Psychological trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may cause significant emotional dysregulation. Persons with complex trauma or PTSD display emotional dysregulation characterized by excessive fear, anxiety, anger, or sadness. These feelings are reactions to a previous severe and often life-threatening traumatic event that is reinitiated.Source
What is self soothing, and why is it important to survivors?
Self soothing techniques are ways we can calm ourselves down when we feel overwhelmed by negative emotions. Survivors of abuse and childhood trauma often struggle to self-soothe, partly because of the physiological differences between their brain and that of a neurotypical person- we lack integration between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, meaning that when we become emotional our rational side tends to go “offline”.
One of the major issues survivors of childhood abuse and trauma face is emotion dysregulation– the inability to regulate (have much control over) the intense emotions we feel and the strong response of our nervous systems. Neurotypical people can also become dysregulated in certain circumstances, such as being overloaded with stress or grief, but those of us who have been traumatically injured tend to experience dysregulation much more often, for much longer periods, and we can become dysregulated over minor issues because of emotional flashbacks.
This is partly because of the damage done to the developing brain in cases of child abuse, and partly because of the numerous triggers we are surrounded by daily, many of them unconscious triggers, that can send us spiralling quickly.
A person living with PTSD symptoms can be calm and happy one minute, and overtaken by an intense wave of unbearable sadness or anger the next, because of some unidentified trigger in the environment over which they had no control.
This is a frightening way to live, and it causes us to become fearful and avoidant of situations that might lead to such triggering, which in turn causes us to withdraw from life and isolate ourselves from others. It can cause us to seek an unhealthy amount of control over everything, too- we struggle to let go and enjoy the moment, because our anxieties are just too high.
Unhealthy self soothing.
Many survivors tend to self-soothe in unhealthy and even dangerous ways. We might become addicted to alcohol, prescription and non-prescription drugs, food, sex or love relationships as a coping mechanism to try and live with the pain. We might self-harm or put ourselves in risky situations. We often dissociate to numb our feelings- this can express in different ways, from “spacing out” entirely, disconnected from our bodies and the world around us, to mindlessly scrolling through social media or watching films/playing computer games for hours and days on end. At the extreme end of the dissociation spectrum, we might develop “alters” or have no recollection of having done things (for example, going shopping and only knowing you have because you see the items/receipt afterwards).
Unhealthy self soothing is trying to escape from our own bodies and minds as much as possible, which denies us the opportunity to heal, to experience life to the fullest and foster a healthy relationship with ourselves and others. Unhealthy self soothing damages our minds and bodies even further.
Please don’t blame yourself for any of the coping mechanisms you have used in the past (or present). If you are anything like a typical survivor, you have a vicious inner critic. It is time, now, to be kind to yourself. Trauma is debilitating, it is painful, it is exhausting to carry– and you have always done the best you could with what you knew.
The important thing is that we arm ourselves with knowledge and promise ourselves that from now on we will choose healthier ways to cope, as much as we are able.
Self soothing- the healthy way.
How can we self-soothe in a positive way? Here are 4 healthy self-soothing methods to get you started.
The importance of proper breathing cannot be understated. If your breathing is fast and shallow, your brain interprets this as “danger” and stays on high alert. Your heart rate and blood pressure rise, muscles tense, digestion stops and your sympathetic nervous system is primed for “fight or flight” action. It is simply impossible to relax in this state. Luckily, with conscious, deep and slow breathing you can reverse this.
When you breathe consciously, your brain interprets it as “I am safe to relax”. Brain waves slow down, heart rate and blood pressure decrease, muscles lose their tension. The vagus nerve is stimulated, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which stops the “fight or flight” reaction and puts us into “rest or digest” mode instead.
“Deep breathing turns on the vagus nerve enough that it acts as a brake on the stress response”source
Any time you feel your stress levels rising, take a moment to breathe deeply. Try to make the exhale slightly longer than the inhale as this stimulates the vagus nerve. There are lots of good apps you can download to your phone that have animations you can follow along with, at least until this type of breathing becomes more natural to you. Here is a quick clip on YouTube- try breathing along with the circle now.
There are many variations on this- try searching for “breathing bubble” or “breathing exercise” on YouTube or the app store. Don’t get too hung up on techniques, it is enough that you are breathing consciously. Try to always breathe into your diaphragm instead of your chest- your lungs should fill from the bottom, not the top. If it is hard to imagine this, lay down. We naturally breathe from our diaphragm when lying down, so you can get a feel for it that way.
