A rock in a rocking chair, a wrap in a cozy blanket, a warm bath, a soft song, a change in scenery. What do all these have in common? They’re timeless techniques for soothing babies or small children when they’re distressed. It turns out that, as adults, we also have a need to soothe ourselves at times – and the ways that work for little ones are similar to the ways that work for us.
Distress Tolerance in Dialectical Behavior Therapy
In my last post I gave an introduction to dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and one of its skills sets, mindfulness. Another of the four sets of skills is distress tolerance. Distress tolerance skills are designed to help you get through a crisis in one piece. They’re useful when you have a problem but you’re currently unable or unwilling to solve it. While distress tolerance skills won’t solve your problem, they won’t make things worse or create new problems – in the way that unhealthy coping behaviors like using drugs or alcohol, isolating yourself, or lashing out at other people tend to do.
Self-soothing is one of the distress tolerance skills in DBT. When you self-soothe you treat yourself with compassion, kindness, and care – similar to the way a good parent treats an upset child. Self-soothing has been shown to build resilience by making it easier to bounce back from difficult times.
Self-soothing can be useful when you:
- Experience stress from a major life event, like losing a job or relationship
- Have painful or overwhelming emotions
- Are emotionally “hijacked,” meaning the parts of your brain that control rational thinking have shut down and you aren’t able to think straight
- Are doing well and want to maintain your wellness and prevent future crises.
Self-Soothing and the Senses
Self-soothing usually takes place through the senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, as well as the kinesthetic sense (the sense of movement and body position that controls physical activities). Enjoyable sensory experiences signal the brain that there’s no emergency and that everything’s going to be okay. Here are some examples of how to self-soothe through each of the senses:
- Sight: Go to a pretty spot in nature or a local park. Look at photos of beautiful art or go to a museum to see it. Buy or pick some flowers and put them where you will see them. Watch a video of lovely nature scenery. Color in a coloring book (a mandala coloring book is a good option for adults).
- Sound: Listen to calming music. Listen to ocean or other nature sounds. Sing or hum a soothing song. Listen to a cat purr. Go outside and notice the birds chirping. Beat rhythmically on a drum.
- Smell: Light a scented candle. Sniff some essential oil or perfume. Try a calming scent like lavender, orange, or bergamot. Cook a fragrant meal or bake something yummy.
- Touch: Take a warm bath or shower. Wear soft, comfortable clothes. Pet a (willing) animal. Snuggle in a soft blanket. Use a heated shoulder wrap. Go outside and feel the breeze on your skin.
- Taste: Sip herbal tea, such as chamomile. Drink hot cocoa. Suck on a lollipop or mint. Savor a piece of chocolate. Enjoy a delicious meal.
- Kinesthetic: Rock in a rocking chair. Go for a gentle stroll. Play with a fidget toy. Dance or sway to calming music. Do some stretches. Toss or bounce a ball.
You have to experiment to find which self-soothing activities work best for you. Everyone’s different – and what’s soothing to one person might be unpleasant or irritating to another. But generally speaking things that are soothing are warm, dark, quiet, mellow, sweet, soft, rhythmic, or cuddly.
Obstacles to Self-Soothing
All that might sound wonderful, but there are a number of obstacles that prevent people from practicing self-soothing. These include:
- Believing they don’t deserve to take care of themselves
- Feeling awkward doing self-soothing activities
- Feeling guilty or ashamed
- Believing self-soothing activities are childish.
If you want to benefit from self-soothing, it’s important to challenge and overcome any beliefs that prevent you from practicing it.
Making the Most of Self-Soothing
Self-soothing is an effective tool, but as with all DBT skills it takes practice to get the most out of it. Here are some tips:
- Be open and experiment. Try self-soothing through different senses and a variety of activities.
- Be mindful. When you self-soothe, breathe and stay aware of the present moment and the effect the sensations are having on you.
- When you have time, create entire “self-soothing experiences” that use several senses at once. For example, take a scented bubble bath with lit candles; sip some herbal tea while using a heated shoulder wrap and listening to soft music; or go for a relaxing walk in beautiful spot in nature.
- Make a self-soothing kit you can turn to in times of crisis. Keep a variety of objects in it like fragrances, CDs, and pretty pictures, as well as a list of self-soothing activities you enjoy. You can even make a “mini-kit” to carry in your bag or car.
- Practice at times you are not in crisis. That way, the skills will be more ingrained and easier to apply when you are in crisis. In addition practicing regular self-soothing can help keep you calm and centered, so that you’re less likely to encounter avoidable crisis situations.
Track Your Progress
In my last post, I mentioned a diary you can use to track your progress. Using a diary book, card, or smartphone app (there are many available) is an important part of DBT. It allows you to track which skills you use each day, along with a variety of information about your mood and behaviors. You can customize your diary to make it useful to you. By tracking this info, you can make connections between the skills you use (or don’t use) and how you feel and behave. For example, you might notice that you have fewer negative emotions on days you practice self-soothing. If you do DBT with a therapist, they can help you make these connections by reviewing your diary with you each session.
Self-soothing is a powerful tool for tolerating distress. If you’re looking for ways to get through difficulties without resorting to behaviors that will cause more trouble, it’s a valuable skill to master – so make yourself a cup of tea, put on some relaxing tunes, light a candle or two, and try it.