Soothing Sunday: When self-soothing goes wrong

Face it, the world is a crazy place. It seems to have become moreso in the past few years, no matter who you ask or what they think is craziest about it. Self-soothing is a fantastic way to keep your emotional state somewhere that allows you to function through it all.

It can go terribly wrong, though. There’s an extreme we don’t talk about much; pathological self-soothing.

Pathological self-soothing is what happens when your attempts to soothe become barriers instead of helping. It’s often born from a desire to escape. Keep in mind, soothing behaviors are to help regulate emotions, not flee the world. When you go into things that help you escape, you’re dancing on that dangerous edge.

Yes, there are times we all need to step back from the world and focus on ourselves. That is healthy so long as you set a time period for when you’ll step back in. Turning off electronics, not reading the news, spending an afternoon with a book are all a little escapist, but ultimately self-soothing ways to recharge your mental and emotional batteries.

Examples of pathological self-soothing are things that get in the way of your commitments, relationships, and goals in life. They include maladaptive actions such as thrill seeking, drug use (or self-medicating in any form), and in general, any soothing activity can become pathological if it starts to hinder you. 

Proper self-soothing is a focus on self, a way of helping yourself. It will never hold you back. It will never become something you can’t live without.

Suppose you go to the gym and find that time with your headphones playing music, your body working, and your mind focused more soothing than anything else you can do. That’s great. That’s appropriate use of self-soothing.

If you start spending every waking moment in the gym; rejecting invitations from friends and family; neglecting other aspects of your life; then you’re walking into that darker area. The fact is, any self-soothing behavior can become unhealthy.

So think about the self-soothing you use most. Has it kept you from doing things you need to do, or is it making you capable of completing tasks? Is it drawing you away from healthy relationships? Are you avoiding something unpleasant or trying to hide from a situation that you don’t want to face?

If your soothing has become a barrier, look for ways to balance it. Think through that difficult conversation you need to have with your partner instead of finding ways to avoid speaking. Do the chores and then set a timer that will let you have some soothing time in a healthy way. Call your friends and family, or visit if they’re close enough, and then take a break from social interaction for a little while.

If you try that and find yourself struggling, speak to your therapist for guidance on how to break free of that pattern. There may be a medication that will help, even in a temporary situation, so discuss it with a doctor. Keep your soothing practices healthy.

The world offers enough challenges, we don’t need to make extra work for ourselves. We deserve the breaks, and the opportunity to have a balanced, healthy mind and lifestyle.



All information, content, and material of this website is for informational purposes only and are not intended to serve as a substitute for the consultation, diagnosis, and/or medical treatment of a qualified physician or healthcare provider.

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