Tag Archives: Self-soothing

How To Calm Ourselves At A Sensory, Motor And Cognitive Level

If we have suffered significant childhood trauma, it is extremely common to find that, as adults, we can become emotionally upset as a result of (seemingly) small provocations, we experience particularly intense emotions when we are upset, and we have great difficulty calming ourselves down (‘calming ourselves down’ is often called ‘self-regulating’ by psychologists) once we are upset. This will be particularly true if, in connection with our traumatic early lives, we have gone on to develop, as adults, borderline personality disorder (BPD) or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD).

This tendency to feel intense emotions when upset, together with the inability to self-regulate such emotions effectively, stems from a traumatic childhood that deprived us of developing the normal ‘self-soothing skills’ that those who experienced relatively stable upbringings are usually able to develop (as I have discussed at length elsewhere on this site – e.g. in my article entitled The Effects Of Childhood Trauma On The Limbic System).

THE THREE COMPONENTS OF EMOTIONS :

Our emotions are made up of three components :

  1. THE SENSORY COMPONENT
  2. THE MOTOR COMPONENT
  3. THE COGNITIVE COMPONENT

Let’s look at each of these in turn :

1. SENSORY EXPERIENCING :

When we feel an emotion, one component of it involves biological / physiological alterations within the body, such as breathing (when we are anxious it tends to be fast and shallow and we may hyperventilate (to read my article on the bi-directional relationship between anxiety and hyperventilation click here).

Other sensory aspects of the experiencing of emotions include heart-rate, blood pressure and digestion (IBS and stress are often related).

Being aware of such biological / physiological sensations within our body is technically referred to as : interoception.

2. MOTOR ACTIVITY :

At the motor level, emotions such as anxiety may manifest as physical tension of various muscle groups such as the muscles of the face and shoulders.

3. COGNITIVE COMPONENT :

Emotions also interact with our cognitions (i.e. thought processes). A simple example is that constantly thinking the worst will happen is likely to make us feel constantly anxious and fearful.

IMPLICATIONS FOR THERAPY :

It logically follows, therefore, that in accordance with the three components of emotions described above, we may intervene therapeutically in an attempt to ameliorate unpleasant emotions such as anxiety at the three corresponding levels : the sensory level, the motor level and the cognitive level.

Treating our anxiety at all three levels can, therefore, be viewed as a kind of triple-pronged attack.

Examples Of Therapies Specifically Targeting Each Of The Three Levels :

At the sensory level, examples of therapies include breathing exercises, relaxation exercises and visualization/hypnosis

At the motor level, examples of therapies include massage, progressive muscle relaxation and physical exercise

At the cognitive level, examples of therapies include cognitive therapy and  cognitive hypnosis

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

 

Self-Soothing : Three Categories Of Techniques

If we experienced significant childhood trauma, particularly if we have gone on to develop conditions such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) as a result, we may frequently find ourselves caught up in painful thought processes, negative introspection and distressing emotions. On top of this, our ability to calm, comfort and soothe ourselves, especially when experiencing emotions like intense anger, fear and anxiety, may have been seriously compromised by our stressful childhood experiences.

Unfortunately, if we have not learned how to sooth ourselves in healthy ways, we may have been relying on dysfunctional ways of calming and comforting ourselves which are self-destructive in the long-term such as heavy smoking, excessive drinking, narcotics, gambling.

Therapists treating such individuals often encourage their patients to gradually replace their ultimately self-destructive coping techniques by cultivating positive, alternative and healthy self-soothing techniques that help them to refocus their attention away from their disturbing thoughts and feelings (for example, the teaching of self-soothing techniques forms part of dialectical behaviour therapy).

These self-soothing techniques fall into three broad categories : a) very simple techniques that require no equipment; b) simple techniques that require only minimal equipment; c) techniques that require an investment of considerable time and effort.

Below, I provide examples of self-soothing techniques which fall into each of these three categories:

a) Very simple self-soothing techniques that require no equipment :

Examples include :

– systematic tensing, followed by systematic relaxing. of each of the major muscle groups in turn

– deep, slow breathing (the opposite is shallow, fast breathing which is both results from  anxiety and  aggravates it, thus creating a vicious cycle; at its extreme it is referred to as hyperventilation which itself is a symptom of panic attacks).

– self-affirmations (either thinking them or saying them out loud if by oneself)

– counting (eg counting down from 100 in threes either in one’s mind or out loud if on one’s own – this is sometimes called ‘thought blocking’ and can be used to temporarily ‘block out’ distressing thoughts)

– recalling pleasant memories

– imagining oneself in a very safe, secure and comforting place (see note at the end of this article)

 

b)  Simple self-soothing techniques that require only minimal equipment :

Examples include :

– reading

– writing (eg creative writing or writing a diary)

– listening to cathartic music

– skipping rope

– work / academic studies

c) Self-soothing techniques that require an investment of considerable time and effort :

Examples include :

– training for a sport

– learning a musical instrument

– learning to paint / draw

Another way of categorizing self-soothing techniques, concentrating upon PHYSICAL techniques that sooth the mind by soothing the body, is by organizing them in groups which correspond to our five physical senses, namely :

  1. TOUCH
  2. TASTE
  3. SIGHT
  4. HEARING
  5. SMELL

Again, I provide examples of self-soothing techniques that fall into each of these five categories below:

1) TOUCH :

For example, stroking a pet, taking a warm bath, using a foot spa, cuddling a soft toy.

2) TASTE :

For example, cooking a favourite meal and savouring it.

3) SIGHT :

For example, visiting a beauty spot

4) HEARING :

For example, soothing sounds in nature such as bird song, flowing water, breaking waves

5) SMELL :

For example, scented candles, aroma therapy

NOTE : Internal, mental visualization of a safe place, using self-hypnosis, can also be a very effective way of self-soothing. Click here for more information.

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).