Self-care is a term that, by now, everyone has got to be familiar with—it’s all over social media lately. Buy that latte, do that face mask, dye your hair! And while it is (so) important to do all that, self-care is much more than that. This is a Distress Tolerance technique called self-soothing.
Self care is a life choice. But in the instance of mental illness and related illnesses, some self care looks like keeping up with all AA meetings, not cancelling doctor appointments, taking meds, getting regular bloodwork done. Self care is eating well balanced meals and going to the gym, or swimming, or running.
Self care for me looks like having a sleep space that is separate from my living space (sleep hygiene), taking my meds at the same time every day, keep an agenda so I don’t miss doctors/psych/therapy, eating something everyday, setting boundaries with people, taking rests to protect my energy, not talking to certain people.
Some of these may seem like common sense but it is really difficult to navigate all these overwhelming factors of life and it gets difficult when you add any illness to the mix.
Self care is important to make sure you are living a healthy fulfilling life. Self soothing deals with emotion. Emotions occur as a wave; you have a baseline (0) and when you experience a wave it increases to a point (7) where it would be healthy to use some skills as a healthy coping mechanism (crisis would occur at a 10). This is where self soothing comes in. I personally find it more helpful when I use self soothing when I recognize I’m at a 5 but, again, that’s personal. More on this wave later. For now,
What the fuck is self-soothing and why should you do it? Well, let me tell you. Self-soothing is a skill that should be in your mental health toolbox for quick access. Not buried in a binder like what I’ve done, although, I do have a crisis kit and it’s filled with stuff that helps me soothe my stressed ass. Self-soothing is the skill you would use to calm yourself if you’re having distressing emotions (anxiety, fear, sadness, etc) without using medications or your habitual negative coping strategies (we all have them).
This skill focus on stimulating at least one of the five senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch) to help relax you. Of course, there are going to be times where you need to take a benzo to calm down or vape on some CBD to get your heart to stop pounding in your chest. The gods know I love my clonazepam and cannabis, but even those take a little while to kick in and these skills can hold you down while you’re waiting for that benzo to act.
First step to self-soothing is a little bit of mindfulness. Notice what you’re feeling and label it. Strictly facts; no judgements. But if you’re like me and you judge habitually, don’t judge your judging. Easier said than done, trust me, I know. But try.
Let’s say, I’m feeling anxious. Now, realistically, I could go into my purse and grab a benzo, pop that benzo and distract with tv for 45 minutes until it kicks in. But then if I do that too often, the benzo will stop being effective. Or, you know, addiction and I don’t need that (no one needs that). So the first step is noticing and labelling:
“I’m feeling anxious. My chest feels like it’s got a weight on it and my heart feels like it’s about to explode. I’m heating up and my skin looks red and rashy.”
Next step is the actual self-compassion.
“I am anxious and that’s okay. It sucks, but it will pass. I am not a failure for having a panic attack. It has never lasted forever. Lots of people feel anxious, I’m not suffering alone. I’m loved and loving and worthy of good things.”
If you struggle with this, use the Best Friend Technique! Imagine your bestie or partner is struggling with anxiety, how would you help them? Do those things for yourself. It’s super easy to default to “why am I feeling anxious? There’s nothing to be worried about I’m just being fucking dumb” but those are judgements and (I hope) you’d not ever say that to someone who was struggling! There’s really no benefit in trying to bully yourself into being a better version of yourself; it doesn’t work like that. If it did, I’d be very rich. Instead I’m very depressed because I have a bully in my head.
*This doesn’t have to just be when you’re feeling anxious. It can be when you make a mistake and your instinctual reaction is to call yourself an idiot. “I made a mistake… just like everyone does.”
@headspace the real MVP to beginner mindfulness
Time to soothe using the senses.
This is easy. Blast your favourite tunes! And I mean blast that shit. The fullest volume your ears can handle. But avoid listening to triggering music, you know? Don’t listen to depressing songs if you’re trying to soothe your depression. I, personally, will blast some latin, reggaetone, dancehall or some bad bitch rap music to put myself in a good mood. My partner would probably go for a joyride blasting some old screamo music like Atreyu. It’s all about preference and what works for you.
