Ever type-A, I showed up to my first therapy appointment with my most recent therapist with a list of goals for our time together. (I suggest you do the same, but that’s a topic for another time.) Learning how to self-soothe was at the very top of the list. I was nearing 30, and I had never learned how to dissipate overwhelmingly negative feelings without turning to someone else.
I’m not alone, but it feels like there’s shame around admitting you never learned how to deal with negative emotions such as sadness, disappointment, loneliness, and anger. There shouldn’t be. Cultivating a healthy mind space takes time and effort. I had started to work on improving my environment inside and out: I used the Grey Rock Method to limit how much toxicity I dealt with from other people. I scheduled my feelings to honor their power but also make space for getting through my to-do list. And I also turned inward, watching my language for examples of scarcity mindset that were holding me back.
But I knew I needed a more robust toolkit for dealing with negativity that was coming from within. Our negative feelings aren’t necessarily bad. They can teach us a lot about what we want and don’t from our lives, jobs, and loved ones. They can also act as cues that we’re unfulfilled in some area of our lives. Sometimes they’re profoundly healing despite how painful they are, as anyone who has experienced grief will tell you.
Why other people aren’t the answer
Sure, we all lean on our friends—but there should be a limit to that. Your friends are your friends, not your therapist. There’s a clear difference between venting to a trusted friend and relying on your friend to calm your mind and bring order to your mental chaos. Sometimes friends can do both. But lean on a friend for free therapy too often, and you risk making them feel like that’s the only reason you keep them around.
Our friends won’t always be there for us, either. Not in a everyone-will-leave-you-eventually way. I’m talking about simple availability. There will be times in which everyone is out of reach. Instead of feeling like a distraught mess until someone can pick up the phone or answer your text, wouldn’t it be better if you could self-soothe? For me, that was a big resounding yes.
What is self-soothing?
Self-soothing is simply using internal methods to calm yourself when experiencing negative emotions. If you can self-soothe, you don’t need to turn to other people for comfort. When you’re a baby, that means not screaming for your parents in the middle of the night. As an adult, that may look like leaning less on your friends as sources of free therapy. But for people who experience emotions more deeply, it might mean being able to get through the day until you can turn to a friend.
It’s a simple concept but a difficult practice. Emotions can literally take over our bodies: we shake when we’re scared, we cry when we’re sad, and our muscles tense when we’re angry. And this can feel like a spiral. Emotions take over, your body reacts, and you’re sucked even deeper into the emotion. Self-soothing is about breaking that cycle.
But how do you teach yourself to self-soothe? First, you need an emotional toolkit.
How to self-soothe: Putting together your emotional toolkit
Since everyone is unique, there are probably infinite ways to go about this. But I suggest you start here. This is a foolproof plan my therapist gave me to put together my own emotional toolkit. I’ve since built upon my original toolkit—as you’ll build upon yours—but even the basics helped me successfully navigate some extremely emotional situations.
The goal is to come up with five things you know can make you feel better. But they can’t be too similar. If, for example, sniffing lavender isn’t calming for you then sniffing peppermint probably won’t cut it, either. Maybe it will sometimes, but you need a robust toolkit. And that’s why you should come up with one for each of your senses: sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch.
Here’s how I put together my toolkit:
I have always loved the mountains. I’m not really sure why since I didn’t grow up near them and heading to the mountains wasn’t a common family vacation. Still, they simply embody calm to me. So I made my favorite picture of the mountains the background on my laptop and work computer. I also created a Pinterest board of calming mountain scenes.
Some other ideas:
- A framed photo of your childhood home
- A slideshow of photos of your family
- A slideshow of joyous memories
- A nature video in the middle of nowhere
I always have multiple candles at the ready for when I need to calm down. Unsurprisingly, they all smell like campfire and pine trees. When I worked at an office, I had a candle on my desk that I could sniff if I needed to, though I never lit it. I also stashed a vial of pine or eucalyptus essential oils in my bag in case I needed it on the go.
