13 Free and Effective Self-Soothing Techniques to Support Your Mental Health

by | Jul 5, 2022 | Mental Health, Mind | 0 comments

Imagine the following scenario: You find yourself in an emotionally charged or highly stressful situation or experience a traumatic event. Intense emotions arise and very quickly, you find yourself spiraling in anger, fear, frustration, sadness, or stress. To calm down emotionally you might scream, cry, go for a walk, or talk to your best friend. Whatever helps you not be overwhelmed by emotions is what we call self-soothing behavior.
Self-Soothing Techniques

Self-soothing is an emotional regulation strategy to comfort yourself when experiencing potentially disruptive emotions. Self-soothing helps to reset bodily systems after acute stress responses or upsetting events and regain balance.

A more scientific definition of self-soothing give Croatian researcher Asmir Gračanin and colleagues:

“Self-soothing are all self-directed behaviors and internal processes aimed to calm an individual in distress. That is, to diminish primarily negative emotion and corresponding physiological arousal, eventually resulting in homeostasis.”

One important aspect they point out is the fact that self-soothing is directed at your subjective experience, not the objective situation. Therefore, self-soothing behaviors are not meant to change the situation but rather your emotional reaction to it.

This article explores the importance of self-soothing as an adult as well as the connection between self-soothing abilities and mental health. Finally, you will find a list of 13 self-soothing activities to try next time you’re on the brink of emotional overwhelm.

Self-soothing – A skill every adult should have in their mental health toolbox

Self-soothing is often discussed in the context of childhood development. And while it is true that you learn many of your self-soothing patterns in the early years of your life, knowing how to comfort yourself is a vital life skill every adult should have in their mental health toolbox.

Every human needs soothing when in distress following trauma, shock, or upset. Remember as a child, when you hurt yourself or were experiencing discomfort? Ideally, you were comforted by an adult, maybe given a hug, and told that everything would be alright again eventually. That’s soothing right there. When others aren’t around to give the support and soothing needed, or the situation or space doesn’t allow for social soothing, your self-soothing abilities become more important than ever.

Not only can self-soothing help to get you through a stressful work day or a difficult family situation, but ultimately self-soothing signals your nervous system that you are safe and allows you to calm down in the midst of chaos. All your systems are able to come back into balance, reducing the negative effects long-term stress has on your body. Self-soothing enables you to process emotions in a safe way and avoid lingering negative feelings. It even has the potential to decrease the overall negative impact certain events have on your physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing.

Self-soothing signals your nervous system that you are safe and allows you to calm down in the midst of chaos.

As you can see, self-soothing skills are very important. However, they tend to be the hardest to practice when they are most needed. Temporary emotional overwhelm can reduce your capacity to make healthy choices and engage in positive self-soothing behaviors. In those times, it might feel easier to simply numb your feelings with alcohol, drugs, food, or the go-to behavior of your choice.

In moderation, a lot of things can be fine and will even provide short-term relief. However, these kinds of self-soothing behaviors will only cause additional problems in the long run. Therefore, improving your self-soothing skills is one of the most important things to learn as an adult. This requires self-insight, the development of positive self-soothing skills, and the ability to effectively use these skills to return to your emotional baseline.

Self-soothing and mental health

Self-soothing skills are essential for mental health. This isn’t just true for those with a diagnosed mental illness but for anyone suffering from mental health issues.

In general, adaptive and effective emotion regulation strategies like self-soothing have been found to be positively correlated with subjective wellbeing and happiness. Self-soothing, therefore, can be an incredible tool to nourish yourself mentally and strengthen your mental wellness today.

It even turns out that self-soothing touch is just as effective at lowering stress levels as receiving a hug from another person. This could be very encouraging news, especially for anyone still feeling like they can’t reach out or get professional help, and instead dealing with their condition behind closed doors.

No matter where you are on your mental health journey, whether you’re looking to prevent future issues, you want for you to feel better and for life to feel more easy and hopeful, or you want to supplement the professional help you’re getting with a holistic wellness approach, the following 13 self-soothing techniques will be valuable for you.

13 self-soothing techniques to try today

First of all, it’s important to keep in mind that people react differently to different self-soothing approaches. Therefore calling anything a “good self-soothing technique” isn’t always accurate.

The most effective self-soothing approach is the one that ultimately works for you. Just make sure you give the strategy a few tries before dismissing it as unsuccessful. Stress and mental health difficulties are rarely simple or immediate to address on one’s own. It’s a skill that you’ll need to hone in order to enjoy the rewards.

The next time life challenges threaten to overwhelm you, use one or multiple of the following self-soothing techniques to divert your mind and attention away from the source of your distress:


Self-soothing breathwork

A key part of self-soothing involves deactivating the sympathetic nervous system. One way to do this is by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system helps stop the fight or flight response and return to a calm state.

You can easily activate the parasympathetic nervous system by taking a few long, deep breaths in and out through the nose. This lowers your heartbeat and also reduces muscle tension.

Or you could try a calming pranayam like box breathing where you breathe in intervals of 4. You start by inhaling for four seconds, holding for four seconds, exhaling for four seconds, holding for four seconds, then inhaling again for four seconds, and so on. Concentrate on counting and breathing and feel yourself starting to calm down after a few rounds.

Meditation – The ultimate self-soothing technique

Meditation is another great way to quieten the mind and return to a state of calm. Simply close your eyes, breathe naturally, and start focusing on your exhales. Imagine all negative and disturbing emotions leaving your body together with the air you exhale.

