Managing Stress with Self-Soothing Strategies
Self-soothing is one of the fundamental skills we all need to effectively navigate human life and interactions.
Think about it: if you couldn’t help yourself stay relatively calm when someone cuts you off on the highway while you’re driving a 3,000 lb car at 65 miles an hour, things could get really bad, really fast (pun intended).
Self-soothing does not mean that we don’t feel scared or angry in stressful situations — self-soothing is just the ability to regulate the intensity of our feelings to keep us moving toward our desired outcomes (for example: making it home safely and not rear-ending the jerk in front of you on the road).
Self-soothing sounds simple enough - but let’s be honest: when life gets crazy or a crisis happens (or both, like when maybe - I don’t know - a pandemic totally upends everything in your world), it can be challenging to feel like you can keep both hands on the wheel.
Typically, we are more likely to have difficulty with self-soothing and responding to stressful situations when one or more are part of our experience:
Being in a situation that we can’t control
Underlying anxiety, depression, ADHD, or other mood-related concerns
Having never learned self-soothing from other trusted figures in our life (such as parents, siblings, and peers)
Trauma (present and/or past)
Problematic substance use
other situational, biological, and environmental factors
(Any of the above look familiar right now?)
The good news about self-soothing is that we all have the tools we need to make it happen. Some of the most powerful of these tools are our five senses.
Using Your Five Senses to Better Manage the Moment:
As human beings, there’s nothing (literally nothing) that connects us to the present moment more than our five senses. Think about it - they can ONLY tell us what’s happening right. now. Anger, anxiety, worry, and even depression have a really hard time with this: they “put” us waaaay out into the future, or waaay back in the past. The tricky thing about this is that whether you’re in the past or the future, one thing remains the same: you can’t control things there.
Why is this important? Well, our senses, keeping us connected to the present, help us stay connected to a sense of control, which reduces distress and can even distract us from immediate stressors that we can’t control (like whether that jerk on the highway uses his turn signals).
This is the non-brain-science way of describing a pretty important phenomenon: when we remain grounded in the present, we help our brains manage a more balanced “conversation” between the parts of the brain involved in survival responses (the limbic system) and critical thinking (the neocortex).
When we go into panic or “react” mode, the neocortex (“critical-thinking brain”) basically leaves the room, leaving us totally reliant on the limbic system (“survival brain”). This results in difficulty with focus, inability to think clearly, trouble forming sentences, floods of adrenaline and cortisol, increased emotional volatility, bodily distress, and so on. By using our five senses to stay grounded to the present, we help the neocortex stay in the room. This helps us more effectively manage the intensity of feeling that our limbic system brings into the conversation. In other words, we help our own brains “feel” safer.
So how can we use these powerful tools to help us improve the moment we’re in? So glad you asked! The list is endless.
Here are just a couple practical techniques that our clients often use and many find helpful:
A Couple Quick Strategies for Self-Soothing:
1. The “Sensory Countdown”
First, take one to five deep breaths (a natural, diaphragmatic breath - you don’t have to make yourself a balloon or a bullfrog; just focus on how it feels to breathe in and out).
Next, use your five senses like stepping stones crossing a river, getting you from restlessness on one side to a place of calm on the other:
SIGHT: Use your eyes to observe 5 things around you. (Objects, colors, textures, light and shadow, shapes, etc.)
SOUND: Connect with your ears and listen for 4 sounds happening around you. (Your breathing, cars, the house settling, etc.)
TOUCH: Observe with your body 3 sensations you notice with your sense of touch. (The temperature of the air on your skin, a texture, the weight of your own body in a chair, focus on an obscure location (how it feels under your left pinky toe, for example), etc.)
SMELL: Use your nose to “sniff out” 2 scents around you. (A candle, pollen, dust, remnants of cooking hanging in the air, your deodorant, etc.)
TASTE: Listen to what your tastebuds notice by focusing on 1 taste that you can perceive. (Sweet, salty, minty, etc. (use tictacs, a peppermint, chewing gum (double-whammy for texture!), a lemon, or anything that’s safe to consume and helps you focus))
Note: Many people find that certain senses are more effective for grounding than others. For example, you might find sight to be too stimulating, but sound helps create near-immediate soothing in your body. Notice which senses are more effective for you, and use these as the “doorway” to entering a state of calm when you try this exercise.
2. The Sensory Grounding Box:
This tool takes a little extra creativity, but is very easy, and can be completed with any collection of common household objects.
First: create for yourself a container into which you place items that stimulate your five senses. The container can be anything:
a ziplock bag
a food storage container (like Tupperware)
a jewelry box
a shoebox (or a shoe)
really, anything! Whatever works for you.
Next: select items that are grounding to you and your senses. A few examples are outlined below:
photos of favorite places, people, memories
multi-colored or intricately designed objects (like an Christmas ornament, or a small piece of wood with an interesting grain pattern)
a piece of art
encouraging messages, affirmations, or meaningful quotes
a small bell
tissue paper you can crinkle
a playlist written out that you can easily access on your phone or another device
a shaker that a musician might use
feather or something soft, fuzzy, furry, etc.
small stones of varied textures (smooth, rough, etc.)
candle or incense
a teabag or small bag of spices (cinnamon, lavender, etc.)
your favorite nonperishable snack
tactics, hard candies, or other mints
a flavored drink mix (tea, hot chocolate)
Note: Notice how many of the suggested items can serve multiple sensory purposes. For example, a bag of your favorite tea blend or hot chocolate can be used to stimulate all five senses at once: Touch, the crinkle of the unopened bag, or the heat from your mug as your drink it; Taste, the flavors of the drink; Smell, the aroma of the unopened mix or the drink once blended; Sound, the mixture being poured, your own mouth’s sipping while you drink; Sight, the colors of the mix, drink, container you drink from, etc.
As with many of the strategies we use to help ourselves effectively manage stress and intense emotions, the more we use them, the more effective they become. If you’re interested in experimenting with the two above practices, consider doing so on a daily basis. For example, each time you make a meal, use a sensory count-down. If you’re clocking out of work at the end of the day, take just five minutes to sit with your sensory box (that’s 60 seconds per sense — we’re betting you’ll hang out there longer).
One thing many people notice when trying these out for the first time is that it’s hard to “turn off” your thoughts. That’s ok - you’re not doing it wrong if you notice this. Your brain wants to keep you safe, and does a great job of this; it’s normal to notice distracting thoughts during these exercises. When you do notice them, simply (and gently) turn your attention back to your senses. Use them like lightening rods for your focus. Those thoughts will still be there when you finish, so give yourself permission to take a short break from them.