Self-soothing making it work for you


Everyone is familiar with the idea of self-soothing as it relates to how we calm ourselves with our words or ‘self-talk’. For instance, we might tell ourselves, ‘it will be okay,’ ‘I’ve survived worse,’ ‘this too shall pass,’ or just having the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change and what we can’t change. Believe me, without the kind of self-soothing we are going to practice these will likely feel hollow.

We are going to talk about something completely different. If our brains are stuck in a depressive loop we might not notice if something ‘good’ or pleasurable happens, it just might not register. We actually have to re-build brain pathways that are capable of experiencing joy, calm, equanimity, pleasure, peace, or love. Think of them as dormant and needing a good spring rain.

Let’s start preparing our brains for new experiences, it won’t happen on its own. It takes practice, then some more practice, followed by more practice…you get the idea. Some days you might find the practice ‘makes’ you anxious, bored, or uncomfortable. On those days, just notice without judgment, if you do judge practice not judging the judgment, keep practicing and chalk it up as a success. Remember, your brain is not used to some experiences and they initially may be out of reach.

About 99% of the time when I teach the practice of self-soothing the immediate cognitive reaction is that I’m asking you to over-indulge, like the attempts you may have tried at self-soothing with food, drugs, sleep, or sex. The distinction that I make is that indulgence is inherently self-destructive and soothing is healing. We all have the inner wisdom to decide what is beneficial for us, and if we error on that, we learn from it and modify; it’s the way wisdom works.

STEP 1 – GET: Identify your five senses. Touch your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and finger tips if it helps you remember.

STEP 2 – READY: Match a pleasurable experience that you can create for each sense. This is both the easiest and hardest part. Easy compared to the actual practice and hard if everything in the world feels dark or gray. If any suggestion makes you wince, move on and honor that reaction, find something that seems like it might work. If you are not currently experiencing at least a half hour of calm and equanimity each day you may find it harder to identify pleasurable experiences, you may have to imagine a time when you were happy, or think about what happy people do.

Some examples that my clients have come up with (feel free to benefit from their experiences):

SIGHT – remember this is the primary sense for the sighted: A picture from nature, a beach, mountain, forest, an animal…

A picture of a pet, or a loved one (maybe a baby photo of yourself or a favorite baby), or if you have a spiritual practice something related to that…

A flower, the flame of a candle, a fire in the fireplace, a mandala or tanka, clouds, the moon and stars, sand on a beach, a patch of grass, bark on a tree, a leaf you’ve found, a favorite piece of art or architecture (try seeing a detail heretofore not noticed), your own hand, fireflies, aurora borealis…

…come up with your own, close your eyes and try to remember something that struck you as beautiful. Pick one or two you can try today. Remember this is the primary sense for sighted humans.

SOUND: A chime, Bach piano concertos, types of music that are calming, children playing in a park, a clock ticking, your own singing, humming or chanting, relaxation music, a guided meditation, singing in a language you don’t understand…

A fountain gurgling, waves crashing, or river trilling, birds singing, the silence of a mountain top, or desert, if you live in an area where there are frog croaking or crickets cricketing…

…use your imagination and give your idea a try. This is about practice and discovery. Which two might work for you?

SMELL: Essential oils or scented lotions, lavender, rosemary, citrus, take a orange/lemon/lime and scrape the skin with the back of your thumbnail to release the oils, cloves…

Baking or cooking, put some gingerbread in the oven and bake it, cook some onions on low/medium heat toss in garlic if you like that smell (use them in a recipe later), put on a pot of coffee…

Roses, freesia, gardenias, herbs, spices, pine…

Scented candle, cologne…

…smell is a very powerful memory sense. Think of a happy moment and any associated smells. Pick one or two that you can you can carry with you in a pocket and smell throughout the day.

TASTE: A single chocolate chip melting on your tongue, chai spice tea, coffee, a single ginger snap…

A mint leaf, basil, a drop of an essential oil…

Think about a favorite taste and how you might sample it.

