Self-soothing is defined as an individual’s efforts or capacity to calm themselves while in a state of emotional distress (Wright, 2009). It is a key aspect of well-being as it helps us stay regulated and calm (take the well-being quiz here to learn more about your well-being).
We learn many of our self-soothing patterns when we are babies. It is believed that when we are soothed by caregivers, we internalize this soothing and learn how to do it for ourselves (Wright, 2009). So there are a variety of ways that we might not develop this skill and end up having difficulty self-soothing as adults. Improving our self-soothing skills as adults requires self-insight, the development of self-soothing skills, and the ability to effectively use these skills to return to an emotional baseline.
Here are some specific self-soothing techniques that may help:
1. Listen to Relaxing Music.
Research has shown that relaxing music reduces cortisol, an important stress hormone (Khalfa et al., 2003). If you’re feeling agitated or unable to settle down, calming music might just help change the mood, enabling you to breathe deeper, refocus your thoughts, and nudge negative emotions into remission.
2. Take Some Deep Breaths.
A key part of self-soothing often involves deactivating the sympathetic nervous system. We can do this by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system helps stop our fight-or-flight responses and return us to a calm state.
We can easily activate the parasympathetic nervous system by taking a few long, deep breaths. One easy breathing strategy to remember is box breathing. Box breathing involves breathing in for a count of four, holding for a count of four, breathing out for a count of four, and then holding for a count of four. Repeat this box breathing method for a few rounds until you start to feel calmer.
4. Try the “Butterfly Hug.”
EMDR is a therapeutic technique used to help people process trauma. One EMDR technique is the Butterfly Hug. The Butterfly Hug is not considered to be a self-soothing technique in itself, but rather a technique for processing distressing emotions and material often left from trauma. Soothing is what is thought to occur after processing this material. So this technique is not to be used while experiencing negative emotions, but rather it is to help you work through negative baggage that may be causing heightened distress in general.
5. Do Pleasant Activities.
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), it is suggested that engaging in pleasant activities is a good way to self-soothe (Linehan, 1993). Indeed, regularly doing an activity we enjoy can help us feel more content, and doing this activity when we’re stressed may make us feel better. Some of my favorite pleasant activities are gardening, spending time with friends, and doing arts and crafts. What pleasant activities help you feel better?
When we’re feeling upset, it can sometimes be hard to self-soothe. But by using some self-soothing techniques, we actually do have a lot of control over how we feel.
Adapted from an article on self-soothing published by The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.
Jarero, I., & Artigas, L. (2016). Instruction for the Butterfly Hug Method.
Khalfa, S., BELLA, S. D., Roy, M., Peretz, I., & Lupien, S. J. (2003). Effects of relaxing music on salivary cortisol level after psychological stress. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 999(1), 374-376.
Linehan, M. M. (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. Guilford press.
Wright, J. (2009). Self‐Soothing—A recursive intrapsychic and relational process: The contribution of the Bowen theory to the process of self‐soothing. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 30(1), 29-41.