Well you may have seen the article about the beautiful baby goat called Polly who experiences a lot of health problems and anxiety. Her fur mum-Leanne Lauricella – stumbled across a duck outfit which instantly calmed Polly the moment she wore it.
So whilst, I’ve sneakily and purposefully (maybe even shamelessly!) swiped her headline, I’ve done so because:
a) I found this such a beautiful, uplifting and inspiring story (especially as having been a foster mum to doggies, one of whom was so anxious when she arrived and its taken 2 years for her to finally jump onto the sofa and sleep without waiting for me to sit with her),
b) because it really inspired me to think about us ‘hooman’s’ (dog language as one dog is on my lap as I type!) experiencing anxiety. What can we do if we don’t have the fluffy duck costume to soothe and calm us? We might feel more anxious and self-conscious if we went around wearing one, but surely there are ways in which we can get ourselves to a place of calm.
It led me to a bigger question which is ‘how do we self-soothe?’. As babies, we self-soothe by thumb sucking or suckling at our mother’s breast. As we grow, we develop habits that may not be healthy but do comfort us.
I think healthy self-soothing and self-calming are habits that we have almost lost. Many of us have experienced a significant increase in anxiety as a result of Covid, so it makes sense to review what soothes and calms us. If we can see that what we are doing is unhealthy, we can change so that we are nurturing and supporting our wellbeing. This increases our mental and emotional resilience.
What are self-soothing behaviours that create a sense of calm that aren’t always healthy?
Simply put these are behaviours developed -often in childhood- to soothe our anxious states. However whilst some are self-nurturing and supportive, others can be quite damaging long term. Some damaging examples include:
- Hair twirling or tying into knots, twisting or pulling out
- Nail, cuticle biting (including skin around the nails)
- Thumb or finger sucking
- Pulling out eyelashes or eyebrows
- Picking at skin, sores, spots, scratches, or scabs that in the process of healing
- Self harm such as cutting
- Rocking and/or head banging
We may not like the behaviours- and even we might find them abhorrent and distressing, but to the person who is anxious, this will be the soothing behaviours that they have learned, and it has a purpose and meaning. Taking them away is going to increase anxiety, so the next best thing is to replace them with healthy nurturing behaviours. By setting the intention to change these unhealthy behaviours means we have a great chance to shift to behaviours that support us.
Returning To Unhealthy Behaviours and Recognising Them
As a child and when particularly stressed I used to be a nail biter and a hair twirler and pull out my hair. Over the years I began to recognise the behaviours as the point at which my stress was out of control and outwardly manifesting, and I learned to recognise this trigger and put things in place to self-soothe in a more nurturing and healthy way.
Last year I noticed I’d returned to nail-biting. Though outwardly I seemed to others to be coping with shielding and self-isolation as part of Covid lockdown, I caught myself nibbling on my nails then having a fascination to bite them down to the quick (yes- a big ‘Ouch’).
Once I realised that this old trigger had resurfaced, I was able to deploy a kinder and gentler way to soothe myself. Yes even us coaches experience anxiety and fall back into our old childhood patterns! The trick is to recognise the trigger then deploy your calming toolkit.
Good Self-soothing Calming Techniques
Here’s a list of healthy self-soothers that can replace the not-so-healthy learned behaviours.
Distraction: Movie, music, books, cooking, cleaning, painting, DIY, old hobbies revisited, new hobbies, magazines, zoom/facebook room/skype calls,
- Smell: Aromatherapy oils, diffusers, oil burners, scented roll-on skin oils, room sprays, perfumes,
- Touch: furry rug, bubbles in the bath, oiling a smooth stainless steel surface, warm bath water, stroking and caring for pets, plastic bubble-popping
- Taste: Tasting lemons or limes, sugar on pancakes or donuts (don’t lick your lips- or eat too many!), tasting freshly squeezed orange juice, herbal tea, warm milk with honey, and a pinch of nutmeg
- Sound: Guided meditation, ocean sounds, rain, white noise, birdsong, all forms of music, solfeggio frequencies
- Sight: Beautiful artwork, visualisation, landscapes, vistas, the beach and sea, kaleidoscopes
Incorporating one, or several of these can help you move from poor self-soothing behaviours to ones that really nurture and help you thrive.
Try The Healthier Alternatives
When I recognised that I was back to nail-biting and the occasional hair twisting, I made a real effort to recognise when I was actually doing it. I stopped and started with a distraction technique. I picked two- my favourite go-to’s – which are putting on my diffuser, and calming music. Then I got on with my day. If I went back to nail-biting or picking, I’d stop and change to a different distraction technique. It took me a few days to get past the initial habit of nail-biting, and another few weeks to get past the natural ‘default’ of picking them. But it worked.
How about you? Have you noticed some self-soothing behaviours that aren’t so healthy for you? What is it for you? What did you do to change these to a more nurturing type of self-support? I’d love to hear your thoughts and the action you’ve taken to get to a place of self-calm and nurturing in healthy ways. Please leave a comment and let me know how you are doing.