First, a quick anecdote...
A couple years ago I was spending time with my niece, who was about 4 years old at the time, and as we were getting ready to get in the car to go to the park, she touched the car and was surprised to find out that the car was hot to the touch – ouch! She immediately pulled her hand back and as I approached her to see if she was ok, I heard her saying to herself:
“It’s ok, honey. It’s ok.”
It was an adorable moment and I remember feeling so proud of her for practicing such a valuable skill that can be beneficial throughout her life: self-soothing.
You may be familiar with self-soothing as something that infants and children do to calm themselves down when they are upset, but it is just as important for us to practice as adults.
In fact, you most likely already have things that you do to self-soothe, even if you haven’t really considered them to be self-soothing techniques. Do you ever find yourself…
Tapping your foot?
Biting your nails?
Playing with your hair?
These are just a few things that you might think of as “nervous habits,” but they are actually attempts to self-soothe.
Self-soothing techniques are those things that you do in an attempt to feel more calm and comforted when you are stressed, anxious, uncomfortable, or overwhelmed by difficult emotions.
Some of those habits that I listed above may not seem like they are self-soothing because you may not necessarily feel any less stressed or calm by doing them, but they are providing you with some sort of benefit, otherwise they wouldn’t have become a habit.
And while most of those habits that I listed are relatively harmless, there are other self-soothing habits that have potentially harmful consequences that you’ll want to look out for – for instance, heavy alcohol use, smoking, or over-eating, to name a few.
Beyond that you probably have a few other go-to techniques or activities that you use to bring yourself comfort and calm. There are plenty of other options for effectively soothing yourself and calming your stress and anxiety that are quick and simple and without negative consequences. It’s just a matter of taking the time to find what works best for you and then remembering to do it, rather than simply turning to old habits.
So how do you find what self-soothing technique works best for you?
You can start by asking yourself.
When you’re feeling stressed and anxious, slow down, take a few deep breaths, and then take a moment to ask yourself: What do I need right now? What will help calm me down or bring me some comfort?
Offer yourself kindness and understanding and listen to your needs.
This may sound really basic, but it’s an important step and it’s really easy to overlook. Oftentimes you’ll find that you actually have some good ideas about what will help calm you down or comfort you but you can get so caught up in trying to solve the bigger problems or push through the stress that you completely disregard your own needs.
When you check in with yourself like this, you might discover that you just need to take a break and step away from the problem for awhile. You might realize that you need to talk to someone or ask for help. Or maybe you just needed that moment to slow down and focus on yourself for a little bit. There are any number of possibilities for what can bring you some comfort and peace, you can get creative or keep it simple, it's up to you to discover what works for you.
And if you’re feeling stuck and you're having a hard time figuring out what you can do to calm yourself, one thing you can try is to focus on your five senses. See if you can find anything you can look at, hear, taste, smell, or feel/touch to bring you some soothing. When you think of something that appeals to you, give it a try.
Here are a few ideas to consider for each of the five senses:
Look & See
Look at images of people, pets, places, or things that you love, that make you smile or bring you a sense of calm
Watch funny or cute videos
Create a more visually soothing environment – dim the lights, light a candle, put out some flowers, etc.
Listen to some soothing music or sounds
Sing, hum, pray, or chant
Listen to affirmations or words of encouragement or say them to yourself (It’s ok, honey. It’s ok.)
Essential oils, scented candles
Stop and smell the roses or lavender or jasmine or any pleasant smelling flower
Bake something or if you don’t bake, heat up a baked goodie in the microwave
Sip a soothing beverage
Enjoy a delicious snack
Suck on a mint or piece of hard candy
Feel or touch
Take a warm bath or shower
Get a massage or self-massage
Grab a cozy blanket, pillow, or put on some comfy clothes
Cuddle with a pet or other loved one
Now, I recognize that there are those times when you won’t be able to create a soothing experience for yourself due to circumstances, but when that’s the case, you can always turn to visualization.
Visualize or imagine yourself seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or feeling those soothing things. Imagine what it would feel like if you could be soaking in the bath or enjoying the smell of fresh-baked cookies. Or imagine being in the presence of someone who is comforting or imagine yourself in a calming place and really allow yourself to feel the full experience of it – tuning in to what it looks like, sounds like, smells like, and feels like to be there.
Try it right now and notice how your body relaxes a little when you let yourself imagine the experience.
And if you try a self-soothing technique and it doesn’t seem to help, don’t be discouraged and don’t give up! Keep trying different techniques and know that self-soothing doesn’t always provide instant relief. There may be times when you need to give yourself a longer period of time (20-30 minutes) before you find the relief you are looking for.
This is especially true if you’re dealing with really intense feelings or a long accumulation of stress. When it’s possible, it’s best to start using a self-soothing technique when you are just starting to notice a change in how you are feeling, rather than waiting until things build up or escalate.
When you are able to soothe and calm yourself effectively, you allow your nervous system a chance to rest and reset, which helps you think more clearly, get perspective, and make sound decisions about how you want to proceed.
You can start to be more present in your life and your relationships and feel more confident in your ability to navigate challenges when they come your way.