We begin learning how to self-soothe as children; however, if we were raised in a household with anxious parents or unstable circumstances, our past self-soothing techniques may not produce the same results in our adult lives. By relearning how to self-soothe, we can determine how and when we feel most comfortable and stable.
- What is Self-Soothing, and Why Should You Practice it?
- Self-Soothing as a Highly Sensitive Person
- Negative and Positive Self-Soothing Techniques
- How to Self-Soothe
- Final Thoughts
What is Self-Soothing, and Why Should You Practice it?
We’ve all felt the symptoms before; your heart rate is racing, your breath becomes shallow, and your thoughts race out of control. These are just a few of the common symptoms of anxiety. You don’t need to have an anxiety disorder to feel these symptoms. Stress, past trauma, or even some social interactions can be enough to trigger feelings of heightened anxiety and overwhelm. Self-soothing involves learning how to comfort ourselves in the midst of these challenging situations.
As a child, you may or may not have been taught healthy coping and soothing techniques for calming and recentering your mind and body in moments of stress or anxiety. A child is rarely if ever, afforded any control of their lives, environments, or social stimuli. When a child is feeling uncomfortably out of control or anxious, many choose to use external items or stimulation as comfort tools to soothe themselves and distract from unwanted feelings. We’ve all seen (and used) some of these tools: blankets, stuffed animals, thumb-sucking, fidget toys, etc. As we grow older, we must be taught (or teach ourselves) how to self-soothe in ways that will support our adult anxieties and needs.
Having the skills to self-soothe as an adult is critical to our ability to support mental and physical health. Learning positive self-soothing techniques allows us to calm and cope with not only the critical crisis moments of anxiety but also the simple everyday stressors that have the ability to sabotage our mental stability.
Self-Soothing as a Highly Sensitive Person
Are you a highly sensitive person (HSP)? Highly sensitive persons are at even greater risk of experiencing anxiety, and to a far greater degree than others. Those who are highly sensitive have a heightened sense of emotion, and it is speculated that they share a personality trait known as sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS). SPS not only affects sensitivity to personal and external emotions but also sensitivity to the other senses, making overstimulation in daily life common and intense. If you are a highly sensitive person, you may find yourself easily overstimulated in crowded or chaotic environments where emotions, sounds, and sights are in constant motion. Overwhelm and overstimulation are commonly found at the initial stages of anxiety attacks, but as an HSP, you may feel this anxiety grow out of control before you fully realize what is happening. If this sounds familiar, learning how to self-soothe will be an invaluable tool in reclaiming your peace, both in body and mind.
Negative and Positive Self-Soothing Techniques
Human nature knows that self-soothing is a necessity. As we developed through childhood and adolescence, we were either taught—or forced to learn—how to self-soothe in one form or another. Some of us were taught, through example or intention, some healthy self-soothing techniques, but it is likely that we also adopted some negative self-soothing techniques along the way. You’ll find a list of just some of these negative self-soothing habits below. Now, none of us emerge out of childhood unscathed, so if any of these negative self-soothing mechanisms are familiar to you, don’t feel discouraged. I’m going to show you how you can replace these with healthy self-soothing strategies.
Negative Self-Soothing Habits
- Nail biting
- Nail or skin picking
- Over or under eating
- Alcohol use (and abuse)
- Caffeine overconsumption
- Social withdrawal or isolation
- OTC drug use
- Poor sleep habits
- Social media (“doom scrolling”)
Have you found yourself self-soothing with any of those techniques? Yeah, me too. But it’s okay. Let’s move on to some positive self-soothing strategies, and then we will look in to them more deeply.
Positive Self-Soothing Techniques
- Conscious breathing
- Positive self-talk and affirmations
- Journaling about your emotions
- Listening to music
- Soothing smells (aroma therapy)
- A warm bath
How to Self-Soothe
Intentional breathing is one of the easiest ways to recenter and self-soothe. You can practice self-soothing breathing anywhere, anytime. If you find that familiar feeling of anxiety coming on, try taking a slow, deep breath through your nose and count slowly to four. Then, exhale through your mouth as you continue to count to eight. There are many ways to practice conscious breathing; try learning several so you can find which works best for you.
Positive Self-Talk and Affirmations
The most influential voice you will ever hear is your own. Make sure what you are saying to yourself is healthy. If you find that your self-talk is negative—or even abusive—make an effort to change it every chance you get. Focus on your inner dialogue and pretend that you are speaking to your best friend instead of yourself. What would you say to them? It’s probably not what you have been saying to yourself. Try incorporating positive self-talk and some new affirmations. Positive self-talk is one of the most powerful self-soothing techniques you can master.
Journaling is a powerful tool that tunes self-awareness, self-talk, memory, and mental healing. It can take as little or much time as you would like, but the effects can be life-changing. You don’t need anything fancy to get started. Try journaling for just five minutes a day and see how it impacts your mood and mental health.
Listen to Music
We’ve all experienced how music can make a direct impact on our mood. From that toe-tapper that always makes us dance in the kitchen, to the ballads that break our hearts, listening to music that we love is a therapy that transcends words. Keep your favorite playlist handy for when you need to self-soothe unexpectedly.
Did you know, according to scientists at Harvard, scents have a direct link to our emotions and memories? There is a reason that no one’s cookies smell as good as Grandma’s or that the smell of the ocean always seems to relax you. Try experimenting with essential oils, candles, incense, or any other ways to bring in your favorite scents.
You know I couldn’t leave this one off the list. Exercise has been proven to ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Exercise is a healthy coping mechanism and not only benefits your mental health, but also your physical health. Exercise releases endorphins that help you feel happy and relieve stress while giving you an outlet to release any mentally pent-up aggression or frustration in a positive physical way.
Despite the misconception that massage is only for relaxation, getting a message can also improve your mental health. Dr. James Lake says, “In my own clinical experience working with patients who complain of chronic stress, test-taking stress, and generalized anxiety, regular massage therapy effectively reduces anxiety, improves emotional resilience, and enhances feelings of general well-being in anxious patients.”
Mediation combines the best of many of the self-soothing techniques that we have mentioned already. Meditation can include conscious breathing, positive self-talk, affirmations, music, and even aromatherapy. Check out this quick meditation for self-soothing to get started today.
Take a Warm Bath
There is a reason that the image of a hot bubble bath surrounded by candles in a dimly lit bathroom is such an iconic image of relaxation. Baths, like meditation, have the ability to incorporate multiple highly effective self-soothing techniques in a calm, comfortable, and safe space. When you take a bath (or shower), it is a deliberate decision to dedicate time to your self-care. Baths can improve your emotional health, soothe muscles and joints, and even improve your sleep.
Self-soothing techniques involve anything that allows you to self-regulate and feel more grounded. By putting in the effort to build healthy self-soothing habits, you can learn to cope with both daily and situational stressors.