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  • Writer's pictureDr. Susanna La

Self-Soothing With Your Senses

Updated: Mar 10, 2023

Do you have emotional pain and end up reacting in a way that makes things worse? Did you know there are simple yet powerful practices you can use to cope with intense emotions and situations?

Self-soothing is exactly what it sounds like. Engaging in different actions to comfort ourselves in our time of need. Most of us developed self-soothing tendencies as babies/children; many of us continue to self-soothe as adults. Individuals with a history of trauma, anxiety, depression, and/or highly sensitive are more likely to self-soothe. In fact, it is helpful for most people to learn these skills.

Unhelpful Self-Soothing

There are many ways we self-soothe. While some ways are helpful, we may engage in behaviors that are harmful. Some examples of unhelpful self–soothing strategies, especially over long periods of time include self-harm (e.g., scratching, cutting, hitting), pulling our hair out, biting our nails, self-medicating with substances, emotional eating, etc. We often engage in self-soothing to cope with difficult emotions that can result from life transitions, stress, and/or traumatic events.

Self-Soothing is a Distress Tolerance Skill

To develop healthier ways of coping, it can be important to understand why we have emotions. There are many important reasons for why we feel them (learn more by clicking here). Learning to be kind and nurture our pain through self-soothing during an emotional crisis is a type of distress tolerance skill that comes from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).

Distress tolerance is about accepting the current moment with all our thoughts, feelings, and urges without engaging in patterns that cause more suffering. For instance, during an argument, we may yell and say hurtful things we didn’t mean, which can result in hurting not only the other person but also ourself. Therefore, making things more problematic. Perhaps during the argument, we could have responded differently by taking time to ground and center ourselves before re-engaging in the conversation.

Self-Soothing Examples

The simplest forms of self-soothing are activities that help to soothe our senses. Some of these exercises may work well for you and some may not. Try different techniques and at different times to see which ones resonate with you.

You can also combine multiple self-soothing exercises by caring for multiple senses. For example, the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique can involve focusing on 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.

  1. Vision - You can self-soothe using your vision in a few ways. If you enjoy nature, you can go on a walk to look at the sky, trees, and/or flowers. You can also tidy up your home as some of us find organization and less clutter visually soothing. In addition, you can take time to look at things in your environment you have not noticed before.

  2. Touch - Some of us find touch soothing and relaxing. This can be touching something soft like a pillow/blanket or holding and petting your animal(s). Some find holding someone’s hand or hugging soothing. Or if you prefer not to touch other people, you can place your own hand over your heart or enjoy the sensorial experience of applying lotion onto your hands.

  3. Hearing - There are many ways you can soothe through sound, such as through nature sounds, including ocean waves/raindrops, or listening to your favorite music. You may also find voices soothing, so you can call someone or listen to a guided meditation online.

  4. Smell - Scents can be soothing and calming for some people. This can include smelling a candle, essential oils, your favorite food, clean laundry, perfume, etc.

  5. Taste - For taste, you want to be mindful of how you practice this self-soothing strategy, especially if you have used emotional eating as a form of coping. For some, you can find the taste experience of tea, coffee, candy, etc. to be soothing.

Painful emotions and situations are a part of life; you can learn to cope with these moments through self-soothing. Some of these self-soothing techniques can also be practiced discreetly without others knowing. Self-soothing can be a practice we engage in to prevent us from becoming overstimulated/overwhelmed and it is a helpful tool to help us ride through an emotional wave/crisis.

If you are interested in learning more about self-soothing and other distress tolerance strategies, you can reach out to us here.

Stay tuned. Our next topic is "Am I Shy or Is It Something Else?"

Written by Susanna La, Ph.D.

Edited by Elena Duong, Psy.D.

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