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Self-Care vs. Self-Soothing: What's the Difference & Why You Need Both

By Marissa Tolero

FRI JUL 09, 2021

I woke up at 6:15 this morning. I was so tired and didn’t want to get out of bed. My mind was exhausted from a long day of work yesterday and my body was tired due to an infection I’ve been taking antibiotics for. Pushing the OFF button to my alarm was never so tempting.

Yet my first session was at 8am and I had to send emails beforehand, otherwise the morning would get away from me. It was a morning-run day (I alternate between yoga and running) and I knew I would feel so much better if I went. I’d have more energy sustained through the day. I’d have more mental clarity because that’s “me” time where I work out and process a lot of things so they don’t show up at inappropriate times later. I’d wake my body up, working through any anxiety or residual nervous system activation from the day before. I know all this from “data” I’ve gathered by doing it many times before.

No matter how much of an argument I lodged for staying in bed, I knew I’d feel so much better. So I got up and ran. And it worked.

This is my self-care, at least part of it. I have yoga+therapy sessions starting at 8am and getting up early for a movement practice is what makes me a better therapist and yoga teacher. I do it for myself so I can show up as much as possible for the people I work with. It’s as much for them as it is for me. That’s how self-care works - prioritizing yourself has benefits to those around you.

Most folks these days have at least a general idea of what self-care is. It’s time and space to recharge and take care of yourself. It looks different for everyone. For one person it might be journaling while another it’s dancing while another it’s going for a walk. It also ebbs and flows based on the context of your life. For example, earlier this week I was too weak and exhausted to run because of the infection, so I went for a slow walk instead.

There’s a concept that isn’t as well-known as self-care. It’s similar and related, but not the same thing. It’s called self-soothing. The biggest distinction between the two is that self-care is an ongoing practice that’s built into your regular routine. In this sense, it’s a form of maintenance - it maintains your mental health. Self-soothing, on the other hand, is about intervention in the moment. When you get upset, angry, anxious, etc., self-soothing steps in to deactivate your nervous system so you can engage from a more present, non-threatened state.

An example of self-soothing is a breathing exercise. I would like to say I have a “fancier” technique than that, but breathing is really one of the best there is. It literally teaches your nervous system that you're safe and you don’t have to go into fight or flight at this moment. This message makes it way back to your brain, which then continues to send the message back to the body that you’re safe and okay.

There’s no one breathing exercise better than the other and there's plenty try out, but even taking just 20 deep breaths already brings me from a “10” on the distress scale to a “7” or so. Another type of self-soothing that works for me is petting my dog, Jessie. She instantly makes me feel calmer from the softness of her fur, the warmth in her eyes, and the steady breathing of her chest.

These things don’t eliminate what I’m distressed about, but they bring it down a notch to where I can think in a clear and productive way about how I want to respond, where it's manageable. Again, these are self-soothing techniques as opposed to self-care. So while self-soothing in the moment might be breathing and petting my dog, ongoing self-care for me is yoga, running, walking, journaling, listening to podcasts, spending time with my partner and friends, reading a book for fun, amongst other things.

Here’s some more about the differences between self-care and self-soothing:

As you can see, self-care is a regular practice that sets the point from which you engage with people, challenges, and the world. This means if you have consistent self-care, your nervous system is pretty regularly at a lower distress state than it would be if you weren’t doing those things.

Self-care keeps your baseline at a lower level.

So when you do get distressed, the necessity or intensity of self-soothing may not be as much as when you don’t do self-care at all. Self-care also makes self-soothing more accessible. If you regularly teach yourself that you're important and a priority, then taking the time out to self-soothe won’t feel silly or like a waste of time, but will feel absolutely necessary.

While there are all these distinctions between self-care and self-soothing, there are many similarities. For one, they're both skills to be learned and practiced - we aren’t born knowing how to do these things. They both require time and space, which is a hard one, I know. We live in a capitalistic system that is vying for your time and space. Even when you take just a few minutes to yourself, you feel the difference. Self-care and self-soothing are necessary for mental, emotional, and nervous system health. They both are equally important as companions in your life. Finally, they both go against the grain of what you’ve been taught. Our families, peers, employers, media, and a lot of other influences have told us that taking care of ourselves is selfish. However, keep reminding yourself that doing these things for yourself is enough of a reason, but it will also benefit others, your work, your obligations, and everything else in your life!


If you're interested in learning more about self-care and self-soothing and would like to work with me to implement these in your life, schedule a complimentary consultation for yoga+therapy today.

For some self-soothing tools, be sure to check out my audio guided meditation called Self-Soothing Breath as well as the Self-Soothing Checklist I made of options for when you're feeling distressed!