If you or someone you love is having thoughts of ending their life, I encourage you to contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741-741 to chat with the Crisis Text Line.
Disclaimer: I am not a certified mental health professional. My advice is based solely on my experience as a psychiatric patient and my research/personal interest in mental health. Please consult a doctor or therapist for qualified treatment if you suffer from mental illness.
Self-soothing is a skill we talk about in my DBT group often. It’s important because it’s the skill that helps us survive crisis situations — without engaging in self-destructive behaviors!
When you first learn about self-soothing, your first thought might be “well, duh.” After all, self-soothing is a skill young children practice! But this skill is also taught to them by their parents. Those of us who suffered a traumatic childhood may never have learned these skills — so, we have to take it upon ourselves to teach ourselves these skills as adults.
As such, self-soothing is a skill that asks us to get in touch with our inner child. Much as we would comfort a child who can’t sleep with a glass of warm milk and a bedtime story, self-soothing requires us to call upon those material comforts that we can experience with the six (yes, six!) senses: touch, taste, smell, hear, sight and kinetic.
Whether you’re in the middle of a panic attack, feeling down or suicidal or simply having a bad day, learning to self-soothe will help you ground yourself. Here’s how to self-soothe using your six senses, including some activities you might try to engage them while self-soothing for yourself.
Why Self-Soothing Matters
Are you a Highly Sensitive Person, or did you suffer trauma in childhood? If so, you may not have received as much love and comfort as you required at a young age. You may also find yourself absorbing the feelings of your parents or others, including anxiety and depression.
Self-soothing helps you parent your inner child, so to speak, and make up for what you missed out on in your youth. It lets you get cozy and calm when going through a crisis, without the need for reaching out to social supports.
The practice of self-soothing is even based in science: unpleasant emotions activate our fight-or-flight response, governed largely by a part of our brain known as the amygdala. Our amygdala sounds an alarm signal to the body when it perceives a threat; however, if you suffer from anxiety, depression or chronic stress, your amygdala may sense a threat that does not truly exist.
Living on high alert isn’t fun for anyone. The fight-or-flight response causes unpleasant sensations like a racing heartbeat, clammy palms, tightening of the throat, tense muscles and the urge to flee. When this becomes our daily reality, we can understandably become fatigued, depressed or even irritable.
Thankfully, the act of self-soothing also sends a signal to your brain to counteract the fight-or-flight response. Just a few moments of self-soothing can help your brain calm down and regain control of the moment….
How to Self-Soothe
….which brings us to our next point: how do you self-soothe? Therapists teach this skill differently, but my DBT group taught me to self-soothe using my six senses.
That’s right: there are now six senses! Can you guess what the sixth sense is? In addition to the classic touch, taste, smell, hear and sight senses, we now recognize the kinetic sense, a.k.a. movement, as an effective way to self-soothe as well.
Below, I give some ideas of self-soothing techniques you can try for each of the six senses. If you can, I recommend engaging in self-soothing activities a few times a week at minimum. Many techniques are easy enough to implement that they can even be integrated into your everyday routine.
Try self-soothing a couple of times this week and watch your body and mind transform!
- Use a weighted blanket or give yourself a hug to release feel-good chemicals like oxytocin.
- Put on soft and cuddly pajamas, complete with slippers and a blanket.
- Play with temperature: try warming up a heating pad or holding an ice cube in your hands.
- Get a massage or DIY one at home using a tennis ball or foam roller.
- Breathe deeply following a 7-8-9 pattern, with one hand on your belly and one on your heart.
- Squish some play dough or squeeze a stress ball.
- Fiddle with a fidget cube for anxiety.
- Try learning some simple tapping techniques to relieve stress and anxiety.
- Savor a piece of rich dark chocolate or another favorite treat.
- Make yourself a cup of warm tea or coffee. (Avoid caffeine if especially anxious!)
- Suck on an ice pop or ice cube to play with temperature.
- Mindfully suck on a piece of hard candy until it dissolves.
- Visit a farmer’s market and eat the ripest, juiciest piece of fruit you can find.
- Head to your favorite cafe and buy yourself a treat from the bakery.
- Burn a scented candle or diffuse essential oils in your home.
- Take a shower or bath with an aromatherapy product. (I like Bath & Body Works!)
- Go to your local beauty store and sample the perfumes.
- Buy yourself your favorite flowers and inhale deeply.
- Bake cookies, brownies or another tasty-smelling treat to enjoy. (This doubles as taste!)
- Make a special playlist of upbeat songs to listen to when you feel sh*tty.
- Listen to an audio book. Download Audible, or get one from your local library.
- Practice guided meditation with an app. (The Calm and Simple Habit apps are my favorite.)
- Watch your favorite movie and tune out everything else.
- Look up comedy sketches on YouTube. (I recommend SNL’s Guy Who Just Bought a Boat.)
- If you’re musically talented, play an instrument — or, take up piano or guitar lessons for fun.
- Change your scenery. Go for a drive, visit a coffee shop or just turn off the lights.
- Fill in an adult coloring book with the brightest shades you can find.
- Make a vision board with pictures cut from old magazines.
- Learn to draw, paint or watercolor. Try taking an art class.
- Carry an index card with you reminding you of your self-soothing skills.
- Go for a short walk around your neighborhood.
- Do a 10-minute yoga video from YouTube. (I like Yoga with Adriene.)
- Put on your favorite song and dance around your bedroom.
- Try short bursts of intense exercise. Jog in place, do push-ups or engage in any activity that increases your heart rate. This helps you burn off the excess energy you feel when you’re in fight-or-flight mode.
When Self-Soothing Doesn’t Work….
Using crisis survival skills is easier said than done. I get it: it’s difficult to remember what you’re supposed to do when you’re in the midst of an anxiety attack! If self-soothing doesn’t work the first time, don’t fret. Instead, turn to other crisis survival skills better suited to an immediate crisis.
In my DBT group, we learned the abbreviation TIP, which stands for skills you can use in an urgent moment when self-soothing isn’t working. TIP stands for:
Temperature: Splash cold water on your face, take a cold shower or let an ice cube melt in your palm.
Intense Exercise: Jumping jacks, push-ups, jogging around the block…. whatever helps you burn off that excess energy to bring you back down to earth!
Paced Breathing: Take slow, deep breaths from your belly. When you place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly, you should feel the hand on your belly move. If the hand on your chest moves instead, your breath might be too shallow. Try paced breathing techniques, which pair deep breathing with counting, like 7-8-9 or 4-square breathing to calm down.
Paired Muscle Relaxation: As you breathe in deeply, try tensing your muscles and/or clenching your fists. When you exhale, think the word “Relax” and release the tension. Repeat as many times as it takes for you to feel calm again.
And, when all else fails, you should always have a safety plan in place to help you avoid any destructive urges, especially if you have a history of self-harm or suicide attempts. Turn to one of the trusted contacts on your safety plan or contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text HOME to 741-741 to chat with the Crisis Text Line.