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Turning a Vice Into a Virtue Through Healthy Self-Soothing

What do nail biting, knitting and casual sex have in common?

You may be wondering exactly what is meant by the term, self-soothing. It really means what it says – finding ways to soothe yourself when the world is giving you grief or your inner balance has been upset. Most of us actually learn effective self-soothing techniques before we even enter this world – just think about the number of sonogram photos expectant parents share of their unborn children already sucking their thumbs!

Some of the earliest self-soothing behaviors arise from behaviors that mimic suckling reflex – from the infant or toddler sucking her thumb, to babies sucking hard on their pacifiers, to adults who might smoke, compulsively eat, over drink, or even bite their nails. Other self-soothing tricks that young children learn include relying on a specific stuffed animal, quilt, or other “lovey” or toy to use as a source of comfort. These are often called “transitional objects.”

While non-parents may shake their heads in bewilderment at the all-out frenzy that a missing pacifier can create in a household, they may not bat an eyelash when an adult friend is freaking out on game day because they can’t find their lucky underwear! Or their lucky socks, t-shirt, or ball cap! We all crave a sense of comfort when faced with anxiety-inducing situations – and when your team’s victory is on the line, you are likely especially needy of any possible self-soothing practices you can find.

While the connection between oral stimulation (such as thumb-sucking, smoking, nail biting, and eating disorders) and the oral stage of Freud’s psychosexual theory is hard to ignore, it is also important to note that it is through the mouth that sustenance is received, and the need to satisfy hunger is one of the most basic human needs. However, the oral fixation that manifests through the behaviors described above or through alcoholism or other similar behaviors may suggest that there is a deeper need than physical hunger that needs to be satisfied. It’s similar to needing to “pig out” after a bad break-up or seek “comfort foods” when feeling stressed out. There are potentially other ways to self-soothe that are just as comforting and mood enhancing.

Learning to Self-Soothe in Healthy Ways

While recent neurological research shows that even less than ideal adult self-soothing behaviors of nail biting or rocking side-to-side or taking that first drag on a cigarette actually do decrease anxiety, there are often new behaviors that can be learned that are less harmful or self-destructive.

Nail Biting? Smoking? Compulsively Eating?

If the habit you rely on to self-soothe is nail biting, hand wringing, or mindlessly eating, you probably would do best with a behavior that keeps your hands busy. Learning to knit or crochet can be helpful in helping you to avoid the self-soothing habit that you are trying to replace. Any craft or manual activity that fits your style or interests can be helpful. Regarding the practice of knitting, researchers have found that this pastime has a positive effect on wellbeing, emotional arousal, weight maintenance, and mood. Or pick up a fresh apple -- it takes time and patience to polish one off.

Drinking Too Much Too Often?

If the habit you rely on to self-soothe is alcohol consumption, you may want to replace the beverage in the glass! Gaining an appreciation for the “slowness” and the “ritual” of preparing hot tea might be one way to free yourself from the hold that alcohol might have on your life. If you “need” a drink to relax, that’s a sign that your desire is turning into a craving, which quickly becomes an addiction. Before you’ve gone too far, choose to replace that “after work drink or two” with a deliberate and relaxing brewing of a cup of tea. The self-soothing begins with the routine and the predictability of the preparation of the tea and rituals, in and of themselves, can be soothing.

Zoning out in Front of the Internet or TV for Hours?

If the self-soothing habit is hours of mindless television and you want to find a healthier way to care for yourself, start with a new activity that gets you out of the TV room. Working out, mindful walks, or reading are activities that invite you to move away from the sitcom, dramedy, or news to engage your mind in alternative ways.

Sexual Hook-Ups and Other Risky Engagements?

If self-soothing for you is found via online hook-up apps, you may need to find other ways to engage your body in action. Dancing, physical exercise, or even meditation connect you back to your body without dragging others into situations that can be physically and emotionally dangerous.

Another way to self-soothe when you seek self-gratification through sexual gratification of others is to choose to engage in charity or volunteer activities. If you are using hook-ups or other sexual activities to justify your self-worth to yourself or to shore up your self-esteem, you can find an even more rewarding sense of self-esteem through helping others. You may find much deeper and longer lasting satisfaction through volunteer work than you ever found through any other behaviors. Examples include helping out at the food pantry, reading to elementary school kids, walking dogs at the animal shelter, or collecting donations or other items for a shelter.

Everyone Gets Anxious and That’s Okay

All of us feel anxiety from time-to-time – and some of us feel it moment-by-moment. While there are reasons that we bite our nails when we’re anxious, or have a drink to relax after a hard day, or tune out from the world in front of our screens, there are actually more effective ways of coping when the world is coming down on us.

By developing positive self-soothing habits to replace the ones that are less than ideal, you are not only getting rid of one bad habit, you are actually increasing your resiliency and your levels of stress and anxiety will probably decrease in ways that surprise you. It is okay to grab that lucky t-shirt when your team is playing for the championship or to hunt down your child’s favorite stuffed animal when he's too distressed to go to sleep, but there is a time when we all need to find healthier ways of coping with the stressors that we face. A little bit of comfort goes a long way!

More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
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More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
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