What is self-soothing? How to access it at times of most need.
When we are children, we rely on our parents for many things. One of their roles, which emerges out of instinctive compassion for us, is to sooth us when we are distressed or in pain. A parent will hug a child, distract them, tell them positive things and use a range of attempts to sooth the distress. It’s what children need and cry out for when they are upset… to be soothed.
As we grow older, we internalize much of this. We learn to automatically utilize the adapted forms of the same instinctive interventions on ourselves — we roll up under a duvet (a hug), we take a warm bath (another hug?), we treat ourselves with sweets or gifts, we distract ourselves with friends or TV, we rub our area of pain, we protect our area of pain… we use an expansive range of skills to self-sooth whilst we heal.
Where people seem to have problems is when we don’t heal, when the underlying physical distress never goes away.
There are too many conditions to list that don’t heal and bring distress and pain. To name a few, and put some context to this piece; fibromyalgia, chronic regional pain syndrome, chronic migraine, neuromuscular disorders…
These conditions bring something uniquely challenging. Unlike many of the other challenges in our lives, there is no accessible road-map provided by society for how you should cope. In fact, Western society is so obsessed with getting cured or medicating pain away that the idea that you are left with chronic incurable pain is intangible to almost all people except for those who experience it — which is often why they feel so isolated or alone (this theme is for another time).
When I meet with such patients, the concept of self-soothing has often been replaced by something new. Anger towards themselves, frustration and associated shame. Shame for their failing body. Shame for not recovering. Shame for being a burden. Shame for being upset… and more.
The first step for many people is in recognizing this pattern of coping, well dysfunctional coping really. It’s not your fault or a personal failing — but does require attention and development of new ways of seeing yourself and new approaches to self-soothing.
It is very important to quickly perceive yourself as somebody who has new needs. Not somebody who’s body is failing or is pathetic, but somebody who’s needs have now evolved to be more complex and outside of their learned understanding of themselves.
New needs that come with chronic pain:
the need to accept a changed body with new limitations and patterns of distress
the need to recognize that your previous lifestyle may not be the lifestyle that best fits this changed you
the need to be in sync with your body — yourself (yes, your body is you! Not something you can change or something that is tormenting you). So, learning to listen to yourself and pay attention to yourself can help (google mindfulness for a well evidenced approach)
the need to understand distress / pain as a calling to sooth yourself and not to be frustrated or angry, or to let your mind wander to the things you’ve lost or may lose.
When your own distress is recognized as a need to self-sooth, like the cry of a child, a compassionate almost parental/friend version of yourself needs to activate. It can help to imagine you are responding to a loved one in the same crisis, to trigger your compassionate self (I’ve written more on self-compassion - see links at the end). From this awareness, self-sooth… here are a few ideas on how you might approach this:
You may feel like crying. Go for it! The body evolved this ability for a reason, so don’t deny it to yourself. Cry to release and not as further fuel on a desperate / depressed outlook — try to be mindful of the difference. There is no shame in crying, when you need to. Grieving for loss is a human trait, so grieving your lost past is something you shouldn’t necessarily deny to yourself.
Reject negative ideas about yourself. Just like you would for a friend who was being hard on themselves, don’t let your mind denigrate or attack you for being distressed or having new challenges that are difficult to face. Replace these with the words you’d use if a friend called themselves pathetic or were angry at themselves for being unable to get on with a task. I don’t need to coach this, you have the skills already.
Rest and be okay with it. If you need to rest do it without feeling guilty or a burden on others. Recharging your batteries or taking moments to yourself can be essential remedies to the seeming relentless nature of coping with pain.
Share your thoughts. Often we can create ideas of total doom, isolation and fear about ourselves and may even wish there was a way to just give up. Sharing this with a loved one can be powerful and lets that person understand what you are going through. This isn’t a call to repeatedly list your symptoms but a suggestion to invite support around your emotional vulnerabilities.
Ask for help / delegate. Give clear instructions about what you need to help you. Chores, time to yourself, time with a partner, to be distracted… people respond well to instructions and often feel more needed / useful. It has the added benefit of you getting what you need.
Treat your body. You may feel that your body is your enemy, but connect with the distress you feel across your physical and emotional self. A light massage, bath, pleasant smells, sweet tastes, heat, cold — these are all pleasant experiences that your body has likely retained the ability to enjoy at different times. They can be soothing and a reminder that your body has many capacities to bring you many experiences — not just pain!
Practice daily mindfulness. Learn about mindfulness! It builds you the ability to be able to listen out for your own needs and when you need them met. Learning to focus on the present also enables you to think less about the past and future, which is often an unhelpful and persistent anxiety or distress.
This is not a comprehensive list, but does offer some starting ideas. Being playful in your life and learning to take a chance on something that may ‘sooth’ you and subsequently improve your life is one of the foundations of living with chronic pain. The pain may never subside, but the suffering might.
be nice to yourself