Self-soothing is an emotional regulation strategy used to regain equilibrium after an upsetting event.
Most of us are familiar with soothing others when they are upset or afraid, especially if we have children. However, when we are triggered as adults, it’s difficult to regulate potentially disruptive emotions like anger, fear, and sadness, especially in a public space such as the workplace.
Inadequate self-soothing strategies can also disrupt intimate relationships when misunderstandings or conflicts arise.
In this article, we will discuss self-soothing behaviors and techniques that help regulate disruptive emotions and benefit mental health.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Self-Compassion Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you increase the compassion and kindness you show yourself and give you the tools to help your clients, students, or employees show more compassion to themselves.
This Article Contains:
- What Is Self-Soothing According to Psychology?
- 10 Examples of Self-Soothing Behaviors
- How to Teach and Encourage Self-Soothing
- 4 Best Techniques and Strategies for Adults
- 7 Activities, Exercises, and Worksheets
- Using Meditation for Self-Soothing: 3 Ideas
- Resources From PositivePsychology.com
- A Take-Home Message
What Is Self-Soothing According to Psychology?
Self-soothing helps to reset bodily systems after an acute stress response and regain homeostasis. All people need soothing after a shock or following trauma or upset. Common self-soothing behaviors include reaching for an alcoholic drink or a tub of ice cream. However, these kinds of self-soothing behaviors can cause additional problems.
Sometimes other people are not around to give the social support or soothing needed. Self-soothing skills are very important, although they are not easy to practice when they are most needed. Often, temporary overwhelm can reduce our capacity to make choices and engage in positive self-soothing behaviors.
A look at self-soothing in DBT
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is one of the third-wave behavioral therapies with roots in the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy tradition and mindfulness-based interventions. Originally, DBT was devised to support people who feel very intense emotions, especially those diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (Linehan et al., 2006).
Increasingly, DBT is an intervention used to treat the emotional dysregulation that may be involved in a range of mental health problems, including depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and substance abuse problems, as well as life crises, such as stress, burnout, grief, and trauma.
A DBT therapist equips clients with skills in radical acceptance, distress tolerance, and self-soothing techniques (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2019). The objective is to educate the client about the functionality of their old ways of coping with emotional dysregulation such as substance abuse, binge eating, or social withdrawal.
Basically, the client is encouraged to accept that at the time, their old coping methods were the best way they could regulate deeply distressing emotions. Learning distress tolerance entails learning self-soothing techniques that can regulate emotions without resorting to self-defeating behaviors.
One way to help clients acquire self-soothing skills is to ask them to create a self-soothing box or toolkit.
Typically, a self-soothing box includes objects or reminders of how to soothe all five senses: comforting smells such as scented candles, essential oils, or body lotion; pleasant tastes such as herbal teas or favorite snacks; soothing things to touch such as a favorite sweater, wrap, or stress ball; comforting sights such as photos of loved ones, pets, or favorite places; and soothing sounds such as a favorite piece of music or guided meditation track.
Clients could even make a mobile self-soothing toolkit to carry around with them as described in the Therapy in Nutshell video below.
Is self-soothing beneficial for mental health?
Many of us know from direct personal experience that self-soothing skills are essential for mental health. When we are triggered by something and experience a strong emotional reaction, it is normal to counter this immediately with a soothing experience, preferably in the company of a trusted person, to ease distress and regain equilibrium.
While many research studies have investigated the effects of interactive soothing between human beings, such as hugging, skin-to-skin contact, massage, and sexual intimacy (Uvnäs-Moberg, Handlin, & Petersson, 2015), very few have investigated the effects of self-soothing techniques.
Physical contact with other human beings raises our oxytocin levels and lowers our stress levels (Uvnäs-Moberg et al., 2015). This has deep roots in our experience of being soothed as infants and during childhood (Matthiesen, Ransjo-Arvidson, Nissen, & Uvnäs-Moberg, 2001). For a further explanation of the roots of interactive soothing in infancy and childhood, watch the short School of Life video below.