TOUCH: A bubble bath with epson salts (your skin will feel very slippery to your hand), a hot shower maybe targeting your scalp, shoulders and back (notice how your whole body feels water touching it…

A piece of smooth rock, wood, metal, or glass…

Almost every culture has some kind of a string of beads; ‘worry’ beads (ironically used for calming), prayer beads, rosary beads, malas, crystal, wood, other beads. As you sit and breathe move one bead between your thumb and index finger each full breath or on the inhale and again on the exhale, notice the texture…

Massage the meaty portion of your hand between your thumb and index finger (lightly at first and deeper as comfortable), hold your hands in a limp manner and with your finger tips lightly and loosely tap your scull, boney ridges of the face, shoulders, chest, legs, hips (you body will be the part experiencing the ‘touch’)…

Let me know what you discover to be soothing so I can add it here.

Hopefully, you get the idea.

STEP 3 – GET: Pick a regular place and time to practice. If we think ‘oh I’ll try this’ without picking a specific place and time (our intention) it is very likely that it won’t ‘just happen’. Even when we pick a place and time notice if something gets in the way, learn from that, and modify if needed.

STEP 4 – SET: Regarding time we have to ask ourselves “Am I ready, willing, and able?” Able means I think I can sit and practice for at least 3 minutes. Willing means no one is forcing me to practice and I’m doing this because I think it might be helpful to me; I’m doing this for me. Ready means I’ve thought through what means I am going to use to soothe my senses and have them available in the place I’ve chosen to practice.

STEP 5 – AND: Make two five-senses soothing practices. For instance, you may choose to put a flower or candle next to your hot bath which has scented oils and epson salts in it while soft music is played and let a single chocolate chip melt in your mouth (you probably won’t get out of the bath to get a second one). Did you pick out the five senses being targeted?

Or you may choose to have a picture of your dog in front of you (or your dog in your lap) as you listen to silence punctuated by the breakthrough noise we usually filter out (tick-tock, cars going by, doors closing, foot steps, your own breath), while rubbing lavender lotion into your hands, and sipping on chia spice tea.

As can be seen these take a little planning. One client joked “my therapist is telling me to have a good time.” Really what I am asking is that you practice having good times. They are essential to feeling like life is worth living.

Make your own practice, preferably two so you can see if you like one more than the other. Keep modifying until you find what works for you. The examples given are not exhaustive but illustrative.

STEP 6 – GO!: Now the hard part, practicing. See if you can set aside five minutes a day, or several times a day to have a five-senses break. It is a good way to get out of your head and counterbalance your ‘pain body’. As we practice we are actually changing our brain pathways and rebalancing our neurotransmitters and preparing for new experiences.

You may realize that once your brain is stuck in depression and upset finding joy and peace take effort. The more difficult this is for you tells you how much work is needed and how shut down these processes have become. No matter how big the task you can only take one step at a time, and sprinting won’t help if you have miles and miles to go. Recognize that ‘a journey starts with one step’, you can only take one step at a time, and be realistic about how far the distance may be. Now you have some steps to take, in fact 6 Steps. If you notice a week goes by without practicing, don’t judge (or if you do judge practice not judging the judgment), and practice. I promise you this only seems simple. Good luck and let me know how it goes. I’ve helped many people ‘trouble-shoot’ the process of developing a practice so if you get stuck re-read the steps and if still stuck write me.

GENERAL THOUGHTS: This practice crosses the DBT categories of mindfulness, emotional regulation, and distress tolerance. Once you have a habit of experiencing satisfying moments you will be able to use this in a crisis. Imagine a fight with a family member with phones being slammed down and words said that can’t be taken back, then a piece of mail arrives that you were dreading, followed by you pet pooing on the carpet. You may be so overwhelmed that you give your self time to self-soothe before even thinking about how to deal with the onslaught so you can find equanimity to deal with life as it is. But that’s a different DBT category: Interpersonal Effectiveness.

©12/28/11 jon ubick, psy.d.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Self-soothing making it work for you

  1. Hi John,

    I wanted to send you a little note of appreciation to thank you for the articles you posted on your blog. I really enjoyed reading “self soothing making it work for you” and the ‘pain body’.

    I am intensively trained in DBT (with Marsha Linehan, PhD in Seattle, WA). Recently moved to Santa Monica and I am looking to make some new contacts. Here is my website with contact information:

    Wishing you a very fine day!

    Jane Tillman, LMHC, LMFT, CMHS
    DBT & Expressive Art Therapy for Children, Adolescents and Adults
    1137 Second Street, Suite 106
    Santa Monica, CA 90403
    office: (424) 744-8482
    cell: (206) 802-8280

Comments are closed.