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Self-Soothing: First Aid for Stress and Burnout

The sooner you find healthy ways to manage stress, the less damage it can do.

Self-soothing refers to behaviors that we use to restore emotional equilibrium when we’ve experienced a setback or feel stressed out. Whether it’s having a bad day at work, a disagreement with a friend, or a conflict or breakup with a partner, we all can benefit from having some “self-soothing techniques” that can help us handle the fallout that we feel from negative events in life.

Healthy self-soothing, meaning no risky or potentially harmful behaviors, can give us space to metaphorically “lick our wounds” and focus on healing ourselves without drawing others into our drama or when there’s no nearby friend to offer some TLC or to lend an ear.

Self-Soothing & Self-Care: What’s the Difference?

Self-soothing is kind of like a “Band-Aid.” When we get hurt, we need triage for the wound and rely on activities that help us feel better in the moment. Self-care is a practice that should be integrated into our daily lives so that we’re less likely to be knocked off our feet when something unexpected or painful happens. Making space in your life to practice self-care on a regular basis, whether it’s daily meditation, regular massages, faith practices, time spent with friends, exercise, and so on, will help you develop a stronger sense of balance in life and offer some protection from everyday stressors.

Self-Soothing Helps Us Cope

When we find ways to self-soothe, we are able to decrease our anxiety and minimize the detrimental effects of stress and anxiety. Stress causes headaches, backaches, tummy aches, high blood pressure, and so on. Stress also increases the chance of having an accident or getting hurt. When we recognize the symptoms of stress showing up, having a toolbox of self-soothing techniques can help you manage the stress which will make you, and those you live with, a lot happier! Ideally, we’d all be integrating self-care into our daily lives, but when that isn’t happening, healthy forms of self-soothing can offer an immediate quick fix.

Choose Only Healthy Self-Soothing Behaviors

If you opt for the wrong type of self-soothing, you can actually do a lot more harm than good! Self-soothing shouldn’t be seen as “carte blanche indulgence” in any vice; it should be a time-limited behavior that you manage, not one that sweeps you into a danger zone. Some of the behaviors that can lead to unpleasant consequences include choices such as compulsive eating, binge drinking, retail therapy, or sexual promiscuity. Each of these behaviors can lead to some pretty serious outcomes that can affect things that really matter, such as physical wellbeing, mental health, and financial stability.

How Do Self-Care Practices Help?

If you choose self-soothing behaviors that positively affect your overall well-being, self-soothing can be a great way to decrease stress and regain your sense of balance and perspective. When an athlete experiences a minor injury, they might be told to “walk it out.” When you’re upset about something at work or a personal conflict, and want to take action, someone might advise you, “Sleep on it first.” When you engage in self-soothing behaviors that are designed to help you clear your head and feel better prepared to cope with the situation, you are doing exactly what you need to do. Escaping via a massage, a book, or a favorite film aren’t bad choices. Treating yourself to your favorite food, in moderation, is not a bad choice. Research shows that self-soothing behaviors totally calm us down and help us regain our equilibrium. However, chain-smoking, compulsive eating, or binge drinking are self-soothing behaviors that are going to have detrimental effects on wellbeing.

Self-Soothe, Don’t Overindulge

To choose the best self-soothing behavior for yourself, make sure you select one that you’re not going to regret in the morning.

  • Research shows that meditation and exercise, even just going for a walk or gentle yoga or stretching, can lower your blood pressure and calm your mind. These are great options for self-soothing when you feel like you—or your world—is flying apart. If these don’t scratch the itch, here are some other ideas to try that help you avoid the risky behaviors that may be tempting you.
  • If you need to unplug from the bad day you had, use your favorite music to escape—fill the room with the sounds of your all-time favorite tunes and soak it in. Or fire up the DVR and watch your favorite movie or a few episodes of your “guilty pleasure” series. Or go old school and re-read your favorite book.
  • If you’re angry and have pent-up energy you need to expel, self-soothe through dancing around your house, hitting the gym, going for a run, scrubbing your floor, or making love with your partner. If sex is what you feel would best scratch your itch, don’t take risks with your health and don’t ruin existing relationships just because you’re seeking a “Band-Aid” fix for a temporary situation.
  • If you are feeling hungry for something you can’t name and you finding yourself staring in the fridge, rather than choosing something named Ben & Jerry’s or ordering and downing most of an extra-large extra cheese pizza yourself, choose a recipe that you’ve always wanted to try and “feed yourself” the pleasure of preparing something new. Bake a loaf of bread and enjoy the workout you get from kneading the dough and enjoy the aroma that fills the kitchen as the bread rises – that feeds the soul just as much as the pizza would and there won’t be the same self-recrimination that overindulgence would produce.
  • If you are craving retail therapy, go ahead and pull up your favorite retailer's online store, but leave your credit cards in your wallet! Stock up your virtual shopping cart with the sizes and colors and styles you like -- but don't hit the "Buy Now" button! Leave them in your cart until the next day. No matter how amazing you think you'd look in that gorgeous silk blouse right now, if it’s going to break the bank, you might as well wait a day and see if you still need that purchase to feel better about the world.

The world isn’t always as friendly and hospitable as we want it to be, so plan ahead and develop self-soothing rituals (that become self-care habits) that you can turn to when the need arises. Building time for a workout, whether spin class or yoga or something in between, is a self-soothing ritual that keeps them balance and their emotions in check. For some people, cooking is a ritual that provides an escape and a sense of renewed balance in life. For others, a warm bath can help heal the damage that a too-harsh world can dish out. If you want to “eat your emotions,” have healthy treats stored in the fridge or cupboard so that you don’t end up roaming the ice cream aisle or ordering delivery of foods that you’ll regret in the morning. Rather than turning to booze to beat the bad day, have a virtual meet-up with friends and whine a little instead of “wining” a little too much.

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