Self-Soothe Yourself

Richard Citrin Ph.D., MBA
Richard Citrin Ph.D., MBA

I was playing golf with a friend the other day and he had a series of bad shots. In the past, I would not be surprised to hear him let out an expletive or even toss a club into the nearest pond.

Instead, I noticed he started whistling softly as he walked off the green and onto the next hole. He seemed much calmer than usual and after a few holes, I asked him about the change, and he told me that a golf instructor suggested it to him as a way to better manage his frustration.

He told me he found his whistling to be soothing and that it helped settle him down.

The notion of “self-soothing,” is simple in its approach and elegant in its outcomes. From a stress and resilience perspective, we often find that we don’t have a way to calm down when feeling challenged. The typical solution is to take some deep breaths, which helps slow down the heart rate and create some calmness. New research is suggesting that a more active approach known as “self-soothing” can help replace problem behaviors with new more efficient outcomes.

Some of habits may include nail biting, cheek biting, knuckle cracking and teeth grinding and cigarette smoking. They often manifest when under stress and some like smoking can be dangerous. Self-soothing represents a “habit-replacement” idea that settles down our nervous system. The technique developed by Dr Stefan Moritz (himself a nail biter) involves softly engaging the arms and hands with gentle tapping of the fingers, crossing the arms and stroking the forearms or circling fingers on the palm of the other hand.

I had the chance to apply a similar strategy for myself regarding a nasty little life-long habit of mine.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve experiences onychophagia—nail biting. I know it is related to anxiety and gets a bit worse when I am under stress. I remember a physician scolding me about it. I told him it was related to anxiety and that I knew I could stop my nail biting, but it would probably require me taking up smoking. He told me to stay with my nail biting.

In Moritz’s study, 54% of participants showed improvements in their nail-biting behaviors and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to add my name to his list. My nails started to look so good, I went and got a manicure to memorialize them!

Self-soothing is a great resilience strategy that you probably already use but may not recognize. We all have our negative ways of dealing with stress and anxiety. Finding a soothing solution may just help reduce or eliminate some of that tension and strengthen our resilience.

© Richard Citrin 2023

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