Self-Soothing: Definition + 14 Techniques & Skills to Soothe Yourself
Feeling upset? Need to calm yourself down and undo the anxiety already? Discover science-based self-soothing techniques to help you build skills that help you more easily self-soothe.
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What Is Self-Soothing? (A Definition)
Self-soothing is defined as an individual's efforts or capacity to calm oneself while in a state of emotional distress (Wright, 2009). This period of emotional distress can vary in duration depending on how emotionally reactive a person is, how much difficulty they have with regulating their emotions, and how well they recover from emotional distress.
Self-soothing is often discussed in the context of childhood development. Indeed, we learn many of our self-soothing patterns when we are babies. It is believed that when we are soothed by care-givers, we internalize this soothing and learn how to do it for ourselves (Wright, 2009). So there are a variety of ways that we might not quite develop this skill well enough and end up having difficulty self-soothing as adults. Improving our self-soothing skills as adults requires self-insight, the development of self-soothing skills, and the ability to effectively use these skills to return to emotional baseline.
Self-Soothing in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy)
Self-soothing is also thought to be a tool for distress tolerance, a key component of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). In this view, self-soothing is defined as self-comforting, self-nurturing, and being kind to oneself, often by engaging in pleasant activities (Wright, 2009).
In this article, we'll take a broad view to help you learn a variety of self-soothing techniques and skills. Practicing these techniques and skills can help you self-soothe and better manage and recover from emotional distress.
Self-soothing is all about emotions and understanding the different tools we have to manage them. From a psychological perspective, this might include changing our mindset or attention in order to decrease the negative impact of events, learning how to handle, reduce, or shift negative emotions that we're experiencing, and short-circuiting thought processes that may lead negative emotions to linger instead of resolving. There are also some relevant techniques on how to shift our diet and routines to help us better self-soothe. We'll talk about many of these self-soothing techniques below.
1. Listen to Relaxing Music to Support Self-Soothing
Anxiety is a mental health issue that I—and millions of others—struggle with. So I've tried tons of self-soothing techniques in an attempt to lessen my anxiety. One of my absolute favorite self-soothing techniques involves listening to relaxing music.
Listening to relaxing music has been shown in research to reduce cortisol (an important stress hormone; Khalfa et al., 2003). And music with binaural beats (music with two tones played at slightly different frequencies to each ear) may be helpful for focus and calming the mind (Garcia-Argibay, Santed, & Reales, 2019).
If you're feeling agitated or unable to settle down, calming music might just help change the mood, enabling you to breathe deeper, refocus your thoughts, and nudge negative emotions into remission. Check out the audio/video below for some of my favorite self-soothing music.
2. Take Slow, Deep Breathes to Sooth Yourself
A key part of self-soothing often involves deactivating the sympathetic nervous system. We can do this by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system helps stop our fight or flight responses and return us to a calm state.
We can easily activate the parasympathetic nervous system by taking a few long, deep breaths. One easy breathing strategy to remember is box breathing. Box breathing involves breathing in for a count of four, holding for a count of four, breathing our for a count of four, and then holding for a count of four. Repeat this box breathing method for a few rounds until you start to feel calmer.
3. Visualize a Situation That You Find Soothing
Last night I laid awake in bed unable to shake this impending sense of doom—doom about nothing in particular. That anxiety was enough to make my muscles twitch even though I'd spent the entire evening relaxing. I get in this state every so often, and I find visualization to be one of the more effective self-soothing techniques for this scenario.
All you do is lay down comfortably, close your eyes, and imagine yourself in a place that makes you feel calm. For me, it's usually the garden. I imagine smelling fresh carrots just pulled from the earth and then laying on the grass in the sun. What about you? What is your calming place?
4. Try 'The Butterfly Hug' to Desensitize Yourself
EMDR is a therapeutic technique to help people process trauma. One EMDR technique is the Butterfly Hug. The Butterfly Hug is not considered to be a self-soothing technique in itself, but rather a technique for processing distressing emotions and material often left from trauma. Soothing is what is thought to occur after processing this material. So this technique is not to be used while experiencing negative emotions, but rather it is to help you work through negative baggage that may be causing heightened distress, in general.
The video below shows you how to do the Butterfly Hug. The goal is not to judge any emotions that come up and stop when you feel "in your body" (Jarero & Artigas 2016).
Video: Self-Soothing with EMDR
5. Soothe Yourself With Pleasant Activities
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), it is suggested that engaging in pleasant activities is a good way to self-soothe (Linehan, 1993). Indeed, regularly doing an activity we enjoy can help us feel more content, and doing this activity when we're stressed may make us feel better. Some of my favorite pleasant activities are gardening, spending time with friends, and doing arts and crafts. What pleasant activities help you feel better?
6. Self-Soothe With a Cold Shower or Swim
One of the fastest ways to soothe a racing 'fight or flight' response is to dunk yourself in cold water—a lake, ocean, river, bath, or shower. The cold increases parasympathetic nervous system activity, which, remember, is the system that helps calm and soothe us. One study showed that 20 minutes in ~80-degree Fahrenheit water was enough time to get the benefits (Mourot et al., 2008).
I'll often use this soothing technique after exercising or after sitting in the sauna and find that even a few minutes of a cold shower helps me feel calmer. So if you're having a hard time calming yourself down, a cold shower can be a helpful trick.
