The ability to tolerate emotional distress be self-soothing is a skill known as “Emotion Regulation,” which is defined as “the process whereby an individual shapes which emotions they have, when they have the emotion and how they experience and express the emotion .”
Research indicates that individuals with eating disorders struggle with the ability to regulate their emotions. For example, individuals with anorexia nervosa (AN) have shown “poorer awareness and/or low clarity of emotions and more difficulties with emotion regulation, as well as less access to emotion regulation strategies compared to healthy controls .”
Additionally, those with eating disorders “have more maladaptive strategies for regulating emotions, such as avoidance and suppression, and fewer adaptive strategies, such as acceptance and reappraisal .” The lack of emotion regulation skills can lead to eating disorder development and maintenance, making emotion regulation skills such as self-soothing key to eating disorder recovery.
What is Self-Soothing?
The term self-soothing is pretty self-explanatory, encapsulating the ability that one has to “manage or regulate tension .” The skill of an individual self-soothing throughout the developmental lifespan is “believed to develop through the internalization of earlier soothing or comforting experiences .” Essentially, the more an individual experiences soothing or comforting experiences as a child, the more effective they are to adapt these experiences to coping in adulthood which impacts their ability to regulate emotions and self-soothe.
Acknowledging Painful Emotions
To begin self-soothing, one must first recognize a need to self-soothe. For many individuals with eating disorders, their behaviors acted as a way to “numb” pain or temporarily escape discomfort.
These individuals must learn to practice mindfulness of their emotions, recognizing them nonjudgmentally. This can direct the individual to which specific self-soothing skill is most appropriate.
Soothing the Senses
The most common methods of self-soothing involve tapping into the five senses. This often allows individuals to do what is known as “grounding,” getting outside of the chaos of their mind or emotions and connecting with the environment around them.
This might involve completing the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, where an individual lists five things they can see, four things they can touch, three things they hear, two things they can smell, and one thing they can taste. Some skills help an individual to calm the mind without facing the distressing situation, such as using aromatherapy or lotions, eating or drinking something comforting, listening to music or the sounds around them, describing what one can see in their immediate environment, one-mindfully touching fabrics near them or any number of other skills.
Self-Soothing can also mean using journaling, drawing, or painting to process the experience and channel the distressing emotion effectively. Entering into nature is a popular self-soothing skill, as it allows one to escape the chaos of everyday life while also engaging with the five senses and possibly gaining the perspective that only the power and vastness of nature can bring.
The beautiful thing about self-soothing is that it is uniquely yours. No one else needs to understand or be a part of what soothes you. It is your ability to cut through the noise of emotional distress and find a place of connection, peace, and perspective.
Resources: Larsson, K. H. et al. (2020). Emotion regulation group skills training: A pilot study of an add-on treatment for eating disorders in a clinical setting. Journal of Eating Disorders, 8:12.  Esplen, M. J., Garfinkel, P. E. (1998). Guided imagery treatment to promote self-soothing in bulimia nervosa: a theoretical rationale. The Journal of Psychotherapy Practice & Research,7:2.
About the Author:
Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.
As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published March 8, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on March 8, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC