Self-soothing is the critical human ability that determines how one copes with challenging emotional situations by regulating their mood and working to mitigate stress. In other words, it’s what one engages in to cope with a challenging or stressful situation and a dip in mood. For some, watching a rerun of a favourite TV show may do it, for someone else the trick may be to take a walk with the dog or bake a batch of brownies or it could be a meaningful conversation with a friend. While we may not have labelled these go-to comfort behaviours as ‘self-soothing’ techniques, in our own ways, all of us engage in self-soothing rather frequently to get past and through life.
The Origins of Self-Soothing
Self-soothing is often discussed in the context of infancy and childhood – the ability develops early in life, as children gradually learn to comfort themselves without relying on support from their caretakers. The first sign of self-soothing in infants is when they learn to lull themselves to sleep, without needing a caretaker to aid them.
However, self-soothing is a much broader skill that matures and persists into and throughout adult life, holding relevance across the lifespan, aiding adults in coping with the overwhelming situations that accompany life’s many stresses. All of us have our own set of self-soothing techniques which are as unique as our individual life journeys.
Moreover, self-soothing techniques can be adaptive offering healthy routes to wellbeing or maladaptive often indicative of a history of abuse. In fact, research suggests that the development of self-soothing early on in life is contingent on a variety of factors that relate to the infant as well as the parent. While research on the aetiology of adult self-soothing techniques is more limited, it may be wise to speculate that this too has several factors contributing to it.
The Neurobiology of Self-Soothing
The existence and importance of self-soothing techniques are further substantiated by their basis in brain biology as seen via the role of the chemical ‘Oxytocin’, often dubbed as the ‘feel-good’ hormone which is closely tied to the use of self-soothing techniques.
The role of oxytocin has been reported not only in skin-to-skin contact between mothers and infants, positive and warm interactions between humans, in response to several kinds of massages, intake of food, and not-so-surprisingly – even in interactions between humans and animals (predominantly, dogs!).
Crying is another important self-soothing technique whose role has been hotly debated and researched. it is now believed that the self-soothing effects of crying result in increased activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and oxytocin (OT) levels that are coupled with cognitive (e.g., reappraisal) and behavioural (e.g., sobbing) processes. Evidently, self-soothing, in its several forms, is closely tied to several brain pathways and mechanisms.
You can work on your Self-Soothing skills!
Self-soothing techniques are malleable, lending themselves to upgrades and growth. This means that, as adults, we are capable of understanding our self-soothing tactics, and working to instate ones that are more rational, mature, and adaptive. This is undoubtedly a process that requires ample amounts of reflection and self-insight, which lead an individual to develop their self-soothing skills, and to effectively use them to return to their emotional baseline.
The development of self-soothing techniques is a key component and core goal in several psychotherapeutic paradigms including Dialectic Behaviour Therapy (DBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Mindfulness-based therapies, and others. Therapy aside, there are numerous commonplace techniques – grounding, visualization, deep breathing, listening to calming music – that can all be employed to cultivate healthy self-soothing.
Self-soothing is definitely an indispensable part of dealing with conflicts and challenges that life throws our way. The title of this piece deems self-soothing an ‘art’ – because it is truly up to our individual creative abilities to introspect and experiment to find the self-soothing techniques that work just right for us!
Being connected to Nature is one of the most beautiful self-soothing techniques. In this fast-paced world, we're losing this connection. Join our Nature Therapy workshop on Aug 21 to explore how you can bring in nature to your life, even when it's difficult to get away to the mountains or beaches!
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