self-talk.
Next time you feel a rising feeling of panic or doom, try saying these words:
This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion that I need.
These words are based on the Self-Compassion break designed by Dr Kristin Neff.
The experience of suffering can be isolating as we forget that in life, everybody suffers, and we need to expect suffering and deal with it.
These words are a reminder that others around us understand our suffering, and that suffering is normal. These words then offer self-love and nurturing as a buffer against the stress.
2. Focus on your breath.
This may be difficult if your panic is extreme, but once you are sitting quietly and have made an effort to focus on your breathing, you will notice the calming effects quickly.
If it helps, close your eyes.
Bring all your attention to your breath. Follow it on its inward journey as it fills your lungs, then follow its outward journey as you exhale.
Keep following it, noticing the sensations that go along with it – the coolness or warmth of the air wherever it enters or leaves your body, the feeling of your lungs expanding and contracting, the sounds of the air flow.
You might like to try the 4-7-8 breathing technique: you breathe in for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, exhale for a count of 8, then repeat the cycle 4 times. See a video of the 4-7-8 breath here.
By focusing on your breathing you are encouraging your body to switch off the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) response, and switch on the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) response, thereby easing stress hormones and allowing your body to establish calm.
3. Stroke your arms.
Using your hands and fingers, lightly and slowly stroke the skin on your arms like you would to a child or loved one in distress.
The skin is your body’s largest organ, replete with sensory receptors that transmit messages to your brain. In this case you are offering your brain the message that you are nurtured, protected and loved.
This is a powerfully soothing technique, so don’t worry about feeling silly.
4. Accept your suffering.
So often, we resist our negative experiences because we want the uncomfortable feelings to go away.
But as we try to fight and squash negative emotions, they become stronger and more overwhelming.
Allowing the feelings to be, quietly sitting with them and noticing how they feel in the body and where they manifest, is the way to process and release them.
Feelings are called feelings because you can physically feel them in your body. Acknowledge those feelings, give them space to be, and soon, having said their piece and now feeling heard, they are free to pass through.
Do a full body scan and as you go, name the sensations, like “burning belly, heavy chest, tight eyes” and just notice them with curiosity and kindness.
5. Be in the present moment.
Although the present is all we ever have, how many of us are ever actually here?
It’s widely believed that depression arises from regret about the past, while anxiety is a result of anticipation of the future. When we are present in the now, we can see these things as having a smaller scale and being less important.
Being present can be achieved using some of the techniques above, especially the breath and the body scan. The idea is to become hyper aware of everything, just as it is, right now. Eckhart Tolle describes how to achieve present moment awareness in this video.
There Are Other Ways To Self-Soothe
The suggestions above are just 5 of many.
Speak to your therapist about self-soothing techniques. He or she may have some tools to share with you, or they may go more deeply into one of the approaches above.
Do you have other ways of self-soothing? Let us know your tried and true techniques in the comments below.