Some other ideas:
- Fresh flowers that you buy yourself
- A candle that’s comforting to you
- A spritz of your favorite perfume
- A spritz of your significant other’s cologne or perfume
- A comforting essential oil
I found this one tricky with a history of an eating disorder. My therapist and I decided that, to start with, drinks were probably the safest choice for me. While black coffee makes me think of work stress and deadlines, coffee with a healthy splash of half and half makes me think of Saturday mornings at home. That was my morning go-to, and peppermint tea was my option for the evening.
But for you, this could be anything. Maybe a fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookie if you and your mother used to bake together. Or it could be coffee from a cafe where you and your friend have catch up sessions. Even a hard candy that you enjoyed as a kid can be enough to bring back memories and, with them, positive emotions. But it’s also OK to turn to comfort food. (And, by the way, trying to stop emotional eating isn’t the answer, in my opinion.)
Some other ideas:
- Your favorite childhood candy
- A comforting cup of tea
- A latte from your favorite cafe
- A recipe your mom used to make
For most people this is music. Our relationships with music are so individual, though, that you need to hone in on how specifically relate to music and your emotions. Some people need to listen to angry music when they’re angry. Others need calming music to counter the anger. There’s no universal right choice. What’s right is what works for you, and it might take some experimentation to find that.
Some other ideas:
- A track of nature sounds that are soothing
- Listen to a voicemail to hear the voice of someone you love
- White noise so you create “alone time” at work
- A song that always makes you want to dance
You’ll likely have a different touch tactic for self-soothing for each emotion that needs addressing. I find that some emotions, like sadness, sap my energy. I just want to curl up and feel comforted, which is why I soothe myself by doing exactly what with a big, fuzzy blanket and a book. I was also clearly swaddled as a child, so being wrapped tightly in a blanket conveys a sense of security that I crave.
But other emotions, like anger, leave me with excess energy. I have a hard time sitting still and my hands shake from the adrenaline pumping through my system. To soothe that away, I generally turn to cleaning something that needs scrubbing. My therapist suggested I do this with intention by telling myself, “I’m scrubbing this because I’m angry.” Sometimes that feels right, sometimes it feels woo to me. Try it if you think it may help you address what you’re feeling.
Some other ideas:
- Draw yourself a warm bath or take a hot shower
- Do an activity with your hands, such as drawing, knitting, or cross stitching
- Straighten a drawer that’s gotten cluttered
- Go for a walk (leisurely if that’s soothing, fast if that works for you)
- Stimming, if that’s something you do
What is stimming?
Stimming is simply short for “self-stimulating behavior.” It’s commonly associated with autism, but people who aren’t on the autism spectrum do it, too. If you’ve ever met someone who clicks their pen or taps their fingers on the conference room table during stressful meetings, they might have been stimming. For some people, like those with autism, this is sometimes a behavior that needs to be managed because of the intensity or frequency.
But for people who aren’t on the autism spectrum, it can be helpful to bring awareness to self-soothing behaviors like these that you may not be aware of. You may crack your knuckles when you’re particularly stressed. Identifying this pattern and strategically using this information to calm yourself down before you get extremely stressed may be possible. I realized a couple of years ago that I practice a form of stimming by rubbing a piece of silk between my fingers. It’s something I was taught by my mom. I simply didn’t realize other people had similar habits. Now I use it strategically when I feel myself becoming anxious.
How can I teach myself to self-soothe?
Like any skill worth developing, this might take some time. Start by identifying one or two strategies under each of the senses that you can turn to when you’re feeling overwhelming emotions. Write them out or email yourself a list of them. At the beginning, the key will be to have access to this list because it’s hard to remember when you’re sad or upset.
The next time you feel overwhelmed by a negative feeling, take out the list. Identify a couple of the techniques you wrote down that are available to you. Maybe you’re at the office and some of them are only possible at home. Figure out what you can do, and make a point of doing them. Notice how you’re feeling as you do them and afterwards. Maybe they’re not as effective as you thought they would be. That’s OK. You can move on to something else on your list.
Even if your list works the first time, try to experiment. Maybe you forgot something even more effective than what you wrote down. It takes time to tease apart the strength of your emotions and what can counter them. But over time, you’ll build a robust toolkit for dealing with a wide range of negative emotions that doesn’t require turning to someone else. It will happen. Try to be gentle with yourself as you put together your toolkit. It can take time to learn how to self-soothe, but it’s well worth the effort.