Experiencing serious overwhelm? These are the best ways to self-soothe. If therapy isn’t an option for you, start here...
I’d gone to one of my favorite hiding places: the shower.
It was one of those days when my heart felt literally broken. I couldn’t stop crying. My entire body ached. And all I wanted was to melt into the tile floor and wash down the drain.
With hot water pounding my back, I knelt on the hard shower floor, wrapped my arms across my chest, and sobbed.
I didn’t know my boyfriend had come into the bathroom until the shower door slid open and he stepped, fully-clothed, into the shower, where he crouched in front of me and pulled me into his arms.
(Spoiler alert: I married him.)
Yet even as he draped a bathrobe over my shoulders and kissed my head, I thought: I need a different kind of help.
I wanted to wrangle my emotions before they strangled me. I wanted to soothe myself before I was sobbing in the shower.
My healing journey started with a therapist who put a name to my chronic emotional overwhelm. He called it emotional dysregulation.
Unlike the brief periods of emotional overwhelm that everyone experiences from time to time, emotional dysregulation is triggered by trauma, ingrained due to genetics, the result of mental illness or brain injury, or tied to neurodivergencies (like my own ADHD.)
Emotional dysregulation looks like:
- Severe depression
- Extreme anxiety
- Overwhelming shame
- Intense anger
- Substance abuse
- High-risk sexual behaviors
- Unrelenting perfectionism
- High-conflict interpersonal relationships
- Disordered eating habits
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
Currently, there isn’t a cure for emotional dysregulation. But we can learn to manage it!
And one of the simplest practices for managing emotional dysregulation is self-soothing.
What does self-soothing look like?
Most of us self-soothe without even realizing we’re doing it. Or at least we don’t consciously think of our behaviors as self-soothing.
Imagine: You come home after a stressful day at work, change into comfy sweats, heat up some soup, and turn on your favorite movie.
Imagine: Your kids are driving you batty, so you drag the whole crew outside and take the dog for a heart-pumping walk.
Imagine: You’re still hurting from a recent break-up, so you head to the gym with your best friend and boost your confidence with great conversation and some new workout selfies.
We also self-soothe in subtle ways.
When your emotions are running high, do you twist your ring or twirl your hair? Do you pet your cat or snuggle your dog? Maybe you click you pen repeatedly, chew gum, or tap your foot.
Those are all self-soothing behaviors meant to help us power through emotional distress.
The problem? They don’t always work.
When we’re emotionally dysregulated, our primal, self-soothing instincts aren’t enough.
In fact, when emotional dysregulation is at play, we often attempt to self-soothe in ways that aren’t truly helpful—like screaming at a loved one, drinking too much, sleeping for days on end, or binge-eating.
That’s why we emotionally dysregulated folks need to practice self-soothing.
Think of self-soothing as a muscle.
Unhelpful self-soothing is like working out too hard and pulling a muscle.
Helpful self-soothing builds resilience over time, so we can be our best selves in the real world.
The more we practice helpful self-soothing techniques, the stronger we’ll become. Eventually, it feels natural to self-soothe in ways that settle our emotions and equip us to handle our stressors.
Here are the best ways to self-soothe.
Through countless conversations with my therapists, I discovered the self-soothing practices that help me every day. If psychotherapy isn’t an option for you right now, start here…
#1: Identify your senses.
Our five senses are negatively triggered when we’re in crisis, but we can re-set our emotions by soothing those senses.
NOTE: If you don’t have access to all five senses, skip the ones that don’t apply to you, and focus on the senses you can use.
Our five senses utilize:
#2: Connect with your senses.
Taste the air.
Touch your skin, clothing, or an object nearby.
#3: Choose a self-soothing skill from the lists below, and practice it right now.
Practice the self-soothing skill for at least five minutes—but no more than one hour.
If your emotions are still too intense after one hour, move on to a different self-soothing skill.
Ways to self-soothe with Sight
- Light a candle and watch the flame
- Arrange one space in your home so it’s beautiful to look at
- Wake up early and watch the sunrise
- Watch a movie or show that comforts you
- Dress in an outfit that you look great in (and take fun selfies!)
- Sit in a public space and people-watch
- Choose a color, then visually locate everything around you in that color
- Flip through a photo album of happy memories
- Window-shop and notice things that inspire your creativity
- Visit a museum, or scroll through beautiful art online
- Take pictures of someone or something you love
- Read a book or a magazine
- Clean one cluttered area of your home so it’s pleasing to look at
- Create a small artwork of your own: a drawing, collage, painting, or coloring sheet
- Gather flowers, stems, grasses, or other bits of nature to display in a vase or dish
- Mindfully describe (in your head or in writing) something you love to look at, like the tree outside your window, your pet, your child, or your favorite chair
Ways to self-soothe with Sound
- Play music that invigorates or calms you, depending on the energy you’re seeking
- Close your eyes and embrace the sounds around you: nature sounds, city sounds, your own breath…
- Mindfully let ambient sounds flow in one ear and out the other
- Have conversation with someone whose voice (and energy) soothes you
- Listen to a podcast that engages your mind without overstimulating you
- Turn on a fan to create soothing white noise
- Create a playlist of music that relaxes you, or check out this Zen playlist I love on Spotify
- Mindfully describe (in your head or in writing) sounds you love to hear, like your loved ones chatting in the next room, the ocean crashing on the shore, or a piano being played
- Sing at the top of your lungs
- Play an instrument—ukuleles are pretty cheap and fun to learn!
