When upsetting thoughts and feelings pop up, you might find yourself plummeting into a deep well of dread and overwhelm. During such stressful moments, you might start to believe there’s not much you can do about those emotions.
But that’s not actually the case. In fact, practicing self-soothing activities can help you climb out of that dark well and work toward feeling better.
How? According to psychologist Rebecca Leslie, PsyD, self-soothing activities can:
- calm your mind and body
- reduce anxiety
- help you think clearly
- improve your sleep
So, the next time you start to feel distressed, consider trying these 15 lesser-known self-soothing strategies.
Diaphragmatic (deep) breathing “helps calm you down and tells your mind and body you are safe,” says Leslie.
Leslie suggests imagining you have a balloon behind your belly button that fills up with your breath as you breathe in.
- Inhale slowly through your nose until the balloon feels “full.” This might take about 4 to 5 seconds.
- Purse your lips and slowly exhale for the same amount of time until you feel the balloon “empty.”
- Repeat until you start to feel calmer.
Square breathing, also called box breathing, offers another powerful technique.
To try this type of breathing:
- Breathe in for 4 seconds.
- Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
- Breathe out for 4 seconds.
- Relax for 4 seconds.
In short, each step forms one side of the “square.”
Try this for 4 rounds or more, recommends Selma Bacevac, LMHC, a psychotherapist specializing in childhood trauma and attachment.
Scan your surroundings for the color blue or for your favorite color, suggests Bacevac.
“Gently rest your eyes in the hues of the color as you bring awareness to your breath, and slowly breathe in for 7 seconds,” she says.
Follow the inhale with a long, slow exhale.
It’s worth noting, too, that challenging yourself to find different objects in the same color could offer a distraction from the source of your distress.
A hug or any kind of compassionate touch causes your brain to release oxytocin. This hormone can make you feel safe, connected, and loved, explains Joree Rose, LMFT, a therapist and mindfulness and meditation teacher.
Bonus: Your brain can’t tell the difference between a hug someone gives you and one you give yourself. Wrapping your arms around your chest can instantly soothe your tense body.
“Art is an active tool we can use to move stress out of our body, express distress, and distract ourselves from what is bothering us by externalizing it,” says Jackie Tassiello, a board certified creative arts therapist and co-founder of Soulutions Therapy, based in Montclair, New Jersey.
One art technique to try? Watercolor painting. According to yoga teacher Namita Kulkarni, benefits reside in the “tactile pleasure of touching the paint to the paper, visual surprise and delight of watching the pigments swirl into the water and the ever-present unpredictability of water’s behavior.”
To start, simply buy a watercolor set at any craft or big box store.
When you’re upset, you might tell yourself stories like “This isn’t that bad,” “I’m overly sensitive,” or “I shouldn’t be feeling this way,” says Sera Lavelle, PhD, a clinical psychologist and hypnosis expert.
But this kind of dismissive, invalidating self-talk often just leaves you feeling worse.
Instead, validate your experience with self-compassion. According to Lavelle, this might involve:
- noticing your inner dialogue
- placing your hands over your heart
- using language that offers comfort, such as “I recognize I feel scared right now and that’s hard. In this moment, the things I fear aren’t happening, and I am safe.”
Considered a form of self-hypnosis, autogenic training promotes relaxation in the body and a state of emotional calm.
To start, you might repeat certain phrases three times, says Leslie. Examples of soothing phrases might include:
- My right arm is heavy.
- My left arm is heavy.
- My arms are heavy.
- I am calm and relaxed.
- My left leg is heavy.
- My right leg is heavy.
- My legs are heavy.
- I am calm and relaxed.
Kaylin Zabienski, LMFT, a therapist and yoga teacher, used to get overwhelmed when running groups at her treatment center. To self-soothe, she’d wear a long necklace with a pendant or charm that she’d move up and down the chain.
“It doesn’t look like anything special, but the subtle vibration and sound that it made was extremely calming to me,” says Zabienski.
She suggests doing the same with your own clothing and accessories. “Using mindfulness and curiosity, it can be soothing to explore the item with your hands, to move it around on your skin, to notice its texture or any sounds it makes.”
Sending messages of love to yourself can go a long way toward helping ease emotional distress.
Liz FitzGerald, a yoga instructor and co-founder of Daygold, suggests doing this loving practice for at least 5 minutes:
- Sit comfortably with your eyes open or closed.
- Starting with both hands at the top of your head, gently move your hands over your head while saying “I am with me.”
- Move your hands across your face and say, “I see me.”
- Move your hands across your ears and the front and back of the throat and say, “I hear me.”
- Move your hands over your chest and say, “I trust me.”
- Move your hands over your belly and say, “I am safe.”
- Move your hands over your legs and feet and say, “I am loved.”
According to Kulkarni, this restorative yoga pose activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and relaxation.
To try this pose, simply lie down with your legs up a wall. Hold the pose for up to 20 minutes.
Tip: If putting your legs up against a wall feels uncomfortable, you can put your legs on a couch, chair, or bed, says yoga and meditation teacher Catherine Tingey.
“Anything that we have to do over and over creates a rhythm, which can ease tension and create an outlet for our anxiety or stress,” says Tassiello.
Examples of repetitive tasks that may help soothe stress include:
- dicing vegetables
- folding laundry
- washing dishes
- doodling patterns
During periods of intense distress and overwhelm, it can feel like you’re in the center of a tornado, at the whims of “wherever it’ll take you, making you feel helpless and more stuck,” says Rose.
Instead, try to shift your vantage point and imagine yourself as the meteorologist commenting on the tornado, she says, not someone trapped in the center.
In a nutshell, picturing yourself on the sidelines of an emotional storm can help reduce its power over you.
Immerse yourself in a sensory experience, recommends Neha Chaudhary, MD, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and chief medical officer at BeMe Health.
Chaudhary notes that this could mean:
- putting on headphones and playing your favorite songs
- using aromatherapy oil
- dipping your hands in a bowl of cold water
Heart breathing, based on work from the HeartMath Institute, helps us “gain a deeper awareness and sense of calm, and return to center,” says Bara Sapir, an integrative life coach, MBSR-Trained provider, and founder of City Test Prep.
To practice, perform these three steps:
- Heart focus. Place one hand over your heart and the other over your belly. Focus your attention on the area around your heart.
- Heart breathing. As you inhale, feel as if your breath is flowing in through your heart. As you exhale, feel it leaving through this area. Continue breathing with ease until you find a natural rhythm that feels good to you.
- Heart feeling. As you maintain your heart focus and heart breathing, recall a time you felt good. Take a moment to re-experience this positive feeling.
Using self-soothing tools in the moment can help a lot, but it’s equally as important to work on creating calm in your day-to-day routine.
According to Tassiello, you could:
- Make your bedroom into a sanctuary.
- Limit screen time.
- Create a relaxing bedtime routine.
- Process stress daily before it reaches a breaking point.
When you experience a difficult emotion, a self-soothing technique can reduce distressing thoughts and help relax a frazzled body.
It can help to try these activities before you’re upset to see which ones resonate with you. You can even keep a list of your top five soothers in your phone.
Remember that learning to soothe yourself can take time, says Lavelle. Try to be patient with yourself while “reminding yourself that you deserve to feel peaceful and taken care of.”
Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, has been writing for Psych Central and other websites for more than a decade on a wide range of topics. She’s the author of the mental health journal “Vibe Check: Be Your Best You” (Sterling Teen). She’s especially passionate about helping readers feel less alone and overwhelmed and more empowered. You can connect with Margarita on LinkedIn, or check out her writing at her website.