6 somatic soothing practices that saved my life — especially during periods of grief, anxiety, and isolation
My mother was not perfect, but she was mine. Body rolls and all.
As a child, I knew exactly what to do when I began to feel any waves of angst stir up in my belly — which was most evenings.
As the male crickets sang their mating song, I set myself up behind my mama on the plush brown chair in the living room. Curled behind her, tiny legs cradling lumpy waist, I would reach out and grab a fistful of her soft flesh like mocassins and exploit their thickness.
Those six ridges — three on each side — on her back were mine: my soothing childhood time machine that transported me into heaven worlds.
As embarrassing as it is to say, this habit persisted into my adulthood — albeit less frequently of course — until she died.
When I needed soothing the most, the person who had been my haven of comfort and rooting was no longer around.
I had to quickly relearn how to self-soothe, and some of the practices I share here are what saved my life, and hopefully might be able to help you during periods of turmoil.
Self-care versus self-soothing
You might have heard a lot of talk about self-care in mainstream culture, but before you can explore self-care in order to thrive in your life, you need the appropriate self-soothing skills to survive the present moment — breathe by breath and ride out intensely painful emotions.
When a person experiences extreme trauma like that caused by the death of a loved one, their entire being shifts into survival mode, and most people regress into childlike helplessness.
During periods like this last harrowing stretch of time in which the world was plunged into massive chaos that came from relentless uncertainty around Covid-19, unbearable grief from the loss of millions of lives, and isolation born out of enduring existential loneliness, we need tools to help us survive the present moment.
When there is no one around you, self-soothing touch can be a way out of the burgeoning darkness because touch turns off the threat switch in the body.
You were born instinctively knowing how to self-soothe
All babies self-soothe themselves for example by sucking on their thumbs or wrists. Anxiety is a reality we all need to deal with sooner or later and how you support yourself through it makes a significant difference.
If you struggle to calm down or have a highly charged and wound-up nervous system due to grief or unresolved trauma from your past, in this article, I offer you six somatic practices that you can take along your life journey and provide yourself with somatic compassion when needed.
What exactly is Self- Soothing?
Self-soothing is a practice that helps you calm and comfort yourself when you are in the grips of emotional overload, and it literally saved my life in the months after the death of my mother.
Self-soothing helps you find a middle ground between experiencing numbness and emotional crisis. When you self-soothe, you create sensations that say there is no emergency and helps your body’s alert system regain equilibrium and calmness.
If you are sipping tea cuddled under a warm fuzzy blanket, there must be no reason for your body’s alarm signals to fire.
There are many ways to self-soothe using the different senses. Still, according to studies, touch is one of the most potent senses for self-soothing because it reduces the release of cortisol in response to psychological stress, as well as stimulates the vagus nerve which is intimately connected to our compassionate response.
Touch also stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter, oxytocin, as well as endogenous opioids, which help us regulate our emotions as well as manage stress and pain.
Six Somatic self-soothing practices
Moments of distress and overwhelm will always pop up in daily life. Here are six gentle somatic self-soothing practices that you can use when you are struggling with an overly sensitized and hyper-aroused nervous system.
1. Gentle hand technique
The gentle hand technique is one of my go-to practices and is essentially a self-parenting technique that works well alongside soothing music.
- When you are feeling stressed, triggered, or overwhelmed, close your eyes and focus on your body. In which area of your body do you feel the fear most strongly?
- Rest a gentle hand over that part of your body — like a mother would over her child.
- Wait a few seconds or so and focus on the hand gently resting over your fear.
- You can rub the area using a circular clockwise motion with the palm of your hand. You might find that any fear or anxiety you were experiencing starts decreasing after about a minute.
Self-holding is another way of saying “hug yourself” and is a practice that has been advocated by Peter Levine with the intention of anchoring and calming the nervous system by releasing oxytocin.
When you need some kindness, practice this technique by completing the steps below;
- Find a quiet place to sit down
- Place one hand on your forehead and the other hand on your heart.
- Place your attention on the space between your head and heart and just feel what is going on here. There might be sensations or energy changes. Try to remain there until you feel a shift. It could take 5 minutes or more.
- When you feel complete, move the hand on your forehead and place it on your belly. Repeat step 3 above.
- You can change your hand positions to crossing your hands across your chest and holding both shoulders, or hugging your waist.
I have found that this type of self-holding invokes deep feelings of self-compassion, forgiveness, and a softness that you can relax into.
When we are stressed our muscles tend to contract as it’s the body’s way of entering the fight or flight mode. Anxiety and fear cause this contraction to start evolving into deep-seated muscle tension and knots.