Alternatively, call someone you love. A friend, a partner, your parents or siblings. Just to hear their voice. Also, download the Mindfulness app and listen to a quick 3-minute meditation. Listen to an audiobook or a podcast about serial killers.
Time to eat the tasty thing you made to soothe your nostrils. Or, you know, get into the halloween candy stash, go out and buy a bag of chips (just not every night..) or make your favourite instant noodles. A few months ago, my bestie and I drove an hour out of town just to get gourmet ice cream to soothe our emotions. This one is all about comfort food.
I love touch. I actually just had a conversation with my partner yesterday about how I think society should normalize platonic cuddling. When I had a big group of friends in university, I cuddled with like all of them. While sleeping or watching tv or movies, it was so soothing after a stressful day at work or when I was just feeling down. I don’t have much platonic cuddling in my life anymore, which makes me sad, but I love hugs. I like hugs from friends, family, even strangers; I can never resist someone with a “Free Hugs” sign. I really like touch. It’s actually my love language. But I know there’s a lot of people that do not like to be touched.
You don’t have to use this if you don’t want to. But you can still use touch to soothe if you don’t really love touch. You can use a stuffed animal, a real animal, a pillow, a crystal or rock, stress ball, slime, a bath, shower, a fidget spinner. Like I said before, imagination is the real limit here.
Your imagination is the limit for this, really. (Mine is very limited). In my personal crisis kit, I have two photos of my cats. They’re quite funny and cute pictures and they make my heart happy to look at. I don’t always have my kit on me but I do usually have my phone. I have an Instagram page where I only upload pictures of my cats and anytime I feel down and need to look at something that makes me happy, I can pull out my phone and scroll through their insta. This also works if you take a lot of pictures on your phone of your animals or loved ones or even places you liked to visit. Have vacation pictures handy or even your favourite hiking trail or your favourite place to hang out.
If you’re able to, you can try to watch a favourite show (I go to Brooklyn 99 or Bob’s Burgers) or favourite movie (for me, Saw is very soothing). You can try to read if thats’s your thing.
This is especially good if it’s summertime and you like to garden. This is the perfect opportunity to take in what you’ve helped flourish and take the time to smell the flowers. I, personally, have a brown thumb. So I have to get a little creative with the aromatherapy. I actually use smell to soothe every single day. I light a scented candle, incense or have my oil diffuser on. I love using bergamot and frankincense because those have natural anti-depressant and anti-anxiety benefits. I’ll light a rain-scented incense to uplift my mood and use citrus-y oils for the same purpose.
What also works, a favourite blanket with a familiar smell or an article of clothes from a loved one. Even making certain foods can trigger positive vibes in your nose holes (if it’s easy to make). Essential oils in the bath.
When you use your senses to soothe, it ‘s a good way to stay grounded and it helps accumulate positive feelings. And, often, when we’re in the middle of experiencing intense emotions it is hard to stay focused and centred. These are simply ways to get out of your head and maybe gain a new perspective. It is important to keep on being self-compassionate while you’re soothing.
I’ll be the first one to admit that, although it sounds easy as f u c k, it takes an annoying amount of practice. I have this awful voice in my head that tells me “you’re being stupid and this isn’t going to work” whenever I try to soothe. And at first, it got me real down and honestly hindered the soothing. It took me a lot of practice to get to where I am now and I still have a lot of work to do on it. I was a skeptic. I was all “how is smelling a citrus blend gonna cure my sad ass?” and you know what? IT WON’T! It’s just about managing the hard emotions, not curing them. I’m always gonna be depressed and shit but I’ll also just keep on getting better at the self-soothing shit too.
It is so so important to incorporate self care and self soothing in your everyday tasks. It’s much easier than it sounds. And it really should be a priority to take care of yourself. You can’t pour from an empty cup and all that
Here’s a DBT worksheet for Self-Soothing. It’s got more tips for each sense. If you already practice this, leave some tips in the comments. Follow me on insta. Follow my cats, maybe they can soothe you too.
My Cats, Bagheera and Bear Baloo