LEARN TO SELF-SOOTHE
WE’RE TAUGHT TO DO IT AS BABIES AND YET, BY THE TIME WE REACH ADULTHOOD, MOST OF US HAVE FORGOTTEN HOW TO SELF-SOOTHE. SO IS RELEARNING THIS SKILL THE KEY TO FINDING MORE JOY?
I love the word self-care. It covers all manner of sins, doesn’t it? Canceling Friday-night plans at the last minute to stay in. Eating peanut butter straight from the jar. Face masks. Bubble baths. Adding to cart with gleeful abandon. In many ways, it has become the “get out of jail free” card for all those mini indulgences, the word being bandied about with “treat yourself” and “YOLO”. But thanks to all the buzz around self-care, somewhere along the way, it has started to feel meaningless.
Self-care, for a long time, was something I subscribed to whole-heartedly. But when I moved to the other side of the world, I began to question if sun salutations and mani-pedis were enough to quell the anxiety and loneliness that comes with uprooting your entire life. They weren’t.
That was when I discovered self- soothing – something we’re taught as babies so we can calm ourselves down and go back to sleep without bothering our parents. But fast-forward 20 years and most of us have forgotten how to do it.
At its core, self-soothing is about establishing healthy coping mechanisms to deal with life’s curveballs, from a bad day to a catastrophic break-up. “Being able to self-soothe is essential because it helps us cope on our own with negative events that we will inevitably face in life,” explains Dr Suzanne Degges-White, a professor and chair of the Counselling, Adult And Higher Education department at Northern Illinois University in the US.
Unlike self-care, self-soothing is more definitive. As Degges-White points out, it’s not a carte blanche indulgence in any vice, such as binge drinking or retail therapy. Rather, she suggests, “To choose the best self-soothing behaviour for yourself, make sure you select one that you’re not going to regret in the morning. Escaping via a massage, a book or a favourite film aren’t bad choices. Treating yourself to your favourite food, in moderation, is not a bad choice.”
Science backs this up. Research shows that self-soothing behaviours can calm us down and help us regain our emotional equilibrium – even if they don’t always feel good in the moment. A good cry, for example, might not spark joy at the time, but has been shown to reduce distress.
In her podcast The Happiness Lab, Yale psychology professor Dr Laurie Santos explores the science of self-oothing techniques, such as meditation, which she says can also lead to healthy emotional regulation. “They take work to develop but make all the difference on a particularly tough or stressful day.”
When it comes self-soothing mechanisms, everyone is different. Maybe it’s a walk in nature. Maybe it’s cooking a meal from scratch or listening to ’90s music. Or maybe, occasionally, it’s eating peanut butter from the jar. Whatever gets you through.