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Walking the Dog

05 December 2017 - Dr Jan Orman

– It’s never too early or too late to learn some self-soothing strategies

I heard something on the radio this morning that made me stop and think. It was something that just a few years ago would never have been said.

“Wade’s been out early this morning walking his dog to work off some of the morning nerves”

The reference was to Paul Wade, Australia’s second most “capped” international soccer player. During his career he played 118 games for Australia and represented us at the Seoul Olympics and in two FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns. Since retirement from playing he has been a coach and a soccer commentator. He’s had quite a few nerve wracking gigs in his time, so what was he nervous about this morning? That’s easy! Tonight’s game is the one that will decide whether the Socceroos get to play in the World Cup in Russia and by the time you read this you will already know the result.

In the meantime, this man with so much high-pressure experience is out walking his dog to calm his nerves!


I wonder sometimes if we as professionals (and as parents) talk to people enough about strategies to use in the situations that have them bouncing off the walls. For many people their first real-world experience of acute anxiety might be in competitive sport, public performance or exams, and for many the biggest deal will be those huge barrier exams at the end of high school that they mistakenly believe are going to make or break the rest of their lives.

How do they manage these situations? How can we help them manage better?

How do you manage?

It might be worth thinking about what do you do for yourself when you feel that way. Do you have some strategies to manage “off the wall” moments? Your particular strategies may not suit everyone, but they are often a good starting point for a conversation.

There is a boy I know (my son won’t be happy if I tell you it is him!) who got through the HSC by playing his piano and having showers. It was an hour of study then half an hour of piano, another hour and then a shower and so on through he day. He was the cleanest 17-year-old you’ve ever seen but he was also able to stay calm enough to study effectively.

I often tell my patients that story as a way to encourage a conversation about managing acute anxiety and stressful events.  People sometimes need to think about what others do in order to come up with strategies of their own – and they need to experiment to see what works for them.

Teaching others to self-sooth

Some therapies call these “self-soothing strategies”. Lots of people have these strategies to call on, but many do not. In developing dialectic behavioural therapy (DBT), Marsha Linehan and her group in Seattle recognised that there are people who need to be taught how to manage the strong emotions that threaten to derail their lives, but you don’t have to suffer from borderline personality disorder to benefit from having a clear idea of the things you can do to settle your emotions and help you get back on an even keel again

How useful it would be if we could actively learn these things as kids before the really big stressors came along! But its never too late. Having the conversations about this is important and hearing people talk about it in the media is a terrific way to normalise the need to have ways of your own to soothe your nerves and help you function. It’s important for everyone to know that feeling stressed under stressful circumstances is normal – it helps us function better - until it escalates so much that we can’t function at all. Before that happens, we need a little self-soothing to fall back on.


If you’re struggling to think of some self-soothing activities of your own you might like to take a look at the DBT-based suggestions based on the five senses and perhaps even to start talking to people about their own experience.

If you have a dog to walk or a piano to play you are a lucky one!


Click here to read more about DBT-based suggestions based on five senses.

Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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