By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
Things have been tough lately. Stress is running high, summer plans are in full swing, and it seems like you can’t slow down, despite how bad you want to.
Today’s post is all about what you can do to help those stress levels while you are on the go.
What is Self-Soothing
Self-soothing is a form of distress tolerance. When you think of self-soothing, what comes to your mind? For me, it’s an image of a toddler who is screaming and a parent telling them to calm down. That’s kind of what is happening in our brain: that darn amygdala is throwing a hissy fit and the prefrontal cortex is acting all parental and telling it to calm down.
How to Self-Soothe
One way to self soothe is by using your senses. As we’ve talked about in the Brain and Mental Health: A Basic Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively), our senses are the main way our darn amygdala gets information. So let’s give it some positive intake to tell that darn amygdala to calm down.
When going through these skills, we are trying to get that darn amygdala (and the rest of the brain) to see the full picture of what is going on, not just the negative things your brain is picking up on. As we engage in activities that get our senses to give that full picture, we have to pick activities that release the feel good neurotransmitters. For instance, choosing to eat your favorite food, playing your favorite game, or walking in your favorite part of town, or even listening to your favorite song can release endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and GABA.
Taking time to practice self-soothing (there I go again with practicing) daily for 15 minutes decreases our stress levels and increases the healing of the hippocampus. Plus, the benefits of participating in self-soothing include regular release of those feel good neurotransmitters, which helps keeps our mental health in check. Who would have thought that taking time to, I don’t know, enjoy life, could have some positive outcomes on your life?
IMPROVE your Self-Soothing skills
Another great way To self-sooth is through the use of the acronym IMPROVE. IMPROVE stands for:
- One thing in the Moment
With using imagery, we are using our hippocampus to recall positive memories, feelings, and experiences (under the direction of the prefrontal cortex of course). As we do, we release the neurotransmitters GABA, dopamine, and glutamate. These, if you remember, help decrease the release of cortisol and the other stress neurotransmitters.
Prayer as a Self-Soothing Skill
Next, we have prayer. Before you go running away from my blog, hear me out. Prayer has been clinically shown to increase the activity in the prefrontal cortex (Sandoiu, 2018). It has been seen that prayer, similar to the meditation we discussed in Mindfulness: The Art of Becoming Calm, Cool, and Collected, improves our ability to focus, decreases the triple F response, and releases the feel-good neurotransmitters. Now, prayer can be directed towards your own higher power. That may be God, Allah, YHWH, Brahman, Vishnu, Shiva (or even the kitchen light when you pay your electric bill).
Relaxing as a Self-Soothing Tool
Ahhh, relaxation. We have spent some time talking about mindfulness but engaging in an activity that truly relaxes you will help self-sooth by lowering the release of acetylcholine, loosening your muscles, lower your heart rate, and help you breathe easy. Not to mention, doing something that relaxes you also help release those feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and GABA.
Take a Vacation
VACATION! Who doesn’t like a mini vacation? By taking a mental break from our stress, we are accomplishing several things (none of which are labeled as procrastination):
- Releasing oxytocin into our brains
- Participating in something we enjoy
- Physically removing ourselves from the stress
- Honoring what you need
Taking a break and thinking only about the work you need to do isn’t going to help anything. If you feel a bit called out, good! Taking a brain break takes practice. Start first with taking 5 minutes to focus on something you enjoy (like a mini brain vacation if you will). Think only about the positive feelings that come from that mini break. This will help trigger the release of serotonin and dopamine and help you feel fueled up to tackle the stress, again.
Last, but not least, we have encouragement. By offering yourself words of support, you are enforcing a positive self-esteem. I’m not saying you need to be all mushy and positive. Saying “I’m a strong beautiful person” sometimes is overkill. By offering yourself a more realistic support, like “the last time I was this stress I did (insert what you did) that helped.” When we do this, we are pulling facts from our hippocampus and releasing dopamine. We may even produce some oxytocin if we treat ourselves like human beings in that moment of stress.
Whew! That is a lot of ways to help soothe your summertime stress! Thank you for letting me be part of your self-care journey. Keep taking care of yourself, you deserve it!
- Guided Imagery & Visualization | Student Wellness Center (dartmouth.edu)
- Sandoui, Aana (2018). What religion does to your brain. Retrieved from The neuroscience of religious and spiritual experience (medicalnewstoday.com)
- Weber, Carissa (2021). The Brain and Mental Health: A Basic Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively). Retrieved from www.thatdarnamygdala.com