Self-soothing involves learning how to comfort ourselves when we are upset. While we, as social creatures, often turn to others for support when we are hurt, upset, angry, and/or scared, it also is important to be able to help ourselves become more calm and relaxed in response to upsetting events. Self-soothing skills typically start developing as early as infancy. For instance, thumb sucking or cuddling with a fuzzy blanket are strategies young children naturally use from an early age in order to comfort themselves. As we get older, some self-soothing techniques continue to develop with ease while others take practice and tweaking until they reliably help us feel better.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a treatment approach originally developed to help individuals with borderline personality disorder but now widely used to treat a wide range of mental health concerns, considers self-soothing to be one of the key skills needed in order to tolerate distress. Individuals who have more difficulty handling “bumps in the road”, tolerating frustration, and/or coping with upsetting feelings often need to put considerable energy into strengthening their ability to self-soothe. Without adequate self-soothing skills, individuals may cope with pain in destructive ways, such as self-harm, alcohol/drug use, anger outbursts, avoidance, etc. According to DBT, self-soothing activities ideally involve each of our five senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch). Taking in something soothing in our environment through one (or more) of our senses can help individuals feel calmer and more relaxed. For example, we may feel better by looking at a pretty picture, listening to a happy song, smelling a special candle, tasting a favorite dish, and/or taking a bubble bath. Sometimes it can be hard to engage ourselves in self-soothing strategies when we are having a hard time emotionally. This is why it is so critical to practice self-soothing even when we are feeling calm and happy; the more familiar and comforting the strategies are, the more likely we will be to use them when we are upset. Also, given that it can be challenging to come up with self-soothing strategies when feeling really upset, some people benefit from creating a “Self-Soothing Box”, in which they put a variety of items that offer a sense of calm and relaxation, that can be easily accessed when they are feeling overwhelmed. In DBT, individuals are encouraged to put items in the box that engage each of the five senses (e.g., pictures of favorite people, art supplies, lotion, a soothing playlist, lollipops, a candle).
Self-soothing is a highly individual process that usually involves trial and error, as well as a lot of practice, and it may take a while to figure out the strategies that are most useful for helping yourself feel better when upset. Some people run 5 miles to self-soothe while others prefer to sit in a cozy chair and read a book. Some people enjoy listening to classical music while others prefer to dance around the room to music with a heavy beat. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that there is no “right” or “wrong” with self-soothing, as long as the thing(s) we do involve being kind to ourselves and lead us to feel better over time.
Kelly Theis, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist