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What Is Self-Soothing? (6 Science-Backed Tips And Examples)

Maili
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Published on , last updated on December 12, 2020

self soothing feature

We all get stressed sometimes and need a little soothing and calming. When there is no one there to comfort us, we have to take matters into our own hands and self-soothe. But what is self-soothing, anyway?

Self-soothing is very much what is says on the tin – calming and comforting yourself to diminish negative emotions and distress. It’s a form of emotion regulation and like all emotion regulation, it can be adaptive or maladaptive – sometimes it can take the form of calming behaviors like yoga and meditation, but sometimes it can be destructive and involve substance use. However, there are plenty of adaptive methods of self-soothing, so that everyone can build their own self-soothing kit to get them through the hard times.

In this article, I’ll discuss what self-soothing is, why it is important and look at some tips of how to self-soothe.

This article is part of a much bigger guide on learning how to become happy that I’m sure is the biggest freely available guide on the internet right now. This article contains some great tips, but you’ll find a lot more actionable tips in the section Happiness Tips!

What is self-soothing?

Any parents will be familiar with self-soothing in babies. In fact, when you google the keyword, the first results will be about infants and their ability to stop crying without any comforting from the caregivers by soothing themselves.

For adults and babies alike, self-soothing is a form of emotion regulation. According to Croatian researcher Asmir Gračanin and colleagues, self-soothing refers to “all self-directed behaviors and internal processes that are aimed to calm an individual in distress, that is, to diminish primarily negative emotion and corresponding physiological arousal, eventually resulting in homeostasis.”

One important aspect that Gračanin points out is that self-soothing is directed at the experience, not the situation, meaning that self-soothing behaviors are not meant to change the situation but rather the emotional reaction to it.

In other words, self-soothing is pretty self-explanatory: it’s our ability to regulate negative emotions without help from others.

Why is self-soothing important?

Self-soothing babies sleep longer, which is beneficial for both the baby and the parents. But self-soothing is a valuable tool for adults themselves, too. Perhaps even more so, as – unlike babies – adults are expected to be able to handle stressful situations on their own.

man relaxing with book

This isn’t to say that adults have to handle everything alone. It’s okay to reach out for help during tough times, but there are plenty of times in both our personal and professional lives when the ability to self-soothe is our most powerful tool.

Not only will it help you get through a stressful workday or a difficult family situation at the Christmas table, but there are other benefits to reap as well.

Studies benefits of self-soothing

For example, a 2009 study reports that practicing self-soothing self-talk reduces shame and skin complaints in people suffering from acne. On the other end of the spectrum, a 2016 article reports that maladaptive self-soothing methods are associated with burnout, while developing positive and adaptive self-soothing can prevent burnout.

In general, adaptive and effective emotion regulation strategies have been found to be positively correlated with subjective well-being and happiness (as reported in this 2014 article, for example), and self-soothing is no exception in that regard.

What does self-soothing look like?

There are many different ways of self-soothing. You have probably noticed that the calming activities that work for you may not work for your friend, or the tricks that work for you in one situation may not work in the other.

Like all coping mechanisms, self-soothing behaviors can be adaptive or maladaptive. Adaptive techniques may include distracting oneself or doing relaxation exercises, while maladaptive techniques may include alcohol or drug use, or self-harm.

Yoga as a way of self-soothing

According to a 2009 paper, another example of an adaptive method of self-soothing is yoga, which promotes the creation and focus upon an atmosphere of mindfulness. In turn, the emptying of the mind of ordinary thoughts and feelings and focusing on the body helps to reduce stress and strengthen self-soothing capabilities. Furthermore, according to the researchers, these capabilities can also help people overcome addictions.

Reminiscing with old photos is self-soothing

Another way to self-soothe, according to a 2013 study, is to look back on photos or other media that remind you of good times. In the study, researchers asked Facebook users to rate different activities and their effect on mood, with reminiscing by looking back on photos and posts producing the most soothing effect.

In the above mentioned article, Gračanin and colleagues propose that crying is a self-soothing behavior. If you’ve ever cried from stress, you know that while crying can bring discomfort and shame, it can also bring relief and catharsis, which has a soothing effect.

Is crying a way of self-soothing?

However, Gračanin et al. also report that the soothing effect of crying can have a physiological base. Crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for our resting state: our heart rate and breathing slow down.

Crying can also release endogenous opioids, which help to alleviate both emotional and physical pain.

person thinking on stairs

Create a self-soothing kid

In therapy, people might even compile a self-soothing kit, consisting of different objects and activities that help to regulate their emotions.

In a 2016 study on the topic, the most popular activities included in a self-soothing kit were:

  1. music or radio;
  2. creative / gratitude journaling;
  3. scents in vials or scented candles;
  4. texts and guided audio recordings of the Pebble Meditations with self-decorated stones;
  5. painting;
  6. bracelet, elastic bands and other jewellery making;
  7. doodling and Zentangles;
  8. colouring-in;
  9. plasticine and Fimo;
  10. card making;
  11. gardening.

It seems that working with your hands is a common and effective self-soothing strategy, which is supported by professor Kristin Fontichiaro’s 2018 review.

How to build your self-soothing kit

As the holidays are fast approaching, maybe the best gift you can give yourself is building your own self-soothing kit. Although the kit usually meant to be a physical box – like a mental first aid kit – you can also build a virtual kit or just develop self-soothing habits. Find what works for you. Here are a couple of ideas of what to include in your kit.

1. Relaxation exercises

Whether it’s box breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or the 5 senses exercise, some sort of relaxation exercise is good to have in your kit when life gets overwhelming.

2. Get physical

Moving makes your body happy and helps your mind calm down. You can keep yoga dice in your kit and roll them for a spontaneous yoga flow or do high-school P.E. classics like jumping jacks to wake up your body but relax your mind.

If you prefer to go outside, walking can also be a tremendous way to improve your mental health.

3. Good memories

Reminiscing on the good times is always nice but even more so when we’re stressed out. Include a photo or an item (a cinema ticket, a festival bracelet or a present from someone dear to you) that reminds you of happier times and the people you love in your kit.

Instead of a physical item, you can also evoke good memories by listening to a song or reading a poem.

You can also write a memory journal, that allows you to write down things about your past that you might otherwise forget.

looking in a photo book

4. Distractions

When we’re stressing out, it’s hard to stop.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to distract yourself. Include music, books, movies or other media in your kit that will help to take your mind off things.

5. Get crafty

Working with your hands can be very therapeutic. This does not mean you have to start knitting entire sweaters from stress – but you can, if that’s your thing. Simply doodling can be a good way to keep your hands busy and your mind calm.

If you want more interesting activities to pursue, here’s an article about happiness activities that can send you in the right direction.

6. Add a little kindness

A good way to self-soothe is to practice positive self-talk.  You wouldn’t scream at someone else to soothe them, so don’t do it to yourself. If you tend to scold yourself instead of soothing, add a gentle reminder or an affirmation that you can handle it or that it is okay  – even beneficial! – to cry.

Wrapping up

Self-soothing is not just for babies – adults need to be able to calm themselves, too. As a form of emotion regulation, adaptive self-soothing techniques are essential for dealing with the highs and lows of life and handling stress effectively. There are plenty to choose from and with a little experimentation, everyone can build their own self-soothing kit to help them through even the toughest of times.

What do you think? Do you have a go-to self-soothing method that always works for you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

Maili

Maili Tirel

School psychologist

School psychologist, teacher and internet counselor from Estonia. Passionate about coffee, reading, dancing, and singing in the shower, much to the neighbors’ dismay. Counseling catchphrase: “It’s okay!“

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