Dreisoerner et al. (2021) conducted a randomized control trial to assess whether self-soothing touch and being hugged had different effects on the stress response.
This study was conducted in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in widespread isolation for many people; traditional sources of interactive soothing were often unavailable. The researchers were keen to identify self-soothing techniques that could help alleviate distress during isolation and quarantine.
They found that both self-soothing touch (in this study, most participants chose to place their right hand on their heart and their left on their abdomen while focusing on the rising and falling of the breath) and receiving a hug from another person were equally effective at lowering stress levels.
Therefore, when other people are not available to hug, self-soothing touch could be a source of much-needed comfort and reassurance. For further instructions on this practice, see the video in the “How to Teach and Encourage Self-Soothing” section below.
10 Examples of Self-Soothing Behaviors
Some self-soothing behaviors that adults engage in can lead to other problems, for example, drinking alcohol, emotional eating, binge-watching TV, compulsive gaming, or internet surfing.
These may be effective in the short term but may result from experiential avoidance that leads to longer term problems.
Instead, clients should be encouraged to take up one of the following behaviors when life challenges threaten to overwhelm:
1. Change the environment
If possible, just change the environment for a few minutes. Go outside and focus on greenery or find a soothing indoor space with a pleasant view or ambiance.
2. Stretch for five minutes to move any blocked energy
Often, after upsetting news or a shock, our bodies respond by freezing and energy gets blocked. A few simple trunk twists, neck rotations, or bends at the hip to touch the toes can help shift stagnant energy.
3. Take a warm shower or bath
Treat yourself with soothing body wash or bubbles and a fresh, soft towel afterward.
4. Soothing imagery
Find soothing things to look at such as a burning candle, soft lights, pictures of loved ones, favorite places, or perhaps some framed inspirational resilience quotes or affirmations.
5. Soothing music
Listen to favorite tracks that have a calming effect or one of the many relaxing music videos for stress relief that are available online.
6. Soothing smells
Create pleasant smells by using an essential oil diffuser, scented candle, or incense. Also, try using scented hand lotion.
Speak compassionately to yourself aloud. Talk to yourself like a good friend would. Give yourself the grace to be off-balance and the space to just be as you are for a while.
3 Self-soothing coping skills for anxiety
1. Focused breathing
Exhale more slowly than you inhale to soothe anxiety quickly. In the video below, Dr. Rangan Chaterjee explains how the 3–4–5 breathing technique works.
Simply breathe in for a count of 3, hold your breath for a count of 4, and breathe out for a count of 5.
2. Self-soothing touch
Try self-soothing touch, as recommended by Dreisoerner et al. (2021). Put your right hand on your heart and your left hand on your belly and focus your attention on the rising and falling of the breath. You can also try the exercises recommended by Dr. Peter Levine in the video below. Other exercises are offered in the worksheets section.
3. Mindful walking
Get grounded by moving your body mindfully. Try a short awe walk for 15 minutes, preferably in nature or a beautiful park or garden, taking in your surroundings mindfully with all five senses.
Awe is a powerfully uplifting and soothing emotion of wonder that puts stressors into perspective while increasing vitality (Bai et al., 2021). You can watch the Mindful Awe Walk video below for guidance.
How to Teach and Encourage Self-Soothing
Somatic therapist Dr. Peter Levine developed an approach to trauma therapy called somatic experiencing, which includes teaching clients practical self-soothing techniques in therapy.
In the short video below, Dr. Levine describes and shows self-soothing techniques using touch to establish the body as a safe container and the skin as a secure boundary.
These powerful yet simple self-soothing techniques can be modeled to clients in counseling or psychotherapy.
This exercise is described in full in our Self-Soothing Touch worksheet.
4 Best Techniques and Strategies for Adults
The following techniques all use self-soothing touch to raise oxytocin levels and lower the stress response quickly and effectively.
