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What's the Downside of Self-Soothing?

Learning to comfort yourself is essential—but be wary about how you do it.

Effects of Cannabis, from Wikipedia, used with permission
Source: Effects of Cannabis, from Wikipedia, used with permission

It might be said that self-soothing is self-soothing, period. And that when you’re feeling over-stressed, out-of-sorts, or on-edge, you have every right to turn to whatever might comfort you. Still, some forms of self-soothing are much healthier, safer, and more adaptive than others. And regrettably, certain types can carry a steep price tag and, in the end, be seriously damaging to you.

Not only can particular ways of offering yourself relief from barely manageable tension interfere with new learning and development, but since they lead to repetitive, ultimately self-defeating behaviors, they can also impair your most important relationships. Such harmful ways of self-soothing seriously undermine your support system, which, in meaningfully connecting you to others, is vital to your welfare. By alienating these people, your chosen way of alleviating stress can leave you devoid of anyone in your cheering section. Which, in turn, will make you all the more likely to turn to precisely what served originally to cause these “secondary” complications in your life.

Microgaming Casinos Exposed, from tumblir, used with permission
Source: Microgaming Casinos Exposed, from tumblir, used with permission

If, as is far too common, you regularly employ such negative forms of self-soothing to cope with life’s many emotional ordeals, you’ll be embarking on a course that ends in self-enslaving dependency and addiction. And it doesn’t much matter whether your chosen method of escape involves a substance, activity, or maladaptive relationship. For whether it’s (1) to an ever-increasing consumption of, say, alcohol, marijuana, or amphetamines; or (2) to spending money that you really can’t afford at a shopping mall, casino, or racetrack (and so get yourself into unrepayable debt); or (3) to another individual whose own unhealthy dependency needs may be just as dysfunctional as your own, choosing any of these forms of mood- or consciousness-alteration can totally disrupt your life and send it spiraling downwards. And ironically, you’ll end up much worse off than if you hadn’t endeavored to self-soothe at all—but, instead, endeavored to productively “process” your feelings, rather than (defensively) run away from them.

Not, of course, that there aren’t a large variety of self-soothing techniques you can implement when you’re feeling discombobulated that have substantial, even invaluable, benefits. For, as I elaborated in an earlier post called “The Power to Be Vulnerable (Part 3),” these far more adaptive methods of offering yourself comfort can—mentally, emotionally, and physically—calm you down and restore you to your more fully functioning self. As I put it, they’re “a kind of loving self-embrace when your nerves are frayed.” They represent the way you “administer emotional first-aid” to yourself.

And this article, focusing on how to become more “safely vulnerable,” enumerates a considerable array of techniques that you can employ when you’re in distress. They all help you turn off the alarm bell going off inside your head and offer much-needed succor and support to your mind, body, and spirit. In various ways, these methods of self-soothing indirectly relay to you the encouraging message that you possess the internal and external resources to successfully deal with whatever in the moment may be troubling you.

For at times when your resilience is missing in action, or your psychological equilibrium has been badly compromised, it’s essential to find just the right way to regain your composure. That way you don’t need to totally avoid a situation that needs—though maybe not right away—to be addressed. Nor do you need, as those in the throes of addiction do, to flee (and both from yourself and others). And being able, whether on your own or with some trusted friend, to restore in yourself a sense of confidence and control can make all the difference not only in how you think about yourself but also how well you operate in the world.

Contrary to these highly adaptive ways of self-soothing are the addictive ones mentioned earlier And, though these ill-advised methods might immediately serve to reduce stress, anxiety, or shame, they aren’t anywhere as effective in contributing to feelings of reassurance or peace of mind. On the contrary. In another piece of mine, entitled “From Self-Indulgence to Self-Nurturing,” I make the distinction between all compulsive/addictive behaviors—which, however self-soothing, are best characterized as being both regressive and self-indulgent—vs. self-nurturing behaviors, all of which help foster the physical and psychological health so closely linked to happiness and well-being.

Chocolate-Honey Ganache Layer Cake, from www.finecooking.com/ used with permission
Source: Chocolate-Honey Ganache Layer Cake, from www.finecooking.com/ used with permission

Self-indulgent forms of self-soothing tend to be escapist. In pursuing a temporary “buzz” to avoid facing the problems you may not feel you have the ability to meet head-on, you’re metaphorically making a pact with the Devil. Whether you’re getting your (momentary) high from a triple-chocolate fudge cake; a “hit” of Ecstasy; a mindless shopping spree at Tiffany’s; a thrilling but highly dangerous X-sport; an abandoned and titillating, but illicit and unprotected sexual escapade; or a snort of the most potent cocaine, the euphoric dopamine rush you receive cannot last. And not only will it wear off, plummeting you right back to where you started, but likely you’ll end up feeling even worse than you had before your ill-considered effort to comfort yourself.

And doubtless, the same is true for substances or activities that effectively sedate you, so your bothersome issues can drift hazily out of focus. For example, zoning out on heroin, or losing yourself in a deeply tranquilizing, but basically pseudo-spiritual, experience. Both escapist outlets involve a level of risk far greater than alternative self-nurturing methods, such as taking a relaxing walk in the woods, luxuriating in a warm bubble bath, or quietly engaging in mindfulness meditation.

Finally, I should add that resorting to the emotion of anger to manage escalating stress can—paradoxically—be a neurochemically effective way of self-soothing, though with substantial collateral costs. In still another post of mine, “What Your Anger May Be Hiding,” I talk about this most seductive of emotions as ultimately addictive. Why? Well, when you get angry one of the hormones you secrete is norepinephrine, which your organism reacts to as an analgesic. And this “psychological salve” can help numb you against physical or psychological pain (or just the threat of same).

Angry Man, from pixabay, used with permission
Source: Angry Man, from pixabay, used with permission

As in other dysfunctional forms of self-soothing, anger similarly protects you from otherwise unbearable feelings of stress and vulnerability. So it stands to reason that if self-eliciting anger can routinely fend off hurtful or intolerable feelings, a person might become dependent on it to the point of addiction and morph into what Steven Stosny calls (in his Treating Attachment Abuse) an “anger- junkie.” As I put it in my post, “Although [you’re] hardly left in a state of inner harmony—and may actually be experiencing substantial turmoil . . . anger still permits [you] to achieve a certain comfort” and “granted, this desperate reaction may be self-soothing of the last resort, but it’s a kind of self-soothing nonetheless.”

So, briefly to conclude. When we discuss self-soothing—an immensely popular subject in today's psychological literature—we need to be aware that there are many ways of offering yourself comfort that are “therapeutic” only in the moment. For they end up intensifying—rather than reducing—not simply your stress levels, but also your anger, anxiety, or depression. And they interfere with, or further impair, whatever positive feelings you may have about ourself.

It’s crucial, then, that whenever you’re agitated or upset, you consider the costs, as well as the benefits, of just how you choose to calm ourself down and restore your equanimity.

Note 1: If you could relate to this piece and think others might as well, please consider passing on its link.

Note 2: If you’d like to check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today—on a broad variety of psychological and psycho-therapeutic topics—click here.

© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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