Today for the Skill of the Month, I thought I’d share one of my personal favorites. This month, I urge you to try “Self Soothe”. It is both a distress tolerance skill as well as a general stress relieving skill and combines perfectly with mindfulness practice so let’s look at a few ways to incorporate it into your daily routine.
When my daughter was an infant, my husband and I used the Ferber method to sleep train her. For those of you unfamiliar with the Ferber method, it is sometimes referred to as the “cry it out” method for getting kids to sleep in their own bed/crib without the parent’s presence to comfort them and soothe them to sleep. By doing this, the child is forced to self-soothe because there’s no one there to do it for them. Using the Ferber method is an early form of teaching a child to self-soothe--they suck their thumb, they listen to music, they hold a stuffed animal... Whether you use the Ferber method on your own kids or not, teaching them and yourself to self-soothe is a wonderful skill.
We can think about self-soothe once again by looking at the five senses. Going through each one and asking what is soothing will help us to generate a list of self-soothing ideas. The list may be very different for each person so its important to go into it with an open mind and really think about what is soothing to you personally.
Sight: what is soothing to view? For me, its trees or the forest; a meadow or a lake—definitely something natural like that. For others perhaps it is clouds or the face of their child or spouse, an artistic rendition of a spiritual leader or something in space like a planet or the moon. Many people think the beach is soothing. Perhaps it is something smaller like a flower. Perhaps it is something more abstract like a color.
Smell: what things are soothing to smell? If you have been exposed to aromatherapy, lavender may come to mind or vanilla or frankincense. I love the smell of a spicy rose that used to grow in my backyard. We can also be soothed by the scent of comfort foods like freshly baked bread or warm cookies. For others something more crisp like peppermint toothpaste or the clean scent of soap.
Sound: what is soothing to hear? I have a small tabletop fountain in my office that to many people is soothing to hear. Perhaps a bit of classical music or the sound of the ocean, a stream or a campfire is soothing to you. Birdsong and crickets are both very soothing to me because they remind me of peaceful sleep.
Touch: what tactile sensations are soothing? Petting the ears or head of a dog where their fur is particularly soft may be soothing or even temperature sensations like that of a warm bath or cool dip in a swimming pool might be soothing. For many children, a stuffed animal is very soothing, but fabric can be soothing to people of all ages. For those of us that engage in knitting or other forms of fiber art, the feel of yarn as we work is soothing. If you have ever been to a fabric store, one can find many fabrics that are soothing to the touch. For many children and adults, a weighted blanket, because it provides pressure on the body, feels extremely soothing. A hug is soothing to most people. What about playdoh, clay, or warm sand?
Taste: what things taste soothing? Chocolate? Coffee? Tea? Cold water? Lemon? Vanilla? Comfort foods like macaroni and cheese or pizza? Many people use food for self-soothing in this way. All of these certainly require moderation.
Using the sense of taste to soothe brings me to a very important point about the skill of self-soothing. It is important that our selection for each sense but especially for that of taste and touch is effective and not ultimately detrimental to our health. If we overdo any of the above, we can cause more stress and more problems for ourselves in the long run. Some tactile sensations can be “soothing” to someone but are actually self-harming so we have to make sure our choices are not leading to addictions or other negative side effects.
A very important part of this skill is to overlay the skill of mindfulness—especially when it comes to the using taste as self-soothing. If we are mindful of what we are tasting, we will usually eat or consume far less than when we are doing so mindlessly. Additionally, the skill is really only truly a skill when we are fully engaged in it and really enjoying it. If I consume an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream I may really wolf it down because it is my favorite flavor. If I do I will feel pretty sick at the end of it, I won’t truly have fully enjoyed it—and I’ll feel more stressed than when I started because eating all of that will probably make me feel guilty or certainly like I wasn’t making a healthy decision. When this occurs, it is no longer a skill. It is not self-soothing or mindful at all. It is perhaps still a coping mechanism but an unhelpful and unhealthy one.
I encourage you to make a list of your own ways to engage in self-soothing. I have even had clients form a self-soothe box wherein we place items to have at the ready—a square of fabric or a small container of playdoh, a stick of gum or a piece of hard candy, a photograph, the name of an app (like Calm) or youtube video that has soothing sound, a small candle or a “smencil” (scented pencil), a small container of bubbles...
I also encourage you to try at least one self-soothing item every day and do it with intention—really enjoy that birdsong first thing in the morning, the scent and smell of that sip of coffee, the view from your backyard or on your drive to work, the few minutes you spend petting your dog or cat. It is a great way to improve your overall mood in a very short period of time and the best part is that it is a wonderful gift to give to yourself!