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URMC / BHP / BHP Blog / May 2021 / The Science of Self-Soothing

The Science of Self-Soothing

By: Melissa Nunes-Harwitt, LMSW

Your body has a range of ways to respond to threatening situations. When your environment is stressful or you feel stuck, you may experience strong negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger, despair, fear, or shame. Alternatively, you may be completely numb inside.

Having powerful reactions can be exciting and frightening at the same time. If you grew up in a home where people commonly yelled or cried, intensity may be almost comfortingly familiar. But you may also worry that the emotions will never subside or that you are acting inappropriately. If you’ve been feeling blank or detached, you may have been initially relieved at the lack of pain, but then have started wondering if you were incapable of emotion. You may have isolated yourself from others and have an even greater sense of disconnection as a result. 

Self-soothing refers to the process of calming yourself when your body is on high alert. COVID-19 has likely kept you from your usual ways of improving your mood, such as spending time with friends or going to the gym. You can use self-soothing methods to regain a sense of peace even while alone. 

Researcher Stephen Porges developed polyvagal theory to provide a physical explanation for those strong reactions and how to address them. His theory is based on an understanding of how your body reacts to danger and establishes safety. Nerves send messages among different parts of the body. The signals that come from the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) generate the "fight or flight" response: in the face of perceived danger, they prepare your body for motion to face the threat or escape. 

Within the parasympathetic branch of the ANS, the vagus nerve produces low-intensity states. The dorsal vagal provides the "freeze" response, getting you through difficult situations by making you feel detached or closed off from what is happening. In contrast, the ventral vagal nerve (VVN) identifies signs of safety and allows for low-intensity stillness that helps you feel calm, centered, and open to social connection. 

When you are activated to the level where you feel out of control, or shut down such that you have trouble functioning, that is your body trying to cope with perceived danger through the fight/flight/freeze mechanisms. Everything feels overwhelming because those states are intended for crisis situations, not for dealing with daily life. Strengthening the VVN can remind you that there is no immediate catastrophe and bring you back to yourself.

Here are a few ways you can activate the VVN on your own to increase your sense of safety and stability: 

Recall positive social connections. When you think about people being angry or upset, your body may assess that as a threat. Think of someone who makes you feel good: a friend, someone you remember from a long time ago, even a character from your favorite show. Close your eyes and imagine them sitting in front of you at a comfortable distance. See them smiling at you, waving or holding your hand, speaking to you in an affectionate tone. 

Hum, chant, or sing. The VVN runs through the throat. Repeated vocalization can produce a feeling of calm – no singing experience required! If you have ever enjoyed singing with other people, picture them singing along with you for an added boost. 

Laugh. Preliminary research suggests that laughter can have positive effects on mood via the VVN. Look for books or shows that you find amusing. Which writers, bloggers, or comedians literally make you LOL?

Do yoga. Activities that require conscious body positioning and internal regulation call on the VVN’s function of allowing safe stillness. There are yoga videos on YouTube or you can practice simple positions you already know.

Breathe slowly. Managing breathing patterns requires self-control and strengthens the VVN just like yoga does. Slow breathing also slows your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure.

If you have been feeling overwhelmed or shut down emotionally, Behavioral Health Partners are here to help.

Behavioral Health Partners is brought to you by Well-U, offering eligible individuals mental health services for stress, anxiety, and depression. Our team of mental health professionals can accurately assess your symptoms and make recommendations for treatment. To schedule an intake appointment, give us a call at (585) 276-6900.


Bunn, T. (2020, April 1). That advice on calming yourself isn’t working, is it?

Sullivan, M.B., Erb, M., Schmalzl, L., Moonaz, S., Taylor, J.N., and Porges, S.W. (2018). Yoga therapy and polyvagal theory: The convergence of traditional wisdom and contemporary neuroscience for self-regulation and resilience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12(67). doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00067

Yuen, A.W.C, and Sander, J.W. (2017, February). Can natural ways to stimulate the vagus nerve improve seizure control? Epilepsy & Behavior, 67, 105-110. doi:10.1016/j.yebeh.2016.10.039.

Keith Stein | 5/1/2021

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