Evoking the Mammalian Brain Response - Why Self-Soothing Works (DBT)



Self-soothing is an incredibly effective coping mechanism for people with Borderline Personality Disorder, the emotionally sensitive, and humanity as a whole.

Why? It works.

When we are feeling distressed, primitive stress responses still arise in our modern-day brains an attempt to protect us from perceived danger. The problem is, even when we are not in real danger, say as in when we are responding emotionally to memories from the past -- no imminent danger -- our brains can react as if we are, causing us to panic and activating parts of our nervous system that trigger into fight or flight mode. Our amygdala goes on red alert. 

Here is where we can use the DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skill of Self-Soothing to calm our nervous system and help restore peace and equilibrium to our state of being. 

Using self-soothing when emotionally triggered, such as when:

  • Feeling or fearing being abandoned
  • Feeling lonely or empty
  • Feeling shame or guilt
  • Feeling distressed
can help to improve our mood and get us through difficult, painful moments.


Today, I watched this video featuring Dr. Kristin Neff of the University of Texas.  In it, she talks about how something as simple as taking a compassionate posture, such as gently placing one hand on top of the other over our heart and holding that pose, can begin to calm the nervous system. When our skin senses the warmth of our hands on our chest and the slight pressure, it begins to feel soothed and comforted.

Take a moment to give it a try before moving on. Notice if you feel a bit soothed.

Self-soothing compassionate posture

According to Dr. Neff, warm, gentle touch activates our mammalian brain, rather than our more primitive reptilian brain.

This philosophy is really in alignment with what my yoga teacher is always mentioning before we go into savasana (final resting pose at the end of class), as she turns off the lights and makes sure we all have a warm blanket over us, that our nervous systems love, dark, warmth, and quiet.

Babies learn to self-soothe when they are allowed to suckle for comfort and to play with and hold their hands and feet. They also receive soothing from a loving caregivers embrace and gentle stroking.  If we experience trauma early on in our lives, this can cause a disruption in our ability to develop self-soothing mechanisms. The good new is, we can learn and start practicing them now.  And, when we integrate them, we can notice a difference in how we feel.

Self-soothing can be done through any of the five senses:

Sight - looking at something we deem beautiful or peaceful
Sound - listen to relaxing music, nature sounds, the ticking of a clock
Touch - swaddling in a blanket, petting a furry kitty or dog, holding a stuffed animal, get a massage
Smell - lighting a scented candle, spraying our bedding with lavender linen spray
Taste - having a piece of flavorful hard candy or some chocolate, drinking hot tea

By self-soothing -- taking the time to calm our nervous system -- we build up emotional resilience so that we are better able to handle life's day to day stressors and distressing situations.

Did you ever learn to self-soothe? What self-soothing activities do you find most helpful?


Thanks for reading.
More Soon.

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