Reminders to breathe.
I like to use a mindfulness app on my phone (I also have it as a Chrome extension) that rings a beautiful meditation bell every hour, to remind me to be present and take some deep breaths. You can find information about the various apps and extensions that promote mindfulness here. You can set the bell to ring as often as you like- I recommend once an hour. When you hear that bell, stop! Focus on the moment, consciously relax and take a few good, deep breaths. Check in with yourself and your body. These apps have really helped me to be more present in my life, and this helps with self-soothing when I am feeling triggered because I am used to breathing consciously.
If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be this section.
Breathing consciously is the foundation of healing.
When we allow our bodies to relax, we allow healing to happen naturally. A body that is stressed shuts down all non-essential functions and goes into survival mode. When we suffer with anxiety and PTSD, we essentially live our lives in survival mode. Breathing is the first step towards reclaiming control over our own bodies.
2. Hug yourself!
Being “enclosed” reminds us of the peace and safety we felt in the womb. This is partly why hugs feel so good. But you don’t need someone there to hug you- next time you are feeling triggered, take your right hand and place it over your heart (fingers tucked into your armpit). With your left hand, hold your right arm near the top. Give yourself a squeeze!
This feels very comforting, especially when you combine it with deep breathing. Don’t be afraid to rock back and forth- this mimics being rocked as a baby to calm down/fall asleep. Consider buying a weighted blanket- these can be pricey but very effective because they give us that same relaxing effect of being wrapped up. A warm bath can also feel a lot like like a hug.
I talked about trigger points in detail in my article “How to Heal Trauma” which is split into two parts, here and here. Trigger point massage is a great way to release trauma, and there are many tools you can buy to help you do this. I like to use a peanut massage ball or a Back Buddy, but you can use a tennis ball or squash ball as a massage ball, a foam roller (or pool noodle!) or even a walking stick to imitate the back buddy.
Trigger point release basics.
Move the massager or your fingertips around until you find a spot that feels painful- it should be a “good” type of pain. Apply pressure for a minute or so. You might feel relief immediately, more likely it will take a while to really work the trigger point out.
Remember to stretch when you’re done.
Always stretch gently afterwards- this helps the muscle fibres stay in their natural position and not immediately bunch up again into a trigger point. You can find an excellent guide to releasing trigger points here.
Trigger point release will also release trapped emotions and memories, so always proceed with caution. If you start to feel “bad” pain at any point, stop. If you feel emotionally overwhelmed, stop, breathe deeply and hug yourself. Don’t overwork your muscles by doing too much, and always go slowly- don’t press too hard initially.
4. Self soothing with the senses.
Our senses help to ground us in reality. When we pay attention to our senses, we inhabit our body fully- which helps stop us dissociating. A warm bubble bath with lavender or a hot chamomile tea can really help calm our emotions, and by doing this for ourselves, we act out of self love. If your best friend was upset, what would you do for them? Make a nice hot drink, give them a blanket, put on a funny movie? You would soothe them. You can soothe yourself. You must be your own best friend, too.
Here are a few ideas for how to self-soothe using all five senses.
I hope that has given you some ideas and some inspiration. There are many healthy ways to self-soothe and regulate our emotions instead of resorting to harmful methods. When we choose positive self soothing we are sending a message to ourselves: you matter. I love you.
And you do matter. Next time you are feeling triggered or upset, give one or more of these things a try- particularly the breathing techniques, as that really is the foundation upon which wellbeing is built.
Practise conscious breathing daily and you will see the difference in your life.
Remember, healing is a slow process. Sometimes you will take a few steps back, and that is okay. You are never alone, there are many MANY of us who walk this path with you. You can email me anytime here if you need someone to talk to. I see you, I understand. I see the divinity, the beauty and the potential in you. I see how you are healing every day, even though you may not feel like you are making progress.
Always remember that you have survived the worst. A beautiful life awaits.
Ten Ways to Heal Trauma Part One, Part Two
Survivor’s Guide to Self Soothing
Trauma bonds (and how to break them)
Emotional Flashbacks- and how to cope.
Understanding the Freeze Response to Trauma
5 Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults
Trauma Symptoms you didn’t know were symptoms
5 Journal Prompts for Trauma Healing
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