A study showed that massage which includes pressured touch reduces the stress hormone cortisol and increases the secretion of the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter serotine and the “happiness molecule” dopamine.
You don’t need much for self-massage — only your hands really, but I recommend that you get a tool if it is within your means.
- Use your hands to massage different parts of your body. I find that massaging my feet and my jaws is especially soothing.
- You can also try a Gua Sha Chinese massager or any one of the hand massagers on the market for kneading out knots in your neck and other parts of your body.
- Heat up a massage ball and lean against a wall with it.
Tapping is a self-soothing method used by the emotional freedom technique (EFT). Studies indicate that the self-touch therapy method of rapidly tapping meridian acupressure points alleviates stress, anxiety, depression, and various phobias
Tapping lowers cortisol levels in the body and helps regulate other stress indicators like heart rate, breathing, and body temperature. The EFT practice of tapping includes a 5-step process, but I like to keep it simple by performing my own tapping sequence as below. Instead of using the prescribed words, that include the issue at hand, I combine this practice with visualization. Here is how you can do it.
- Find a quiet place to sit and close your eyes
- As you tap each meridian point, imagine golden light from your fingers entering the part of your body you are tapping
The areas to tap are below:
- Tap your forehead and temples
- Tap under and between your eyes
- Tap under your nose
- Tap at the crease above your chin and on your collarbone
You can also allow your hands to move spontaneously and tap different parts of your body. Let your body intelligence take over.
Try it under stress; for even as little as two minutes, the effects are immediate and feel like a warm hug.
5. Havening Touch
Havening is another self-soothing practice that was developed by a neuropsychologist, Ronal Rudin, to eliminate the consequences that arise from stressful traumatic events. It is a psycho sensory approach in which you cross your arms over your chest and stroke yourself in a very kind way. Try stroking your face and arms this way for 5 -10 minutes at a time.
I tend to go to this practice as a last resort when nothing else seems to work, and it usually does the trick for me.
6. Invest in a weighted blanket
This self-soothing practice is on the expensive side, but it is worth it. If you are constantly on edge and the stress and anxiety of your loss or trauma are causing you sleepless nights, you might want to invest in a weighted blanket.
Weighted blankets work on the basis of applying deep touch pressure stimulation (DTPS) evenly across your body which releases happy chemicals in your brain that are responsible for relaxation.
- Choose the right blanket based on your body weight
- You can also use a deep pressure vest that tightly compresses your body like a hug.
Somatic Self-Soothing Activities
In addition to the practices above, you can also create a list of activities that help focus your mind and soothe your body when you are stressed.
Sometimes what is soothing for one situation might not work for a different situation. When your alert system is firing, physical activity like swimming may help. When the upset is more emotional or mental like feeling sad or ruminating, activities such as soaking in a bath may be more effective.
Use the list of activities below to create a list of 5–10 ideas of what to do in moments when you are feeling distressed to nurture yourself.
- Soak in a warm bath with Epsom salts or take a warm shower
- Float or swim in a pool or the ocean and feel the water caress your body
- Relax in the warmth of the sun
- Cuddle with a pet
- Hold a comforting object like a stuffed animal or favorite memento
- Sink into a comfortable bed or sofa and wrap yourself in a warm and fluffy blanket
- Change into comfortable clothing like your favorite sweatshirt or sweatpants, cozy socks, or anything that feels soft against your skin
- Snuggle up with a hot water bottle or castor oil pack
- Pop bubble wrap
- Play with fidget cubes, playdough, putty, spinners, and stress balls
- Engage in rhythmic activities like dancing, knitting, crocheting, biking, and swimming
- Place your hand over your heart and count your heartbeats
- Spend some time coloring in an adult coloring book
- Create art using your hands
- Play and instrument
- Massage your scalp
Please remember that although self-soothing will help you decrease anxiety and stress, it is not a cure for the underlying cause. It is only a temporal form of coping like a band-aid that will help you “keep yourself together” but won’t get you to the root cause of the issue.
It is important to eventually return and tend to the original source of distress and find healing at the root.
Be kind to yourself
Self-soothing helps you survive the present moment because it stimulates the compassion centers in the brain that counteracts extreme distress. As much as possible, try to make time to practice your self-soothing techniques and be patient with yourself as you experiment with the different practices and activities because not every self-soothing technique works for everyone.
The next time you feel the rise of anxiety or stress, remember to offer yourself some somatic compassion and notice the deep breath that arises and the feeling of serenity spreading through your body.