Ways to self-soothe with Scent
- Bathe with a deliciously-scented soap or shampoo
- Spray a perfume, cologne, or room fragrance that you love
- Burn incense, light a fragranced candle, or use a wax warmer so you can’t accidentally catch anything on fire (not that I’d know anything about that)
- Make cookies, bake bread, or pop popcorn to fill your home with yummy scents
- Take a walk outside and inhale the natural scents around you
- Open a window and enjoy the smell of fresh air
- Clean one space in your home with gently-fragranced cleaners
- Open a package of coffee and breathe in the spicy aroma
- Visit a bakery and inhale in the fragrance
- Take a drive through a wooded area with your window down
- Cut a fresh orange into a pot of water and let it simmer on your stove
- Lie in the grass and experience the natural scents of the earth
Ways to self-soothe with Taste
- Eat a flavorful meal or snack
- Drink a sparkling water and enjoy the bubbles on your tongue
- Make a hot tea or coffee and feel the warmth soothe your throat
- Treat yourself to a comforting food from your childhood, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a bowl of mac and cheese
- Visit an ice cream shop and sample all the flavors (twice)
- Suck on a piece of hard candy
- Crunch on small pieces of ice and let the cool water wash over your tongue
- Swish minty mouthwash
- Chew a stick of gum
- Splurge on a freshly-squeezed juice or your favorite dessert
- Slowly lick a popsicle or lollipop until it’s gone
- Mindfully describe (in your head or in writing) the flavors of a food you enjoy—even if you aren’t eating it right now
Ways to self-soothe with Touch
- Soak in a hot bath (add bubbles or epsom salt if that’s your thing!)
- Take a hot shower, then rinse your hair in cooler water at the very end
- Pet your dog, cat, or another animal friend
- Soak your hands or feet in a basin with stones or marbles at the bottom for a gentle massaging texture
- Spend a few dollars to sit in a massage chair (you can usually find one at the mall)
- Warm your pajamas in your clothes dryer before putting them on
- Rub soothing lotion into your skin
- Wrap yourself in a super-soft blanket
- Roll out an exercise mat or a blanket, lie on the ground, and slowly stretch your muscles
- Dress in your most comfortable clothing
- Holds a loved one’s hand
- Drape an cold pack across your forehead and eyes and breathe deeply
- Take a drive with the windows down and feel the wind through your hair
- Stroke a textured pillow or the bark of a tree
- Knit, embroider, woodwork, or do another tactile craft
- Ask a close friend or family member for a 20-second hug
- Walk barefoot through the grass
Practice self-soothing in your everyday life—even when you aren’t in distress.
I lean into soothing habits throughout my day to help keep me grounded and regulated.
- I prioritize comfortable clothes that are naturally soothing.
- Easy-to-grab snacks and drinks help me avoid self-triggering my emotions with a blood-sugar crash.
- Little breaks throughout my work day help keep me from ruminating on stressors.
- I love to wear jewelry that I can fidget with when I feel emotionally off-balance. (Or keep a fidget item in your pocket instead!)
Because I regularly tap into these skills, it’s easier to self-soothe when my emotions start to spiral.
Identify your unhelpful “soothing” tendencies.
Certain self-soothing habits are more helpful than others. For example, I can self-soothe by drinking a glass of wine, but alcohol tends to give me a migraine. So I benefit more by choosing a different, more-helpful skill.
That is not a moral judgement about wine. It’s simply my truth about my body and mind. When I honor my truth, I’m more likely to actually find relief from my emotional overwhelm.
Make a list of your helpful soothing skills.
My lists above are a good start, but it’s even better to make your own. Identify the self-soothing skills that work best for you, and keep them handy. (I keep my self-soothing lists in a note on my phone!)
When my emotions run rampant, it’s helpful to have a guide nearby so I don’t have to think too hard.
TIP: Helpful self-soothing practices tend to share a few important traits:
- They don’t have harmful side-effects.
- You don’t have to do a lot of prep work or spend money to utilize the skill.
- Other people’s involvement isn’t required; you can practice the skill all by yourself.
The more you practice your helpful self-soothing skills, the easier they’ll become. Eventually, you’ll respond to intense experiences by self-soothing without even thinking about it.
Most days, self-soothing feels pretty natural to me.
Yes: I do still experience feelings of overwhelming by anxiety or depression. But now I have helpful skills that enable me to navigate that distress without causing harm to myself or others.
Which self-soothing skills do you find helpful?
There are no right or wrong answers. We’re all in this wild world together, so I’d love for you to share your insights in the comments!
If self-soothing just isn’t cutting it, reach out for help.
The Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration hotline is free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day, 365 day a year. Call 1-800-662-HELP.
Or try online therapy with:
You deserve to feel safe, happy, and healthy.
Photo by Wolf Zimmermann