Various psychiatric disorders are associated with dysfunctional patterns in self-soothing and comforting behaviors. For instance, atypical depression and binge eating disorders are linked to emotion-triggered consumption of comfort foods and comforting behaviors such as taking warm showers. Likewise, drug addiction and relapse are association with emotion- and stress-triggered drug taking. Moreover, sleeping problems go together with a lacking ability for experiencing comfort from warmth and low skin temperature. In these and related instances, self-soothing and comforting behaviors may be used in some situations to avoid confrontations with emotional challenges, thus highly impeding successful emotional recovery. However, self-soothing and comforting behaviors can also be observed in emotional coping among well-adjusted individuals, who often respond to emotional distress through social proximity seeking, verbal emotion sharing, seeking social (e.g., a warm touch) or physical warmth (e.g. taking a warm bath), consuming high-caloric comfort foods, listening to soothing music, and “self-medication” of drugs. Emotionally comforting behaviors may thus be a first step in an adaptive process of emotional recovery or active coping, or a way of coping with (subjectively or objectively) uncontrollable stress.
So far, research that specifically investigates mechanisms and consequences of comforting behavior is scarce. Nevertheless, animal and human research suggests that neuromodulators such as oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine and endogenous opioid systems are involved and that social conditions are crucial in regulating autonomic and somatic states. For instance, oxytocin has been implicated in social stress coping, verbal emotion sharing, social and physical warmth, social touch, soothing music effects, satiety, and appears to protect against drug addiction. Physical warmth, in turn, has been implicated in shaping people’s mental representations of their communal relations, and sooths them in cases of negative social events. Some of the effects of oxytocin appear mediated by serotonergic, dopaminergic and endogenous opioid systems. Low levels of oxytocin have been found in mental disorders characterized by rejection (“social coldness”) sensitivity. Moreover, pharmacological neuroimaging studies have shown that oxytocin modulates activity in brain systems that include the (anterior) insula. In turn, the insula is implicated in anxiety, the perception of physical and social warmth, skin warming and falling asleep, social touch and pain brain networks, and drug and food craving. Together, these associations of oxytocin and insula function provide starting points for research and for bringing together efforts from different disciplines to increase our understanding of mechanisms of self-soothing. Possibly, bringing together different disciplines and lines of research may bring to light mechanistic overlap between different kinds and mediators of self-soothing.
Scientists working on topics relevant to (self-)soothing are encouraged to submit Original Research, Hypothesis and Theory, Review, Mini-Review, Registered Reports (IPA, for details, see here. We recommend these for feasible studies, such as social soothing), and Perspective articles. By bringing together researchers from traditionally separated domains, we hope to stimulate crosstalk between human and animal behavioral, brain and psychopharmacological researchers, and thus to deepen our understanding of (self-)soothing. Articles may highlight neuromodulation, brain mechanisms, behavior and social aspects of (self-)soothing.
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