1. Cortisol self-massage
Yoga therapist Elaine Oyang demonstrates her short self-massage of the neck, shoulders, and hands, followed by a good shake-out, to release tension that is often held in the head area that can cause headaches, brain fog, and fatigue, especially when working for long hours on the screen.
Follow her guidance in the instructional video below.
Tapping is a self-soothing method used by the emotional freedom technique (EFT), which involves lightly tapping on acupressure points on different parts of the body.
Tapping lowers cortisol levels in the body and helps regulate other stress indicators, like heart rate, breathing, and body temperature (Bach et al., 2019).
For further instructions, watch the video below.
3. Butterfly hug
The butterfly hug technique combines tapping with focused breathing and positive affirmations, such as, “I’m safe and secure” or “I am loved,” and is an excellent grounding technique that can be used anywhere.
Watch the instructional video below to find out more.
Havening is an emotional regulation technique with roots in neuroscience. It is a brief intervention (Thandi, Tom, Gould, McKenna, & Greenberg, 2015) that uses the Havening Touch.
This can be delivered by a registered practitioner or by self-soothing. For further instructions on using havening to self-soothe, see the video below.
7 Activities, Exercises, and Worksheets
The exercises in this section are all explained on our free worksheets. All these activities have their roots in DBT and the somatic experiencing approach to trauma therapy.
- Try our free Countdown to Calmness worksheet for grounding by radically accepting things as they are, using mindfulness of the five senses.
- Try our free Noticing Physical Comfort worksheet to learn how to self-soothe by increasing awareness of comfortable physical sensations.
- Try the exercise in our free Soothing Breath worksheet, which uses the breath and touch together to self-soothe the body and mind.
- Try making vocal sounds and vibrations to self-soothe by discharging excess energy after a shock or upsetting event. Download our free The Voo Sound worksheet here.
- Our free Shake It Off worksheet describes an exercise that connects the body to the trembling sensation produced by a stressful event to include comfort and allow the system to settle.
- Our free Radical Acceptance worksheet describes a DBT exercise that can help self-soothing during intense emotions by acknowledging that feelings cannot be controlled. Rather, learn to accept this lack of control and choose to respond mindfully. In this way, you can experience intense emotions without trying to change or control the situation.
- Download our free Recalling Being Yourself worksheet activity that provides grounding by remembering how to feel comfortable in your own skin.
Using Meditation for Self-Soothing: 3 Ideas
Meditation is a contemplative practice that can help regulate disturbing emotions, even when practiced for only 10 minutes at a time. These three guided meditation practices are beneficial to clients who find it difficult to find the time to take a class or course.
Each practice is an effective stress management technique backed by science.
1. Mindful self-soothing meditation
Mindfulness has become a big buzzword in the health and wellbeing world for good reason. Regular mindfulness practices can rewire the brain to enhance executive function, which reduces reactivity (Shapiro, 2020).
A recent meta-analysis of mindfulness-based programs and their effects on mental health (Galante et al., 2021) found that mindfulness enhances the wellbeing of most adults in non-clinical community settings and may be especially beneficial for those experiencing extreme life stressors.
Try the meditation in the video below. It focuses on mindful self-soothing and only takes 10 minutes.
2. Self-compassion meditation
People who practice self-compassion are less likely to experience depression and anxiety than those who are harsher on themselves (Neff, 2011).
For a review of the findings of recent research studies, take a look at our article on the 15 Most Interesting Self-Compassion Research Findings. In addition, try the short 10-minute self-compassion meditation in the video below to appreciate the soothing effects of being kind to yourself.
3. Lovingkindness meditation
Lovingkindness meditation is a powerful self-soothing practice because it involves activating areas of the brain associated with joy and peace (Bodhi, 2005; Salzberg, 2002). For further information, look at our article on Loving-Kindness Meditation, which includes four meditation scripts, or the guided 10-minute meditation in the video below.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
For additional resources to help manage stress and soothe your frayed nerves, try our three Mindfulness Exercises for free.
