As you know from having lived thus far, life hands us all kinds of experiences. And in response to those experiences, we have all kinds of emotions, some wonderful, some neutral, and some unpleasant. What do you do when you are facing a difficult situation, or when an unpleasant feeling is persistent or difficult to manage? This is where self-soothing comes in.
Most people never give a thought to self-soothing. In fact, most people probably would assume that it’s an automatic process that just happens. But actually, self-soothing is a life skill that children learn from their parents.
When a father rubs his fitful son’s back to help him fall asleep after a nightmare, when a mother holds her crying child and smooths his forehead, when a father listens carefully to his daughter’s long story about something unfair that happened to her at school that day, when a mother sits with calm quiet empathy through her son’s tantrum, these emotionally present parents are teaching this vital life skill to their children. Children whose emotions are accepted, tolerated and appropriately soothed internalize their parents’ ability to do so. Children absorb the self-soothing skill like the little sponges that they are, and it’s a skill that they’ll need to have throughout their entire lives.
Just as no two people are exactly the same, no two people are soothed the exact same way. Everyone’s needs are different. Throughout my career as a psychologist, I’ve helped people identify a seemingly infinite number of different self-soothing techniques.
The worst time to try to figure out what works for you is when you need it the most. It will work very much to your advantage to identify good possible strategies and have them ready to try when you do need them. It’s likely that a self-soothing strategy that works in one situation may not work in another and vice-versa, so it’s good to have not just one strategy but a list of them. That way, in your moment of need, you can try one and if that doesn’t work, try another.
In order to identify effective soothers, it may help to think back to your childhood. Were there things that you found comforting as a child? Also, think back to the most emotionally challenging times of your adulthood. Have there been helpful self-soothing strategies that you’ve used in the past without realizing it? One warning is to be careful what types of strategies you use. Make sure they’re healthy for you. Alcohol, shopping and eating can help in moderation but if they’re over-used they can make your problem bigger later. Or they can end up giving you another problem to deal with.
Below are some examples of healthy self-soothing strategies that have been identified and used effectively by others. Try these and/or use them as a starting point to help identify what works for you and make your own list.
• bubble bath
• long, hot shower
• listen to music; may be a particular song
• polish your car
• exercise; run, lift weights; take a bike-ride
• play guitar or other instrument
• cook or bake (we’re talking about the process here; be careful not to over-use food itself for self-soothing!)
• spend time with your pet
• play with a child
• go for a walk
• a smell that you found comforting in childhood
• call a friend
• lie on the ground and watch the clouds or look at the stars
• go to the movies
• sit quietly and look out the window
• sit in a church and meditate
• Self-Talk: Self-talk is probably the most useful and versatile of all self-soothing strategies. It involves literally talking yourself through your uncomfortable feeling state. You can do it quietly, on your own, within your own mind, so you can do it anywhere.
Make a list of strategies that you want to try, and the ones that work for you. Be sure to keep your list flexible. Scratch off ones that stop working for you and add new ones as needed. Make self-soothing a meaningful, purposeful endeavor that grows and changes with you. All of your life you will need to have the ability to soothe yourself. As you get better at it, you’ll find yourself a calmer person who feels more in control and more comfortable overall.