As a child, your caretakers taught you how to deal with your emotions. Whenever you had a meltdown over losing a toy or scraping your knee, they reacted by trying to teach you emotional regulation. However, many of us, especially those of us who are more sensitive and empathetic, never learned self-soothing. That is, how to calm ourselves down and regulate our emotions. This skill can help you take charge of your emotions, stay centered, and manage your overall wellbeing.
What is Self-Soothing?
To understand self-soothing, you first have to understand the physical aspects of your feelings. Have you ever felt so emotionally upset that you experience bodily symptoms? Sweaty hands, a racing heart, and a sense of alertness can all accompany a burst of emotion. This is part of your stress response - your natural survival instincts. It all starts in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that processes your basic feelings. It’s what alerts the rest of your body to any potential threats and sets off your fight or flight response.
The fight or flight response is a physiological reaction that evolved with humans as a survival mechanism. It involves almost instant hormonal changes that impact your nervous system. Your heart beats faster, your pulse and blood pressure rise, you breathe faster, and you become more alert. While this response is incredibly important for true physical threats, it can be exhausting when there isn’t a true threat. For people who experience anxiety, have had traumatic experiences, or struggle with emotional regulation, the fight or flight response can come about when there is no danger.
There are a few issues with remaining in this heightened state. It is physically and emotionally draining in the moment, but it can also be unhealthy over time. People who have more stressful reactions to events are prone to allergies, chronic pain, and migraines. Plus, it’s simply not an ideal or healthy way to deal with emotions. It’s important to feel your emotions, but also be able to take control of them.
This is where self-soothing comes in. Self-soothing is the behavior that you use to regulate your emotional state by yourself. As a child, you may have never been taught to self-soothe - maybe you were taught that any emotional reaction is bad and you should hide your emotions. Perhaps you were always comforted by a parent, and thus you rely on others to soothe your emotions. Learning a healthy way to self-soothe can allow you to experience your emotions safely, while you remain in control.
Impacts of Emotional Regulation and Self-Soothing
There are many ways to self-soothe, and some are healthier than others. There are also certain ways that people react when they don’t know how to self-soothe. All of these behaviors can affect others. For example, if you learned that the only way to regulate emotions was via the comfort of someone else, you might become highly codependent on your partner. If you learned to suppress your emotions, you might occasionally have emotional outbursts at seemingly small inconveniences.
Negative types of self-soothing could include:
- Fingernail biting
- Skin picking
- Hair picking
- Substance abuse
These types of self-soothing could potentially cause harm to yourself and even others. They could impact how you interact with others and negatively impact relationships. They may also cause you to feel shame, in which case you may try to hide the behavior from others.
In comparison, positive forms of self-soothing can help you find an emotional middle ground instead of numbing the feeling or having an emotional blow-up. It allows you to experience uncomfortable emotions but not feed into them and make them more severe. You’ll also calm the nervous system, ridding yourself of the fight or flight response. With positive coping techniques, you’re better able to accomplish goals and improve relationships with others.
5 Ways to Practice Healthy Self-Soothing
1.Become a Witness
It’s easy to get wrapped up in your emotions, but stepping outside of them can help soothe you. Try telling yourself, “This situation is not permanent. I am not this emotion. I can detach myself from this state, witness my feelings, and center myself.”
Expanding on #1 is a technique known as "defusion". This is a practice from ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) - a therapeutic approach that encourages people to embrace their thoughts and feelings rather than fighting or feeling guilty for them. Defusion's purpose is give us distance from distressing emotional experiences and change our relationship to those thoughts or feelings. When you notice yourself having a distressing thought or feeling, practice saying "I notice that I'm having the thought that..." and describe the thought or feeling. It can be difficult at first and requires mindfulness and repetition but, over time, it has been proven to lessen distress. The (Illustrated) Happiness Trap by Dr. Russ Harris expands on ACT and is a great guide for practicing defusion!
3. Take a Deep Breath:
When you start to feel anxiety and stress, stop what you’re doing and just focus on taking three deep breaths. See how full you can fill your lungs. Focus on breathing out slowly. Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, sending a signal to your brain that you're safe and don't need to use the
4. Try a Body Scan
If you’re struggling to let go of racing thoughts, a body scan will bring you back to earth by focusing on physical sensations. Lie down in a comfortable position somewhere quiet. Take slow, deep breaths from your belly. Working from your head to your feet, slowly focus on each part - what does your forehead feel like? Ears? Nose? Mouth, throat, shoulders, and so on. Notice how you feel and wherever your body is holding tension (tightness, pain, or pressure). This can help you release tension in your body now, and become more mindful of the sensation. In future situations, you'll be more aware of it so you can release it then, too.
5. Cool down
If you find it hard to identify areas of tension within your body with the body scan, you can "help" by applying an external sensory element. Soak a washcloth in cool water, wring it out, then apply it to your forehead. Or, fill a medium bowl with cool water and soak your hands in it for a minute. Focus on the cooling effect on that part of your body as you take 10 deep breaths.
6. Take a Walk
If you have the time and space, taking a walk in a moment of intense emotion can be incredibly calming. If you’re struggling to let go of emotions, try to think about the physical sensations - what’s your breathing like? Are you swinging your arms? What do you hear? How do your feet feel on the ground?
Another important thing to consider is your environment; are there things in your daily life that could be triggering moments of emotional dysregulation? Work, people, or other events? If you're unsure, a therapist can help you figure out what's got your nervous system in a constant state of heightened arousal.
Self-soothing can also come in the form of relaxing, enjoyable experiences that can help to temporarily distract us from stress - bubble baths, movies, books, or time spent with those who care about us.
Lastly, and perhaps the most important thing to remember - have compassion for yourself. Even if you're not able to fully soothe or regulate yourself in the moment, it's important to remember that all the feelings you experience are valid and accepted. It's OK to get mad, feel hurt, or be sad. A failure to regulate yourself in the moment is not failure. Give yourself space to have those feelings. The point of emotional regulation is not to eliminate feelings altogether. It will never happen! There will always be moments where we might feel shaken.
These are just a few ways to practice self-soothing, calm the nervous system, and banish anxiety. Anything that is rooted in self-love that you find calming could be a form of self-soothing - from taking a bubble bath to hitting the gym. Once you’ve calmed down, you can more easily assess your emotions and move forward.