The third tool in the set, the Eye of the Hurricane Meditation, describes how mindful attention to the breath can act as an anchor of inner peace in difficult and distressing circumstances.
If you want to learn more, check out our Mindfulness X program, which offers a comprehensive eight-session mindfulness training package based on scientific research. The course includes videos, worksheets, exercises, and slides, and can be taught under your own branding.
Finally, if you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop self-compassion, check out this collection of 17 validated self-compassion tools for practitioners. Use them to help others create a kinder and more nurturing relationship with the self.
A Take-Home Message
While most of us are familiar with soothing others when they are having a tough time, soothing ourselves is something many of us find difficult. Yet, self-soothing skills are essential for self-regulation and adult mental health.
Research into self-soothing techniques for adults is a relatively new area, but there are some interventions that are attracting increasing attention from psychology and neuroscience researchers, including havening, DBT, and somatic experiencing techniques.
No matter how well we navigate our way through life and how psychologically skilled we are, life will hit us with shocking and unexpected events from time to time. In these times of loss or sudden change, having access to self-soothing techniques is essential.
For our clients, self-soothing techniques can help manage life events between therapy and counseling sessions, especially for those who have experienced trauma or struggle with addiction.
Self-soothing skills are key to the emotional regulation many of our clients seek. We hope you find the resources shared in this article useful.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Self-Compassion Exercises for free.
- Bach, D., Groesbeck, G., Stapleton, P., Sims, R., Blickheuser, K., & Church, D. (2019). Clinical EFT (emotional freedom techniques) improves multiple physiological markers of health. Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine, 24.
- Bai, Y., Ocampo, J., Jin, G., Chen, S., Benet-Martinez, V., Monroy, M., … Keltner, D. (2021). Awe, daily stress, and elevated life satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(4), 837–860.
- Bodhi, B. (2005). An anthology of discourses from the Pali Canon. Wisdom Publications.
- Dreisoerner, A., Junker, N. M., Schlotz, W., Heimrich, J., Bloemeke, S., Ditzen, B., & van Dick, R. (2021). Self-soothing touch and being hugged reduce cortisol responses to stress: A randomized controlled trial on stress, physical touch, and social identity. Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology, 8.
- Galante, J., Friedrich, C., Dawson, A. F., Modrego-Alarcón, M., Gebbing, P., Delgado-Suárez, I., … Jones, P. B. (2021). Mindfulness-based programmes for mental health promotion in adults in nonclinical settings: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. PLoS Medicine 18(1).
- Linehan, M., Comtois, K. A., Murray, A. M., Brown, M. Z., Gallop, R. J., Heard, H. L., & Korslund, K. E. (2006). Two-year randomized controlled trial and follow-up of dialectical behavior therapy vs therapy by experts for suicidal behaviors and borderline personality disorder. JAMA Psychiatry, 63(7), 757–766.
- Matthiesen, A. S., Ransjo-Arvidson, A. B., Nissen, E., & Uvnäs-Moberg, K. (2001). Postpartum maternal oxytocin release by newborns: Effects of infant hand massage and sucking. Birth 28(1), 13–19.
- McKay, M., Wood, J. C., & Brantley, J. (2019). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance. New Harbinger.
- Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. Yellow Kite.
- Salzberg, S. (2002). Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Shambhala.
- Shapiro, S. L. (2020). Rewire your mind: Discover the science and practice of mindfulness. Aster.
- Thandi, G., Tom, D., Gould, M., McKenna P., & Greenberg, N., (2015). Impact of a single session of havening. Health Science Journal, 9(5), 1–5.
- Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Handlin, L., & Petersson, M., (2015). Self-soothing behaviors with particular reference to oxytocin release induced by non-noxious sensory stimulation. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1529.