Sensory and Somatic Self-Soothing

Somatic self-soothing techniques have recently gained much popularity in the therapy world, and for good reason. These approaches help us regulate our nervous systems in incredibly powerful ways that don’t require us to articulate what we’re feeling verbally. When we’re in a trauma response, it’s nearly impossible to accurately describe what we’re feeling, what’s hurting, what’s just been triggered, etc. Somatic approaches to getting our needs met allow us to get the help we need without struggling to say why. Here are a few tools you can put in your self-regulation box that can be used any time you’re feeling dysregulated, agitated, activated, etc--no matter the type of disturbance.

Butterfly hug/monkey tap: Did you know that in nature, primates cross their arms over their chest and tap back and forth on their shoulders to self-soothe? Here you can cross your arms over your chest at your shoulders, or bring them down closer to your elbows (but still crossed). Slowly tap back and forth for as long as feels good. If it’s not comfortable or accessible to cross your arms, you can also place your hands on your knees and tap, tap your feet, or make “OK” signs with your thumb/index finger for the same effect. I never give a specific time for how long to engage in this technique because it’s about getting back in touch with--or getting to know for the first time--your body and nervous system.

4-7-8 breath: This technique is simple: breathe in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7, and breathe out for a count of 8. On the out breath, purse your lips like you’re blowing through a straw. This particular out breath helps stimulate the vagus nerve, which brings your parasympathetic nervous system online. Remember learning about the “rest and digest” system in high school science? That’s the PSNS! It helps the body relax and return to day-to-day, resting functioning. Repeat this breath anywhere between 5-10 times.

Color counting: Take a good, long look around, making sure you get a wide range of motion (i.e. not just straight ahead). It doesn’t matter where you are (laying in bed, at the office, on the train, at dinner). As you scan the space, notice what items catch your attention and name them, either silently or aloud. (Out loud is best but if you’re in a space where that’s not possible, totally ok!). For instance, on the train: “I see a blue t shirt… a silver/grey seat… a red pair of shoes… a green flower pattern lunchbox.” If you are able, settle on one item that really catches your eye and feel into it--the shape, the texture, the color, and anything else that draws you in.

If you struggle to remember when and how to use these techniques, I suggest strategically placed post-its around your house or, better yet, a note in your phone with a list. Keep it simple, because when you’re activated, it can be really challenging to recall what you can do to self-soothe. Note: if you think you might benefit from trauma-focused therapy, please only engage in grounding and self-soothing strategies on your own--do not attempt to guide yourself through the trauma work! The more advanced stages of trauma processing can feel overwhelming and at times unsettling. I always advise that you seek professional, specialized support for the next stages of this work.

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