Or if you’re feeling too agitated and restless, try visual meditation. Visual meditation is not so much about clearing your mind of thoughts as it is about focusing on one thing to free your mind of everything else. You can, for example, light a candle and gaze into the flame. Fully immerse yourself in the image of the candle. Notice every last detail. Take into account the candle’s flame, wick, wax, smoke, and scent.

Let the Earth soothe you through grounding

When dealing with an emotionally charged situation, sometimes it’s best to just remove yourself and change the environment for a few minutes. Grounding yourself, as in “returning to the earth” is a great tool for this. It can also invoke feelings of being held and supported by the Earth which can help you feel more secure and stable within yourself. Grounding can easily be achieved through things like time outdoors, gardening, forest bathing, or stargazing.

Intuitive movement to disperse stagnant energy

Often, after upsetting news or a shock, our bodies respond by freezing, and energy can become blocked. Some intuitive feel-good movement to wake up your body but relax your mind can help. A few simple trunk twists, neck rotations, jumping jacks, or bends at the hip to touch the toes can help shift stagnant energy. Or put on your favorite high-vibe song and break into a full-on dance party.

Self-Soothing movement

Self-soothe with a cold shower or swim

One of the fastest ways to soothe a racing ‘fight or flight’ response is to immerse yourself in cold water – a lake, ocean, river, bath, or shower will all do fine. The cold increases parasympathetic nervous system activity, which helps calm and soothe you. If you’re having a hard time calming yourself down, a few minutes of a cold shower could be a helpful trick.

DIY craft or home project to keep your hands busy and mind calm

Working with your hands can be very therapeutic and is indeed an effective self-soothing strategy. This can be anything from knitting to doodling, to pottery. Just have a look at any leftover materials and use anything you have a home. You will be surprised about what you can create with the things you already have and how calming and satisfying it will be.

Self-soothing touch to feel held and supported

You already learned that self-soothing touch is just as effective as social soothing. So why not give it a try? One of the easiest ways to soothe yourself is by putting your right hand on your heart and your left hand on your belly and focusing your attention on the rising and falling of your breath.

Another great way to self-soothe through touch is tapping. Tapping is used by the emotional freedom technique (EFT) and involves lightly tapping on acupressure points on different parts of the body. Tapping has been shown to lower cortisol levels in the body and helps regulate other stress indicators, like heart rate, breathing, and body temperature.

Stress often results in physical tension in the body. Relax any tension and self-soothe at the same time by self-massaging any tense areas simply using your hands, a tennis- or baseball, or a foam roll.

A day of exploration and adventure for a fresh perspective

This is a great way to train your mind to see things from a different perspective and to introduce more child-like joy and wonder into your life. Without any particular destination in mind, just start walking and see where the day takes you. Or get on a bus or subway and ride it to the end of the line to start exploring. Have fun with this and really be present and mindful.

Soothe yourself with a break from technology

It’s no secret that spending too much time on your phone and other devices isn’t so good for your wellbeing. Excessive use of devices can leave you feeling depressed, lonely, and agitated. And that’s without dealing with emotional distress and overwhelm. So turning on do not disturb and unplugging for a while works wonders when it comes to self-soothing and mental health.

The soothing power of daydreaming

Daydreaming is a change of scenery when you’re not physically able to leave your space, e.g. at work, but still need to self-soothe. I find visualization to be one of the more effective self-soothing techniques for this scenario. 

All you have to do is close your eyes and imagine yourself in a place that makes you feel calm, safe, and at ease. It’s not important whether this place really exists or lives only in your imagination. Visualize your place in all of its details and with all of your senses. Allow yourself to really feel all of the feelings it invokes.

Eat a self-soothing diet

“Let food be thy medicine” – Hippocrates already knew this to be true thousand of years ago. There are many ways to support your emotional and mental state through food. Eating omega-3s in foods like wild salmon, flaxseeds, or walnuts is linked to decreased rates of depression and increased amounts of healthy gut bacteria which positively impacts your wellbeing. Consuming foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir help reduce anxiety and make you feel calmer. And lastly, eating healthy carbohydrates can increase the release of serotonin, a feel-good hormone.

Shift your focus and self-soothe through journaling

Whenever you find yourself in a negative spiral, take a moment to sit down and write 3 things you are grateful for as well as 3 things you accomplished today. These can be super small things like getting out of bed or simply being alive. The point is to shift your mindset to a positive place and focus on the good.

Take a soothing bubble bath

The bubbles, the water temperature, the scent – don’t you feel more calm and relaxed just thinking about it? The different sensations and impressions will help you focus on the bath rather than your emotions. Furthermore, the body can be soothed by sitting in hot water. It relaxes your muscles, which has various physiological effects that can aid in relaxation.

Self-Soothing bath

Building your own self-soothing kit

Self-soothing is not just for infants – adults need to be able to calm themselves, too. As a form of emotion regulation, adaptive self-soothing techniques are essential for dealing with the highs and lows of life and handling stress effectively. There are plenty to choose from and with a little experimentation, you can build your own self-soothing kit to help you through even the toughest of times.

What do you think? Do you have a go-to self-soothing method that always works for you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

Written by Julia

Julia is a Kundalini Yoga Teacher and Holistic Self-Discovery Coach with a passion for spirituality, self-development, and life-long learning. With her years of knowledge as well as life and industry experience, Julia loves empowering others to create a life that not only looks good on the outside but feels amazingly fulfilling on the inside, too, through inspirational and practical content.

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