A young child learns fairly early how to calm down when he is upset. Hopefully parents and caregivers are available in the early years to soothe with touch and holding but gradually the child will learn ways to self soothe – and these skills are critical for healthy development. But what do we do as adults when we are overwhelmed by negative feelings? We may have friends or a spouse that offer companionship or hugs. We may turn a drink or a drug, sex or shopping. Self-soothing using our own inner resources in upset moments does not come naturally and requires thought and action.
A stress response is a natural part of our survival pattern.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that processes basic feelings and plays a big role in alerting for threat including fight or flight responses. The amygdala is also involved in emotional memories triggered by real or imagined interactions with others. Early trauma is believed to influence programming of the body’s stress activation system (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPA system), making the set point lower than it is for those who do not experience such trauma. The bar for something being traumatic is pretty low for a child and can include simple events like witnessing scary fights, getting lost, being bullied or not having a caretaker that responds when needed. Active, purposeful self-soothing is difficult for those with no trauma history and even more so for those who have it.
Self-soothing is finding a middle ground between being detached or numb and experiencing the surge of feelings.
Allowing the experience of the uncomfortable emotions without feeding them and making them more intense, enables the emotions to pass. The goal is to learn to tolerate the experience of feelings without blocking the emotion or acting in ways that are not helpful in the long run.
I could make a familiar list for things to do to feel better. Take a bath, go for a walk, treat yourself to a massage, walk a dog call a friend, cook something you like, light a candle or incense. I do believe that the two most effective are 1. Make a gratitude list and spend some time taking it in ore 2. perform an act of kindness.
Strong feelings are ultimately self centered – not that they are bad but feelings involve a concentration on self and self’s experience. The antidote is to move focus from self to others.
Performing an act of kindness for another can be soothing, particularly if you are feeling disappointed in yourself. The act does not have to be very big at all. Some suggestions:
Call a family member you think might be lonely or do something nice for a neighbor. Leave a positive note for a waitress or give a stranger a smile and some conversation. Research shows that making yourself smile actually affects the brain and counteracts feelings of sadness – even if it is forced! Consider prayer or meditation.
Ultimately it is about taking responsibility for your upset and deciding on the direction you want to take to make yourself feel better.