In high stress and uncomfortable situations our human response is to regulate what we feel by turning to what’s comfortable. This is a behavior we engage in from the very beginning of life. As a baby, depending on our attachment to our caregiver, we seek out the comfort of their arms in distress or fear. As children, we have a blanket or favorite teddy that soothes us when we lay down at night. On the surface, this does not seem problematic - and as children it’s not. However, as we get older what’s comfortable doesn’t always equate to what’s helpful or healthy for us. Those people, places, or things we excessively seek to reduce stress become emotional crutches. It’s what we excessively lean on to carry us through our current experience. Physical crutches in times of limited mobility help us to move along for a period, until we can stand on our own two feet again. Emotional crutches; however, do not have the same effect. Emotional crutches more times than not KEEP us immobile and dependent.
The common desire underlying crutches is the need and want to soothe. Whatever the pain, trauma, discomfort or stress is, we want a balm to restore us to a place of ease. Many of us need soothing from this year alone. It’s the beginning of a new school year that has brought much instability for some in higher education. Parents are concerned about their children attending school in person, or maneuvering through the homeschooling process. There's also the continual systemic attempt to dispose of Black lives and treat African Americans as second class citizens, if that. Of course, we also have personal, financial and relational life happenings that continue to impact us. I think it’s safe to say the need for methods to soothe is vital.
Our past experiences and environments have taught us certain ways of self-soothing. It’s taught us quick fixes to get through to the next moment. Traumatic experiences and chronic stress cause us to live in survival mode, relying on the bare minimum to keep functioning. Practically, this can look like:
Routine substance use (alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes, prescribed medication, etc.)
Overindulgence (TV, social media, food, caffeine, etc.)
Going back to people who are not healthy for us
Surrounding ourselves with yes men
We take those crutches with us wherever we go in the name of trying to make it through. To be honest, it’s easy to lean on these crutches for two reasons - it's familiar and brings immediate gratification.
In order to self-soothe, we must first be self-aware. What exactly is causing discomfort or stress? Answering this question, gives us direction in what to focus on. The next question: how do I respond in times of distress and discomfort? This will highlight our crutches. Here’s the part that may be difficult - being open to trying something new. To develop healthy habits of self-soothing, we have to be open and willing to forfeit the immediate, yet temporary gratification our crutches have provided. If not, we will become immune to simply functioning and not thriving.
Consequences of not being able to self-soothe:
Gradual emotional numbness
Arrested development - we do not grow because we're stuck in a holding pattern of difficulty moving through distress
Exploding on others
Shutting down or stonewalling, which happens because of our internal struggles to process and healthily respond to what's difficult
Ways to healthily self-soothe
In self-soothing, there’s no one size fits all solution. There's also multiple techniques that may work in difference seasons of life. Here are some common ways to healthily self-soothe.
Engage your senses. There are many simple and effect ways to engage our five senses to help us calm ourselves in the midst of distress, If you like alcohol or are addicted to caffeine, consider making tea. The process of making tea can be soothing and is a refreshing substitute to wake you up, or mellow you out. If you overindulge in food, try mindful eating. Taking showers or baths can help to ease your mind and body. Lighting a candle or adding essential oils can create an entire ambiance, and bring in your other sense - smell!
Are you one to rely on situationships and the company of others to bring comfort to you?There are ways to find activities that release oxytocin , dopamine and other hormones and chemicals that allow us to feel pleasure. Depending on your situation, a more tailored approached can be developed with the help of a professional mental health provider.
Developing the habit of healthily self-soothing requires the denial of instant gratification. I challenge you to honestly ask yourself: Do I want instant and temporary gratification? Or am I willing to do the work to develop long term healthy habits that will not impede on my independence? Remember, emotional crutches gradually keep us immobile and dependent. My desire is for us to stand on our own two feet.
Be flexible. Be kind to yourself, and do the work.
Let me know what you have used as crutches and how you healthily self-soothe!
Rooting for you, always.
Diamond James, LCSWA