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The importance of self-soothing

The importance of self-soothing

3rd February 2019 by Centred Counselling1

Feeling anxious or on high alert is a normal reaction to difficult situations, however for people that are more sensitive to their surroundings and experiences, this can become almost a permanent way of being.

If you have experienced trauma in your early childhood this may make you more susceptible to being on high alert as an adult. This is because your response system is still making sense of everything and trying to create a baseline. If you have experienced trauma then your baseline (that determines your stress response) are likely to be more sensitive. As an adult that is sensitive to their surroundings, it’s really important to be able to self soothe, but it can be much harder to achieve.

Feeling anxious or at high alert is exhausting and the more frequently you experience it, or the longer the episodes the more impact it will have on your daily life and potentially your health. High alert is like an internal emergency signal, it suggests that there is an immediate danger which often leads to a state of ‘Fight, flight, freeze or flop’ these are instinctive survival mechanisms that everyone has. Many people will only experience these moments in a real-time emergency but for others that have experienced trauma, they may come up several times a day in relation to seemingly innocuous triggers.

Being able to bring your awareness away from an overwhelming feeling of fear or anxiety into a calmer experience is a really useful skill and can be beneficial in terms of quality of life. Though it is often easier to avoid things that cause anxiety and fear, it also reinforces that there is something to be anxious and fearful about and this can often lead to a person’s world becoming smaller as they avoid more and more things.

Alternatively, with the ability to self soothe the moments of anxiety and fear are felt but not overwhelmingly so, and the skill of altering one’s reactions can be invigorating as control and balance is restored to the person.

The tools we use to communicate a message to the ‘high alert’ status are based on the 5 senses, touch, taste, sound, smell and sight. Choosing an activity that connects with as many of these senses as possible will encourage your internal system to take a second look around and re-evaluate the potential danger, often in doing so, it realises it’s no longer needed. The activity you choose should be something that is meaningful for you, a treat, something you wouldn’t maybe do, and it should reinforce the feeling of self-care and nurture.


Are there things that you like the feel of, that perhaps comfort or create curiosity or happiness in you? Soft blankets or comfy clothes, the sun on your skin, the warmth of a hot bath, massage. The textures of smooth stones, shells, pine-cones, sand, a teddy or a pet.


Are there old recipes that bring back good memories? Treats that you don’t have very often. Flavours that enhance your mood. Hot chocolate or a herbal tea, ice cream, a healthy meal that is purposefully made. Be careful to strike a balance with food and not overeat as this can be unhelpful.


What sounds do your body and mind connect with? It might be something loud with a beat and lyrics that make you smile, or the sound of nature playing gently in the background. Maybe an audio book or relaxation or guided meditation track.


What smells remind you of better times? Lavender (can be helpful to aid sleep), the smell of baking bread or cakes, coffee, freshly washed sheets or clothes, homemade soup. If you’re not sure, investigate some of your local aromatherapy shops and see which smells you prefer.


What makes you smile when you look at them? What captures your interest and allows you to be curious and carefree. Photos of friends or family perhaps, films that you enjoy watching, your environment, the sea, forests, shops, animals, kittens and puppies on YouTube.

You may have found lots of comforting things for each of your senses or maybe just a few, but consider how you might combine them for maximum benefit:

  • A warm bath filled with your favourite bubbles and scents, a change into cosy pyjamas and a hot drink whilst watching a favourite film. 
  • Give yourself some time to create your favourite meal, maybe share it with your friends or family or simply enjoy the peace of eating alone.

If you find that you are often anxious or on high alert when you are at work or throughout your day, then consider having some of these items in your bag, photos or music on your phone, maybe shells or a meaningful pebble in your pocket and use them to help distract you from feeling overwhelmed.

For example, if the bus is busy, lots of people are talking and space feels a bit tight. Why not pop on some headphones, let your attention drift to the beat or the lyrics or the tone of the music. Do you have photos on your phone of happier moments, recall what was happening and how it felt, remind yourself that the journey will end shortly and that later you can relax and self soothe more fully.

If you know a situation is going to make you feel anxious you can plan your distraction in advance. Maybe a shell or pebble in your pocket, how does it feel? Can you use your touch alone to count ridges, is it warm or cold? A coin, can you tell which one you are touching without looking.

All of these things help to move your focus away from thoughts and feelings that might be increasing from anxiety to high alert. You won’t forget about them completely but you won’t be giving them your full attention.

It takes time to become skilled at distracting yourself in the moment and it’s not always easy to set some time to just self soothe and unwind when you need to. So be gentle with yourself because you are learning, and compassionate because it’s not always easy and no one gets it right all the time. The goal is to begin feeling better within yourself, and about yourself so that you can live the life you want and deserve to have.

Cover image courtesy of:

Simon Migaj

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