We all have moments when we feel out of balance. Learning how to self-soothe can be an invaluable skill during times of stress.
If you’re having a tough time right now, it may feel like there’s nothing you can do but know that there’s hope. There are many things you can do to help yourself feel better. That’s where self-soothing comes in.
Self-soothing behaviors consist of activities that can help you feel safe in your body, regulate your emotions, and cope with unhelpful thoughts or feelings. In essence, self-soothing is learning how to comfort yourself.
A variety of healthy self-soothing methods are available to help you manage distressing thoughts and feelings. It may take time, but try to explore which method best supports your needs.
Self-soothing activities can include anything that pacifies your sympathetic nervous system (your fight, flight, or freeze response) and activates your parasympathetic nervous system (your rest-and-digest state).
There are several self-soothing techniques to help calm anxiety quickly. You may find it helpful to try more than one and see what combination of strategies works best for you.
1. Breathe deeply
If possible, try to close your eyes for a period of time and practice deep breathing.
According to Dr. Julia Kogan, a psychologist in Miami, Florida, this activates the calming response in the body by:
- decreasing your heart rate and blood pressure
- reducing muscle tension
- clearing your mind
“I recommend practicing deep breathing for 5 minutes every day at the same time,” she says. “Inhale slowly through your nose for a slow count of 2. As you inhale, your stomach will inflate like a balloon. Exhale even more slowly through your mouth, for a count of 3. Deflate the stomach by gently squeezing your abs.”
You may find it powerful to write down your feelings in a stream of consciousness, or try journaling prompts to help you process difficult emotions.
3. Have a good cry
One 2020 study suggested that crying is a form of stress relief and emotional release. It lowers the stress hormone cortisol and regulates your heart rate.
4. Listen to music
You may find it useful to create a playlist of music that makes you feel better. Whether you’re driving in the car to your favorite playlist or dancing around your room, music can be a powerful tool for self-soothing.
One small 2019 study found that listening to classical music every day for 60 days had a therapeutic effect on students living with traits of anxiety.
5. Try grounding techniques
Activating your senses can help you feel more “rooted” and bring you into the present moment. Some ideas for grounding exercises include:
- curling up with your favorite book or movie
lavender essential oil
- emotional freedom technique (EFT) tapping
- holding a warm cup of tea
- cuddling your pet
- progressive muscle relaxation
- sleeping under a weighted blanket
- splashing cold water on your face
- swaying in a hammock or rocking chair
6. Positive self-talk
Gentle and neutral self-talk is an effective self-soothing tool, says Victoria Smith, a licensed clinical social worker in Los Angeles, California.
“We want to try to talk to ourselves in a calm, grounded manner — the way our caretakers may have spoken to us when we needed care,” she says.
An example of this might sound like, “I notice I am feeling overwhelmed. My heart rate has increased. I notice a fluttering sensation in my stomach. I feel calm and grounded through my feet,” says Smith.
“That way we are not trying to force ourselves out of an uncomfortable experience, but are practicing being present with what is happening in the moment,” she adds.
7. Cognitive restructuring
If the source of your stress is difficult thoughts, a simple journaling exercise may help. On the left-hand side of a sheet of paper, write out your distressing thought. On the right side, jot down three replacement thoughts.
Here’s an example of what this could look like:
|I’m going to get fired for handing in this report late.||1. I am a human being; I am allowed to make mistakes.|
2. My manager is an understanding person.
3. I scored well on a recent performance review.
8. Physical contact
A 2021 study showed that physical contact can reduce the stress hormone cortisol, and you don’t need someone else to help (although that could be lovely, too). Try placing your hand over your heart or tightly wrapping your arms around your shoulders in a self-hug.
Gentle movement, like a walk around the block or some yoga, may help you feel calmer. A
10. Mindfulness activities
A 2019 research review found that mindfulness-based activities can activate the parasympathetic nervous system (that rest-and-digest state we mentioned) and reduce your heart rate.
If possible, give these activities a try:
- yoga or trauma-informed yoga
- meditation or trauma-informed mindfulness
- tai chi
Self-soothing is a useful skill that can help you feel more in control of your emotions and alleviate mental and physical symptoms of:
This psychological “red zone” happens when we are at high levels of distress, says Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, a psychologist in Chicago and the author of “Get Out of the Red Zone.”
“Consider distress as existing on a continuum from zero (no distress at all) to 10 out of 10 (the most distressed you’ve ever been). The red zone happens when we are at a 7 out of 10 or higher,” she explains.
“We don’t think or act rationally when we are there. The goal is to get out of the red zone and stay out. Self-soothing activities can be helpful to do just that,” she adds.
Learning how to self-soothe is a wonderful way to cope with difficult emotions, but it’s also important to know that you don’t have to go through this alone.
If symptoms of stress are regularly interfering with your day or hampering your overall quality of life, you may find it helpful to reach out to a therapist and schedule an appointment for support.
Some useful therapy modalities may include:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
What is pathological self-soothing?
Pathological self-soothing is when comforting yourself crosses over into avoidance or escapism. It’s understandable and you’re not alone. If this sounds like your situation, you may find it helpful to reach out to a therapist for support.
Common examples of pathological self-soothing may include:
Everyone has moments where they feel “off.”
Self-soothing can be anything that helps you self-regulate and feel more grounded, from deep breathing to channeling that energy into exercise.
Working with a therapist is another great way to learn more coping skills for stress, anxiety, or trauma. “The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook” by Matthew McKay may also help you build distress tolerance.
Remember: This may be a tough moment, but you will get through it.