As a parent, we learn to help our infants and children to soothe themselves--we rock them, we sing to them, we rub their backs, feed them a bottle or give them a pacifier, we might point out things for them to look at in a book or in their current environment; we might give them a familiar blanket or toy to snuggle or give them a nice warm bath. As we grow up and are better able to manage our emotions verbally, many people move away from these soothing activities. Of course you may still read, or sing, or take a bath but frequently they become more connected to chores or things that we HAVE to do, not things that we do to consciously soothe ourselves.
This month's Skill of the Month is Self-Soothe. It is part of the Distress Tolerance skills in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) but it is also something that has been known to be effective for centuries. Like soothing an infant, self-soothe encourages us to take care of ourselves by engaging in soothing activities or stimulation. Obviously these things have the added benefit of usually being relaxing (one of the reasons we may give an infant or child a bath in the evening is to relax them for bedtime). Thinking about using self-soothing activities for ourselves when we are in an emotionally heightened state proves to be a very effective way to reduce emotional reactivity and increase relaxation.
The way I like to implement self-soothing is by thinking about the five senses. What are things that we can experience that are soothing to look at? What is soothing to smell? What is soothing to feel? What is soothing to hear? What is soothing to taste?
Here is a graphic pulled from Marsha Linehan's most recent book on DBT. A handout for you to use that gives some wonderful suggestions on ways to self-soothe.
Self-Soothe is a great skill to use because it reminds us of several things: that we deserve to feel good, that we can play an active role in helping ourselves feel good, and that all feelings are temporary and changeable. Sometimes, in the midst of a negative feeling, it feels that this will always be the way we feel, we'll never feel better. This is, of course, a dangerous road to travel, leading to hopelessness. Self-soothing reminds us that there are things we can do to feel better, even if just for a moment.
I like to think about the infant in the first paragraph. I use this example because it helps us to recognize that sometimes we're operating at a very "young" age and sometimes we need to care for ourselves as though we are still a baby. When emotions get very high, in yourself or another, sometimes we act like a toddler having a temper tantrum--screaming, being unreasonable, catastrophizing the situation and thinking as though things are never going to change. If you're a parent or caregiver, you're probably thinking about a child having a temper tantrum and remembering what that looks like in a young person. Even as adults, though, we can have temper tantrums and just like kids, we need to be soothed. One way to do this is to self-soothe using the list above or any number of other ways that are personally more effective or pleasurable for you.
The idea of self-soothing is to not only distract ourselves from whatever distressing scenario we have going on but also to relax our body and mind so that we can move from Emotion Mind to Wise Mind from which we can think more clearly and make good decisions. You can read more about Wise mind in an earlier post. Even when you're not having a temper tantrum, though, Self-Soothing is a wonderful way to relax at the end of a long day or even a great way to start your day off right! During a lunch break, you can self-soothe to return yourself to a more productive state of being before returning to work or a task in which you are engaging.
I encourage you to look for opportunities to practice Self-Soothing this month, as it is, for many people a busy, rather stressful time of year. Make it a practice that you engage in every day this month as well as into the new year!