Why “Self-Soothing” is a Bad Idea



Long ago, in the time of the sabertooth tiger, we developed a survival tool -- the “fight, flight and freeze” responses.


And we still use them today. Briefly, when faced with danger, humans get a burst of adrenaline that switches off less important body functions like digestion or lactation, and prepares you to fight an attacker, or flee dangerous situations with superhuman amounts of strength and energy. But just in case this doesn't work, we also developed a back-up response.


We learned how to freeze.


The “freeze” response shuts down the whole body so as to appear dead. This is an attempt to become less visible, or to fool a predator into thinking that the victim is inedible because they are already dead. It may also serve to make the victim numb in the event they are eaten.


Also way back when, people carried babies all the time.


Humans did not always live in relatively safe shelters like houses and apartments. Babies are helpless for quite a period of time and dependent on their parents for food, safety and protection. Back then, if you set your baby down and walked away, there was a good chance your baby would not be there when you got back. So families kept babies close and responded to their signals quickly, so as not to attract the attention of predators looking for an easy meal.


Baby has a need-->mom responds-->need is met-->baby survives.


At first, babies coo or whimper, if there is no response, they cry. Mothers are made to respond to their baby’s cry. You probably can’t stand to hear your baby cry and that’s how it's supposed to be. Babies also have no sense of time. When a baby is separated from their mother, they can’t know she is coming back “in just a minute”. 


If the mother doesn’t respond, the baby gets scared.


Feeling scared activates an adrenaline rush and escalates baby's response. Now, they cry louder and harder. Babies are incapable of fighting or running without their mom. Baby is certain she is gone, because if she was near, she would have responded to their cries. When a baby reaches a certain level of stress, they gives up. They go into the freeze response. By dramatically lowering their heartrate, breathing and digestion, they appears dead to predators and has a greater chance of surviving. It also conserves energy.


The freeze response is mistakenly called “self soothing.” 


When parents ignore their baby, what baby learns is this: "Your needs do not matter." “I am ignoring your needs.” and “Stop asking for help.” And many babies do just this.


Some babies don’t give up. This is their fight response.


You may know a baby that will not stop crying, if left alone. They eventually teaches you to respond to their needs because they are just that: Needs. They might not be hungry, but the need for survival and protection is hardwired and requires you to stay close. Whatever the underlying need, baby relies on you until they can think and act for himself and meet their own needs. When baby is old enough to understand that they are safe, only then, can they ‘self soothe’.


Humans are hardwired to connect with other humans


Maybe you can remember a time as an adult when you were in pain, scared or lonely. Maybe you were even frustrated, tired or hungry. Maybe just bored. If you were alone, how did you sort it out? Were you able to self-soothe? Or did you handle it in some other way, maybe eat chocolate, watch TV, smoke a joint or have a glass of wine?

A healthy way to deal with pain is to receive empathy through