You’re a grownup, so snuggling your blankie while sucking your thumb during naptime is no longer age appropriate. Still, on stressful days, you probably wish you could get away with it. In fact, thumb-sucking or touching a soft, cuddly object are self-soothing mechanisms that serve a purpose. We as humans never outgrow the need to self-soothe. Although it isn’t appropriate to start sucking your thumb during a Zoom meeting, other means of self-soothing are integral to managing stress. Let’s explore a few health self-soothing techniques designed to get you through a day of adulting.
What Is Self-Soothing?
Self-soothing is any activity you use to help calm your mind and ground yourself in the present moment. We now recognize that self-soothing behavior activates the vagus nerve, and ongoing research is helping us unravel many secrets. However, clinicians registered in EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy), and various biofeedback techniques have been using self-soothing techniques in their healing practices for decades.
How Does Self-Soothing Work?
A useful synonym for self-soothing is “grounding.” Grounding techniques help us return to the present moment. Then we can assess whether our stress response is appropriate for our current circumstances. For example, if your heart starts racing and you feel a sense of panic during a business meeting, is the threat real and present? It might be, but often your arousal stems from stored memories. An act of self-soothing can help to ground you by getting your brain—through your senses—in touch with your current time and place.
How Can You Effectively Self-Soothe?
Some self-soothing techniques like sucking your thumb might not be appropriate in the workplace or at a PTA meeting. However, age-appropriate self-soothing techniques are always available. Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Breathe. Focus and take a few slow, deep breaths. As you think about your breathing, you activate the vagus nerve. You also help your brain to come into the present moment, thus neutralizing old thoughts.
2. Take a look around you. When you feel your anxiety rising, pay attention to what you can see. Perhaps you’ve heard a sound or experienced a smell that makes you nervous. Does what you see match your heightened state of arousal? Probably not.
3. Use a gentle tapping technique. You can do this anywhere and at any time. Use your fingers to tap on each knee, each hip, or other body part. Tap lightly, alternating right and left sides of your body. Ideally, tap four to eight times per side. Then stop and notice your breathing and/or heartrate.
4. Use water. Whether you go to the washroom to splash cool water on your face, take a sip of water, or unwind at the end of a long day in a warm bath, water can play an essential role in effective self-soothing.
Life brings stressors to us. As adults, we have to face them, but sometimes we need a little help. Often, simple self-soothing techniques can provide the necessary assistance. When keeping calm and carrying on becomes difficult, take a deep breath and self-soothe. You have exactly what you need for adulting. Just keep breathing.