Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Think about the last time you were tucked into bed and someone close to you, maybe a parent or grandparent, read you a bedtime story.
Most likely, you felt safe and secure then, and were able to easily go to sleep. You probably didn’t know at the time that this technique was known as “soothing.”
As adults, we are challenged to find ways to calm or soothe ourselves to reduce anxiety and calm our minds. Even though society may challenge the need to care for ourselves as adults, self-soothing techniques are essential to reduce anxiety and depression and achieve overall well-being and a positive state of mind.
Unfortunately, we are not often taught the art of self-soothing. Instead, we’re encouraged to tough it out in a pressured world. But these techniques come in handy during difficult times.
Some of the techniques are found in Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT). In DBT, self-soothing skills are known as distress tolerance. Some of these habits or behaviors come from childhood, and others can be learned. There is not one perfect self-soothing behavior. An individualized approach is important in learning which behaviors or skills work for you.
Self-soothing techniques may simply involve engaging in a pleasant or enjoyable event. For kids, this is easy since this involves the art of playing.
Think for a minute about activities that you enjoy or have not been involved in for a long time. This may involve reading, going to an art museum, taking a walk, watching your favorite TV show, taking time to organize your closet or talking with a friend. These pleasant events also result in distraction, which can help quiet the mind.
Another way of looking at self-soothing techniques is by classifying them according to the senses or sensory experiences.
Sight: You can look outside the window at nature or take a walk to your favorite place to observe the surroundings. Look at pictures of artwork or use your imagination to visualize a person or place that helps you to feel happy and/or calm.
Sound: Listen to your favorite songs the sounds of nature around you. One person may feel calm when they listen to rap music, while another may prefer classical music. The sounds of crickets at nights may calm one individual, while the sounds of the ocean may appeal to another.
Smell: You could imagine the smell of fresh-baked cookies when they first come out of the oven. Or you could smell your favorite perfume, light a fragrant candle or smell a favorite soap. Lavender has soothing qualities for many people. Some enjoy walking outside and taking a deep breath and smelling the many odors of nature early in the morning.
Touch: If you feel anxious, try splashing cold water on your face or putting ice cubes under your chin. Comfort may also result from a warm bath, with or without bubbles. Wrapping yourself in your favorite soft robe or a blanket may give you comfort on a difficult day.
Taste: There are so many individual options. You may like the sweetness of chocolate or the cold feeling of water ice. Calmness may be achieved when drinking various types of tea, including herbal teas such as chamomile. At the same time, you may enjoy eating a spicy mint that will wake you up or help make you more aware of your emotions.
Kinesthetic: Moving is another effective self-soothing technique. Exercise, dance, rocking in a rocking chair, tossing a ball or playing with a toy can be helpful. You might like to return to your childhood days when you played with Play-Doh or Silly Putty. All moving does not have to involve exercise.
Finding ways to care for yourself with self-soothing techniques is an important and helpful addition to your life. But there are reasons people avoid adopting them:
Some people feel that they don’t have time in their busy schedules to care for themselves.
Individuals’ inner voices often tell them that they should care for others.
People feel silly or awkward engaging in self-soothing behaviors.
New habits are hard to adopt.
Think back again to a time when you felt calm, secure and relaxed. This time it may not involve someone reading a bedtime story to you and tucking you into bed. It may involve you engaging in one or more of the previously discussed self-soothing behaviors. These tools should help you get through difficult times and make your life more enjoyable and manageable.
Marcy Shoemaker, Psy.D., is a staff psychologist at Abramson Center.