Self-Soothing: What is it? Why do they do it? Is there an alternative?
What is self-soothing?
“Self-soothing” refers to any behaviour an individual uses to regulate their emotional state by themselves. Self-soothing behaviours are identifiable across the lifespan. Often, self-soothing behaviours develop in the early stages of life, and it is not uncommon for adolescents and adults to continue to engage in self-soothing behaviours developed during childhood. Self-soothing behaviours are commonly seen in individuals with diagnoses such as Anxiety, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Depression, and Complex Trauma, among many others.
Whilst it is important to be able to self-sooth for our emotional wellbeing, some self-soothing behaviours may be considered socially inappropriate for age or self-injurious. Consequently, with support, individuals can benefit from being guided in adopting more appropriate and/or safer behaviours.
Have you seen someone engage in the following?
- Fingernail biting
- Sucking/chewing on clothing or other objects
- Body rocking/swaying
- Pulling hair from head, eyebrows, or eyelashes
- Skin picking
- Nose picking
- Alcohol and or other substance use
The above are just some examples of common self-soothing behaviours that can be recognised across the lifespan.
Why do they do it?
- Trouble coping with or understanding their emotions
- Stress, which can be brought on by changes (e.g. parental separation, relationship breakdown/divorce, school transition, new job) or challenges (e.g. peer conflict, study/exams, increased workload, sick family member)
- Current or previous exposure to trauma
- Attachment issues where they feel a lack of care and responsiveness from others, and as a result rely on themselves for care
- Sensory seeking
The behaviour is dangerous/inappropriate/causing embarrassment! What do I do?
When a self-soothing behaviour is considered dangerous to physical and mental health, is socially inappropriate, is resulting in embarrassment, and/or is causing significant distress to either the individual engaging in the behaviour or those around them, then ideally we want to be able to replace the self-soothing behaviour that is causing any of these issues.
When it comes to young children engaging in self-soothing behaviours, whilst the behaviour may be seen by yourself or others as inappropriate or irritating, you can try to ignore the behaviour to see if with time they simply “grow out of it” as they learn how to better regulate their emotions. It sometimes happens that when negative attention such as punishment or ridicule is given to a child’s behaviour, the tension that the behaviour soothes (e.g. anxiety) increases, and in turn exacerbates the behaviour.
However, DO NOT ignore any behaviours causing significant harm to a child; these MUST be addressed. The same rule applies for any individual at any age! Please seek assistance from a GP, Psychologist or crisis service (e.g. Mental Health Line – 1800 011 511) if significant harm is occurring.
In general, the following strategies can be applied across the lifespan to help replace any unwanted self-soothing behaviours:
- It will help to observe the behaviour to better understand its purpose (e.g. What time/place is it occurring?). If the triggers of the behaviour are identified, you can try to help the individual remove or lessen the impact of the trigger.
- Approach the individual with understanding and without judgement. Invite them to sit down with you at a time when they are not in a heightened state of emotion and talk to them about any concerns you have surrounding their choice of self-soothing behaviour. During this discussion, you can suggest a range of replacement behaviours to experiment with. You could even suggest trying them with them to show support and to provide motivation.
- Be both physically and emotionally present with the individual you care about. This involves stopping what you are doing, putting phones down, listening empathetically, and being open to discussion around feelings and needs. By doing this you can help the individual identify, verbalise, and reflect on their feelings and behaviours, and together work out what they need in terms of support.
- Role model effective, appropriate, and safe self-soothing behaviours when you are anxious, stressed, upset, tired etc. This is particularly important for children, because as they grow and develop, they rely heavily on watching others in order to learn.
- Positive reinforcement never goes astray, whether it be praise or a small reward when the individual goes without engaging in the behaviour for an extended period of time.
- Redirect the individual to a more appropriate behaviour each time they begin to engage in or indicate that they are about to engage in the self-soothing behaviour that has been identified as being problematic.
- Encourage engagement in activities that allow for sensory stimulation and the release of any tension or negative energy. Examples of activities include running, boxing, massages, showers. It could help increase the individual’s motivation if you offer to engage in some of the activities with them.
Examples of safe, appropriate, and effective self-soothing behaviours
- Squeezing a stress ball
- Listening to music
- Taking a warm bubble bath
- Taking a shower
- Going for a walk
- Hitting a punching bag
- Talking about your feelings
- Writing about your feelings
- Engaging in mindfulness exercises
- Playing with a pet
- Hugging someone you love
Try out some of the above strategies and examples and see how you go! Do not hesitate to seek further advice and support if needed.