Perhaps you've seen the phrase “self-soothing techniques” or “self-soothing skills” online and have not been totally sure what they are or how they can come in handy. Some may associate the term “self-soothing” with how caregivers respond to babies. However, when I speak about self-soothing, I’m referring to adults and ways we can better emotionally regulate, when stressors enter our lives.
These stressors can be mild to more severe and can even be triggers related to previous trauma. Depending on your experiences in life (such as childhood and/or trauma) your sensitivity to stressors may be more acute, with reactions such as anxiety or depression or numbing. In trauma-informed therapy, we refer to this sensitivity to stressors as one’s “window of tolerance”. This window may be narrower if you've had adverse or traumatic experiences in your life.
So how do we know if self-soothing could potentially help us? Do you ever experience anxiety, rumination, a rush of thoughts, feeling irritable or aggressive, or a fast heart rate with quickened breathing? These could be forms of hyper-arousal. How about feeling numb, disconnected, low energy, flat or spaced out? These could be forms of hypo-arousal. We all deal with feeling less than ourselves when stress enters our lives. Practicing noticing how we react or respond to such stressors is the first step to understanding how self-soothing can help us.
Sometimes we think there is no reason to calm ourselves. We humans are great at finding ways to distract or distance ourselves, from ourselves. Being able to tune our skills to take care of ourselves when we are stressed, angry, hurt, frustrated, or feeling depressed is important and creates more aptitude for dealing with any emotions. I have also found that those who are able to self-soothe are less afraid of their feelings, knowing they can be with themselves versus feeling like they are at the mercy of these feelings (as if their feelings control them.)
There is no one size fits all in terms of self-soothing habits. Some work for me, some will work for me, and some will work for others. Part of this work is trying out different approaches and accepting that some seemingly great self-soothing options might not resonate. And that’s ok. You might find different times in life require different self-soothing skills. Experiment, and keep what works for you.
Whether you experience these stressors as an increase, or decrease in arousal, will help you to identity which self-soothing tips might bring you back into an optimal zone. Think of the optimal zone as calm, and the ability to be present. In the optimal zone, you can think easily and make decisions that feel aligned with yourself. You will also feel grounded in this space.
When we are hyper-aroused, we are looking for calming tools, and with hypo-arousal we are looking for ways to increase awareness and presence. I have found that grounding work can be helpful in all reactions. Stray & Wander has a great grounding post I shared that you can check out here for ideas.
Here’s a quick list of self-soothing skills to try. Remember hyper-arousal is looking for calming or a burning off of the energy, or a slowing down, while hypo-arousal is looking for ways to come back into a space and feel more filled with life and presence in the moment:
- Deep breathing
- Counting breath exercises (inhales twice as long as exhales)
- Mindfulness practices
- Breathing into the heart center (hand over the heart)
- Breath + mantra work (or finger tapping)
- Going for a walk, bonus points for being in and observing nature
- Snuggly blankets, truly feeling the texture
- Weighted blankets
- Taking a hot/cold shower
- Taking a bath and feeling the water run on your hands or feet, bonus points for essential oils or scents
- Working out or doing push-ups
- Listening to upbeat music
- Wiggling your feet in your socks or shoes or different floor materials
- Shaking out parts of the body
- Taking a nap
- Rubbing the hands together to create heat and placing the hands on the cheeks or jaw line to feel the warmth
- Singing or humming
- Hugging yourself (or someone else, that’s ok, too. Humans can need humans.)
- Notice colors and shapes in the room around you as if you’re seeing them for the first time.
- Hold weighted balls, shells, or anything that is an interesting texture or temperature (temperature such as a metal or stone that is colder, or cup of tea that is warm. Please do not push the extremes here.)
- Guided meditation body scans.
- Creative work such as painting, art, knitting, needlepoint, clay or other art projects.
- Think about the last thing you ate. Can you taste it? Can you describe that in detail to yourself?
- Move in any way that feels fitting on the ground or a mat, creating shapes with your body that feel soothing and intuitive (release any judgment of yourself here)
- Enjoy a meal mindfully noticing taste, texture, scent
- Light a scented candle
- Coloring books
- Notice the smells around you right now
- Take note of body parts holding tension and touch them, rubbing the spots and releasing the tension. Send the breath to those parts as you consciously touch them
- Positive affirmations
- Practicing self-care and self-compassion
- Creating a gratitude list
It is helpful to make a list of which self-soothing tools help you the most, so that you have a reference when you are feeling stressed, or out of sorts. For example, how might we use these options in everyday situations?
Let’s say you view a distressing news story and suddenly feel yourself drifting off. Moving to any of the above options that focus on senses could help, for example, reaching for a soft blanket, noticing items around you and naming them, or using essential oils. Breathing into the heart center and reminding ourselves we are safe can also help.
As another example, perhaps you have a stressful work meeting coming up on Zoom. Thoughts of everything that could go wrong are rushing into your mind and clouding your focus. Maybe you can try to give yourself three big breaths, or you try using finger tapping to feel each fingertip against the thumb to a mirror a count of four for your inhale and a count of four for your exhale. You can also try revisiting any soothing positive affirmations you might have, for example, “I am capable.” “I am prepared.” “I can do hard things.”
Claire Fountain (@cbquality) is the wellness culture of tomorrow. A writer, therapist, and celebrity yoga instructor whose globally recognized TrillYoga continues to influence the fitness industry. Claire inspires with her unorthodox and realistic approach to yoga and mental health, while promoting a conscious lifestyle through insight and education. Her work focuses on the intersection of women, well being, mind body integration, self worth and the stories we tell ourselves with experience ranging from over half a dozen e-books and articles to international classes and speaking engagements.