Fear and self-soothing

3 self-soothing techniques that seriously changed my life

Photo by Yanko Peyankov via  Unsplash

Photo by Yanko Peyankov via Unsplash

Last week, I used the analogy of my life as a house, and talked about ten basics that make up its foundation. If those basics are the foundation, then self-soothing can be seen as the windows and doors to my house. When I’m anxious or afraid, I’m closed off to the world — windows and doors shut. When I’m able to self-soothe, those windows and doors are able to open.  

I have lived with a lot of fear in my life. So much fear that it sometimes feels like it’s living my life for me, and my body is just being dragged around by it. The fear induces anxiety, panic, depression…illnesses that have seemed beyond my control at times. And yet, with the right tools, I’ve finally been able to regain more control of my emotions and, in turn, keep the anxiety, panic, and depression at bay. I’ve been able to open the windows and doors of my house and both let in what the world has to offer, and step out into it, less afraid.

I want to share some of the invaluable self-soothing tools I learned in the outpatient therapy program that have helped me get to that place. So, I’ll get right to it. 

1. The diving reflex (or the ice pack trick)

“The diving reflex is the body’s physiological response to submersion in cold water and includes selectively shutting down parts of the body in order to conserve energy for survival,” —  “The Mammalian Diving Reflex” 

What does the diving reflex have to do with self-soothing? Given what we know about what happens to our body physiologically when diving into cold water, we can use a very scaled down version of this reflex to calm our bodies down during a panic or anxiety attack. What this look likes in practice is placing an ice pack on the back of your neck for a few minutes (not too long) or running your hands under cold water. The cold is a shock to your system that causes your heart rate to slow down and your blood pressure to decrease — forcing those “fight or flight” reflexes to literally chill out. **It should be noted that you shouldn’t do this if you have heart or blood pressure issues.**

When I first started the outpatient therapy program, I was so intimidated by group therapy sessions, that I started having anxiety attacks first thing in the morning when I got there. But, as the staff kept an ample supply of ice packs on hand, I was able to use this technique to calm myself down, and it really worked. Today, there’s a small ice pack in the freezer at work with my name on it, to use any time panic or anxiety strikes. 

2. Four-square breathing

There are lots of different versions of self-soothing breathing exercises out there, but I found this one to be the most helpful and easy to remember. It’s simply this: think of your breathing pattern as though it is in the shape of a square, with each side being 4 counts. You breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, exhale for four counts, and wait for four counts, then repeat. 4–4–4–4. If this doesn’t feel comfortable to you, practice whatever variation feels good to you: in for six, hold for two, out for six, etc. The point is to slow down your breathing to a normal, relaxed rate. When we’re anxious or panicking, our rate of breathing increases. So, this can help you get back on track to a normal breathing rate.

I use four-square breathing all the time during my life now — at work, on the bus, in the car — wherever. It doesn’t have to be obvious or intrusive — you don’t need to inhale and exhale loudly. It can be quiet and calm breaths that bring you to a more peaceful place.

3. Grounding

No, it’s not about giving yourself a time-out. Well, in a way, it sort of is…it’s giving your brain a time-out from negative thoughts. 

“Grounding is a set of simple strategies to detach from emotional pain…Distraction works by focusing outward on the external world, rather than inward toward the self. You can also think of it as ‘distraction,’ ‘centering,’ ‘a safe place,’ ‘looking outward,’ or ‘healthy detachment.’” —  Seeking Safety by Lisa M. Najavits (2002) 

Here are some examples of different techniques taken from the same source as the text above. There are lots of different types of grounding within these categories; I chose to focus on the ones that I use regularly. 

  • Mental: Describe the environment around you. For example, I like to play the 5–4–3–2–1 senses “game”. I’ll use all my five senses to take in my surroundings, noticing 5 things I see, four things I hear, three things I can touch, two things I smell, and (if possible) one thing I taste. At the end I take a deep breath to re-center myself. I especially like using this technique on hikes, where my senses take in the beautiful surroundings of nature.
  • Physical: I have a rock that a friend polished for me that I carry around with me in my purse. Every time I feel stressed or anxious, I take it out and hold it in my hand, noticing its texture, temperature, the way it feels in my hand. I focus my energy on the rock, instead of on my negative emotions. You can do this with any object around you: a pen, a ring, or whatever you happen to have on hand. 
  • Soothing: For me, I have a safe place that I picture — a strong memory — and I try to focus on it and remember as much detail about it as possible, including all of the senses. (What did it smell like there, how did my skin feel, what sounds did I hear, etc.)

Notice any patterns about the above grounding techniques? They all involve the senses and focusing on something besides your current emotional state. By focusing on those things, it helps us re-center ourselves and not let our emotions gain total control over us. 

With grounding, and all of these self-soothing techniques, I’ve been able to come out of my shell more; I’ve been able to experience life more, and regain control over my emotions. Right now the windows are open, it’s warm from an unusually sunny early-Spring day, I smell cumin and chili powder — the taste of it still in my mouth from eating a hearty burrito. I hear my dog breathing as he sleeps, and my boyfriend brushing his teeth downstairs. I feel the smooth keys of the keyboard beneath my fingers as I type this sentence, and I feel safe. 

Do you have any self-soothing tips you’d like to share that work well for you? If so, leave them in the comments. Until next time, here’s the song of the week…