When we are in distress, we are experiencing external stress and upset, and one way to cope with these intense emotions is to use a healthy coping skill like self-soothing. This is when we do an activity that helps us to soothe ourself and reduce our stress levels.
Unhealthy self-soothing includes things like drinking alcohol, self-harm (including skin picking and nail biting), excessive eating, binge-watching tv, movies or spending excessive amounts of time playing video games.
As babies, we self-soothe by sucking thumbs or holding onto something comforting, like a blanket or cuddly toy. As adults, that usually isn’t enough when we are in distress.
Self-soothing is a skill like any other – it takes practice. An easy way to remember ways to self-soothe is to think about using the five senses:
- Touch – put on some comfortable clothes, sit under a blanket, hold a hot water bottle, take a warm bath.
- Taste – drink something relaxing, like tea or hot chocolate, or eat something comforting.
- Smell – use scents such as lavender to relax you, this could be scented moisturiser, candles, essential oils or perfumes.
- Sight – go for a walk and note what you can see, focus on the things you notice, or look at pictures of your favourite people or places.
- Sound – go out and listen to the sounds of nature (waves at the ocean, birds in the park), or listen to some of your favourite music.
Think about what you already do – whether healthy or not – to help you self-soothe when you are in distress. Think about the things you enjoy in everyday life that you could use during difficult moments. The ultimate goal of self-soothing is to calm you down, so keeping a mental list of the things that can do that is a good place to start.
Some ideas for self-soothing:
- focused breathing: sometimes also called box breathing, breathe in to the count of four, hold to the count of four, breathe out to the count of four, hold to the count of four and so on. You should focus on the controlled breathing and the numbers as you count them.
- write three favourite things in any category – three favourite places, desserts, books, board games, anything at all. Focus on why you like them and why they bring you such joy.
- be as kind and compassionate to yourself as you would be to others – what would you say to someone else who was in your position?
- mentally visit your favourite place – close your eyes and imagine your favourite place. What do you see there, what colours and sights? What do you smell when you are there? What are the sounds, traffic or nature?
Some people recommend keeping a self-soothe box full of things they can use when things get difficult – scented candles, flavoured tea bags, puzzle books, favourite movies, jigsaws, music or whatever brings you comfort in a healthy way.
It is important to remember to check in with yourself – on a scale of 1 to 10 how do you feel before and after the exercise. How are you feeling now? Do you need to do something else to self-soothe or distract yourself in a healthy way?
Remember, these activities are all about you and your distress. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else and don’t judge yourself. What works for someone else might not work for you, and that’s ok. Find what works for you.