Self-Soothing: small breaks for surviving stressful times


Many times over the past few weeks I have been glued to my computer or radio, vigilant for any information about the rapidly shifting political scene. It's as if part of me believes that keeping my eyes and ears open every second of every waking hour will somehow protect me from events I don't want. While I do believe in the importance of staying informed, I am also aware that there is no way to know everything, predict everything, nor fix everything. Attempting to do so only leads to one thing: frazzled nerves.

your body's emergency response system

When we are faced with a stressful situation, our bodies often respond with tense muscles, an increased heart rate, a blood stream surging with adrenaline, and a heightened awareness of potential danger. These responses can be helpful in some circumstances--they get us ready to spring into action, and allow our minds to consider possible dangers and ways to stay safe. Being chased by a lion? You'll appreciate that extra shot of adrenaline to get you moving. Have a looming work deadline? You're thankful your body can kick in some extra energy to keep your mind focused. 

But this jump-start in our arousal system isn't well suited to longer-lasting or more nuanced troubles. Stay too long in a state of vigilance and we end up exhausted, irritable, depressed. Our tired body starts craving less-than-healthy food, we toss and turn instead of sleeping, we snap at our loved ones, and generally feel miserable and ineffective. The hyper-arousal that initially gave us quick and intuitive decisions ("Run from the lion!") over time becomes a cloudy haze of overwhelm.

we all need soothing

Have you ever held a baby who is tired but just can't sleep--perhaps crying so hard that it's little body turns all tight and red? They're fussy, squirmy, barely able to breath, impossible to dress or feed, and their screams create a sense of panic for everyone around them. This is exactly how I picture the nervous system when it hits that wall of too-much-adrenaline-for-too-long: totally exhausted but with every cell alert and complaining. 

So what is it that a cranky, screaming, overwhelmed nervous system needs? Physical soothing. Regardless of age, gender, or how competent and "grown up" we may be, when we are in a state of extended distress, we all need comfort. 

let your senses lead the way

Rely on the wisdom of your five senses--touch, sound, smell, taste, and sight--and give your body some input that is likely to provide a soothing or calming effect. The same way a cranky baby is soothed with a warm blanket, a bottle, or the sound of a washing machine, our tired nervous systems crave soothing, sensual input. Some examples:

Touch: massage, hot shower/bath, brushing your hair, snuggling your pet, holding a cup of hot tea, a hug, getting under a heavy blanket, rubbing lotion on your hands

Sound: the wind in the trees, music, your own breath or the breath of a loved one 

Smell: fresh air, essential oils, candles, flowers, perfume, spices/herbs

Taste: a hard candy, tea/cocoa, gum, a spring of mint/basil, popsicle

Sight: candlelight, nature (trees, a body of water, clouds, flowers), art

Try one of these (or come up with your own) for fifteen or twenty minutes. As best you can, turn all of your attention towards that one sense. If you're taking a hot shower, really focus on the sensation of the hot water as it hits your muscles. If you're listening to the wind, close your eyes and put all your energy into absorbing that sound. If/when stressful thoughts come up, just notice them and then gently pull your focus back to the soothing activity. 

self-soothing is different than avoiding

Am I suggesting you hide your head in the sand and stop tending to the very situations that cause you stress? Sort of, but only momentarily. Rather than avoiding problems, self-soothing is more like pausing during a marathon to stretch a sore muscle or get a cup of water. You're not giving up, you're just helping your body make the journey in a more sustainable and effective way.

Give it a try! Let me know how it goes...