In addition to using self-soothing techniques, we can also build skills that help us soothe ourselves more easily. Building these skills can make it so that we have to rely on the techniques (or tools) less frequently, and we strengthen our brains in ways that help us self-soothe more quickly or even automatically. Read on to discover some of these skills.
1. Self-Reflect on Your Triggers
Perhaps one of the most frustrating parts of experiencing intense negative emotions is not knowing why you experience them. By gaining more awareness about what leads us to get upset in the first place, we can get better control of our emotions.
First, we can try not to get ourselves in situations that upset us—for example, we can try to avoid that coworker that makes our blood boil as often as we can or we can stop ourselves before we get into that same argument with our mother.
Second, we can explore common themes for when we get upset. Ask yourself, do your emotions get out of control when you're tired or hungry? In this case, perhaps modifying your schedule to eat more often and sleep longer hours is what you really need.
Third, try to reflect on whether there are specific thought processes that are making or keeping you upset. Are you ruminating—running the situation over in your mind again and again? Or are you catastrophizing—imagining the worst possible outcomes? Or maybe, it's your inner critic—that little voice in your head that tells you that you're not good enough.
Whatever thought processes get you stuck, it's good to know what they are so you can start talking back to these thoughts. Tell them why they are wrong—or at least unhelpful—so that you can get your mind back.
2. Self-Sooth With Positive Emotions
Experiencing positive emotions can actually help undo some of our negative emotions. Because not all of us are good at decreasing negative emotions, especially when they are intense negative emotions, increasing positive emotions can be somewhat of a work-around. To generate positive emotions, we can try thinking positive, being more optimistic, savoring the good moments, or even doing loving-kindness meditation.
If we can just jumpstart our positive emotions, research suggests that this can help fuel an upward spiral of positivity (Fredrickson, Mancuso, Branigan, & Tugade, 2000). Positive emotions help us feel better, helping us to have better social interactions, more success, and so forth. Of course, it's not always easy to flip the switch and feel more positively. So give yourself time and try to appreciate any small bit of progress.
3. Cultivate Mindful Awareness and Non-Judgement
Mindfulness involves being both aware of our thoughts, feelings, and surroundings and being nonjudgmental about them. If we have negative thoughts, feelings, or experiences, we try not to get down on ourselves about them. And if situations occur that are hard for us, we try not to ruminate, repeating "Why me?!" in our minds. When we take this more accepting view of our world and experiences, they don't hit us quite so hard. As a result, hopefully we don't need to soothe ourselves quite so often.
Mindful meditation can be a helpful way to build this skill. In mindful meditation, you practice being aware and accepting of things like your breath and your body. To try it, check out the meditation video below.
4. Soothe Yourself With a Break From Technology
5. Self-Sooth by Redirecting Negative Thoughts
As mentioned earlier, there are all sorts of negative thoughts that can get us upset. Sometimes, we just want to solve a problem and we end up overthinking yet getting nowhere. Other times, maybe we want to think of all the bad things that could happen so that if it does, we'll be prepared. But thinking about negative things never does us any good. Instead, we just keep spiraling, and we miss out on the good things in life.
As an expert ruminator, I know firsthand how hard it can be to stop the negative thought cycles. Here is a strategy that I've been practicing lately that is doing some good.
Consider using positive affirmations to redirect negative thoughts into positive thoughts about the self. For example, if I find myself going down a rabbit hole, thinking about how awful a situation might turn out to be, I try to switch to saying my good qualities out loud. I might say, "I am kind, I am smart, I am loyal". I find this is often more helpful than thinking about the positives in the situation because then when I do that, I'm still thinking of the situation. Switching the brain to focus on the positives of a completely different subject—the self—seems to direct the brain away from negative thoughts more effectively.
Video: Affirmations for a Peaceful Mind
More Self-Soothing Tips
Here are a few more ways that help some people self-soothe. Feel free to take what's useful to you and leave the rest.
1. Eat a Self-Soothing Diet
We all have a gene called catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT). The COMT gene plays a big role in removing stress hormones, like norepinephrine and epinephrine, from our bodies. Many of us—myself included—have a version of the gene that is slow and sluggish. That means that when we're stressed (or excited) and our body releases stress hormones, our bodies take longer to clear them and return back to normal. By eating the right foods we can support this gene and help it do its job more easily.
First, we can decrease the stress hormone load in our bodies by reducing our intake of caffeine, green/black tea, coffee, and chocolate.
Next, we can eat foods that research suggests help us feel calmer. Foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir appear to help reduce anxiety, at least in some people (Hilimire, DeVylder, & Forestell, 2015). Eating some healthy carbohydrates can also increase the release of serotonin, a feel-good hormone (Wurtman & Wurtman 1995). Just be careful not to overdo it or eat junk food, as this can lead to inflammation, which is not so good for our well-being.
2. Get Outdoors to Sooth Yourself
A recent research review suggests that daily contact with nature can help reduce anxiety, depression, and even health conditions like diabetes (Soga, Gaston, & Yamaura, 2017). Indeed, there is thought to be a calming effect of nature. Whether it's the sun, fresh air, or the scent of trees—all things that have been shown to be good for us—getting outdoors seems to improve our well-being. So if you're feeling in need of something soothing, going for a short walk or looking up at some tall trees may help.
When we're feeling upset, it can sometimes be hard to self-soothe. But by using some self-soothing techniques and building some skills, we actually do have a lot of control over how we feel.