Do you remember what soothed you as a child? What do you use today to relax yourself? We all learn coping strategies through our childhood experiences and while some are healthy and safe, others can cause serious damage. Sometimes an adaptive coping strategy used extensively becomes maladaptive. Think about bad times or even good times, did you look to food, alcohol, or shopping to comfort you or to celebrate something? Some of us have been conditioned to associate food with highs or lows. We inadvertently look to food as a distraction, comfort, mood enhancer, and/or escape from reality. Substances can easily become addictions when we rely on them to cope with life's emotional ordeals and conflicts. Many would rather avoid processing painful feelings with a mood altering substance or activity. The temporary rush or obliterating sedation eventually wear off and the problems or conflicts are still present or even worse since guilt or shame has been added to the mix. Sometimes our efforts to achieve pacification end up creating more stress and conflict.
Actually, self-soothing is an important and valuable life skill that is learned during childhood. For example, parents who are emotionally present to listen, comfort, empathize, and problem-solve with their children are providing a valuable lesson in soothing. On the other hand, emotionally neglectful parents fail to notice or respond to their children's emotional needs. The good news is that people can learn healthy self-soothing activities. Remember we are all different and what works for you may be different from what works for others. Think about what has worked for you in the past and try accessing soothing activities that use your five senses. Dr. Marsha Linehan, a psychologist who created Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), emphasizes the importance of accessing our senses in an effort to learn self-soothing skills which she finds very helpful for patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Typically BPD patients have a difficult time self-regulating their emotions and DBT helps them learn ways to deal with anger, frustration, and excitement or any intense emotions. So how can we cope with our feelings and self-soothe?
If we want to consider focusing on our five senses we can easily select an activity that accesses each one, such as watch a sunset or sunrise (sight), bake cookies or bread (smell), get a massage (touch), listen to soothing music (hearing) and treat yourself to your favorite dessert (taste). Obviously there are endless possibilities for self-soothing, the difficult part is finding what works for you and being consistent. Personally, exercising, listening to music, watching a good movie, connecting with family and friends, praying, reading the Bible, and positive self-talk are some of my favorites. Some people self-soothe through yoga, practicing mindfulness, meditation/relaxation, visualizing a peaceful image, or taking a warm bath/shower. Others may prefer reading, spending time in nature, enjoying a cup of coffee, walking on the beach, or watching a sporting event/comedy show. Sometimes self-soothing can be as simple as hugging a loved one, cuddling with a pet, cleaning the house, or completing a project. We can even allow ourselves to feel bad for a short period of time (10-15 minutes) before reaching for a healthy strategy. Choose healthy and adaptive strategies to self-soothe today, you'll feel better for it.