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How To Self-Soothe As An Adult

How To Self-Soothe As An Adult

When you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed out, here are some tried-and-true tactics to make you feel calmer in no time.

If there’s one thing from my childhood I wish had been given more importance, it was how to self-soothe. Though my mother was an excellent parent in many ways (and most parents do the best they can), the complex circumstances of my youth—namely, a rotating door of stepparents, thanks to many divorces and remarriages on both my parents’ sides—became the perfect breeding ground for me to develop unhealthy dynamics around managing my reactions to conflict.

Happily, as an adult, I’ve spent enough years reparenting myself when it comes to healthy boundaries with myself and others, uncovering tools to manage those good old abandonment issues that so many of us have, and developing an understanding of how to assuage my angst when the going gets tough.

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That’s thanks to years of committing to ongoing self-growth, which for me took the form of twelve steps, therapy, coaching, lifestyle medicine, and mindfulness practice. Now, as a forty-something, I am confident in my ability to show up for myself with gentleness and patience, and I’m fully committed to spending the rest of my life continuing to nurture my personal evolution.

Why is self-soothing important?

Judging by the many conversations I have with people who also came from difficult childhoods, it seems the ability to self-soothe is frequently one that we need to create and support as adults. Luckily, it’s never too late to do so. I’m very much not alone in trying one or more of these tactics on for size and seeing what works—keeping in mind that as we change, so do our go-to self-betterment tools.

When it comes to soothing yourself as an adult, below you’ll find some of the best tactics out there. Feel free to play around with them, but be advised that you might want to experiment with these before you find yourself triggered—such as in a disagreement with your partner, being reprimanded at work, or feeling as if you might blow up.

How to effectively self-soothe

This isn’t to say you can’t rely on this list when things get hard. By all means, bookmark this list (on your phone, too) and come back to it as often as you need, whenever you need. You’re in good company; I’ve bookmarked it for myself, too. We could all use having a handy list readily available when we need it most.

Remember that you are not the first person to experience insecurity (which can manifest in a variety of ways, from fury to extreme anxiety and lots in between), and you won’t be the last. If you’re reading this during a difficult moment, rest assured that you will get through this. See? That moment already passed. You will get through this moment, too. And this one.

Need even more help? These tools might be exactly what you need.

1. Give yourself a time out.

Take as little as two to three minutes to change your environment, even if that means disappearing to the nearest bathroom, the back patio, or your car.

Depending upon what is vexing me, I might spend my self-imposed time out counting my inhales and exhales, splashing a little cold water on my face, or listening to a song. By removing yourself from the situation, you give it—and you—a chance to chill.

2. Take a walk.

This is similar to number one, but I’ve noticed it has an added benefit.

A smiling woman talking a walk to self-soothe

The repetitive motion of walking—and paying attention to the “left, right, left right” of your feet moving—is not only useful in the moment but has also been known to lessen the impacts of long-term trauma. Walking, in fact, provided the groundwork for the healing benefits of EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), a type of therapy that uses rapid eye movements to reprogram your brain so that traumatic memories no longer feel so charged.

Even if you just walk around the block, it’s very likely you will return with a new perspective.

3. Talk to yourself. 

More specifically, allow your adult self (you now) to have a gentle, loving conversation with your child self (the part of you that is feeling wounded or scared). I realize this sounds a bit out there, but trust me, it really works!

I have been working with an incredible coach who encouraged me to recite the following when I’m feeling undone: “I’m here. I’ve got you. I’ll sit with you until you feel safe, seen, and heard.” Oof, this gets me every time. Even just thinking about those sentences can make me feel I’m shifting something that runs very deep for me.

For those of us whose emotional needs were not appropriately met when we were children, reassuring ourselves with sentences, even the very simple, “This will pass. You are safe. You are strong enough to get through this,” can mean the difference between spiraling and remaining grounded.

4. Make a list of what is a fact and what is a feeling.

This one took me a really long time to get, but once I did, it changed everything.

By separating reality (my wife is out later than usual) from the reality I’ve created (my wife left me or got in a horrible car accident), I can bring myself back to a calm place. Another way of making this list is by writing out the scenario you’ve created in your head and then, in a column beside that, write down the actual fact.

Though you can certainly create this list in your head (if you don’t have a pen and paper handy), I find that writing it out, whenever possible, has an even deeper healing effect.

5. Count five blue things you see.

The sky, that blue flower, that piece of public art, and so on. Say them out loud if at all possible, or quietly to yourself. Doing so helps you become further grounded in the present so that you don’t spiral so easily.

Step it up a notch, if you’d like, by counting five things you see that are the same color, noticing four physical sensations you’re feeling, three sounds you’re hearing, two things you’re smelling, and one thing you’re tasting. By engaging all of your senses, you are giving your body and your mind a chance to be fully present and an opportunity to distract yourself from your fears so that they don’t take over.

6. Make something with your hands.

This might not be something you want to start in the midst of a confronting experience, but one thing I like to throw in the mix when I’m working to change my perspective is to make a craft.

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Lately, I’ve been very into making simple paper stars out of long strips of paper. Engaging the hands-on, creative part of my brain gives permission for the upset part of my brain to take a little time off from worrying. Even when I do this for just five minutes, it seems to reprogram my thoughts effectively.

7. Spend time with animals. 

I’m lucky to have three darling little animals—two sweet, elderly chihuahuas and a very patient cat. Though they’re not technically emotional support animals, they consider that a technicality, as they very much support me emotionally (and hopefully that goes both ways).

A laughing woman self-soothing with a dog in her arms

Whether you have your own companion animals or you have easy access to a friend’s animals, when you’re trying to self-soothe, animals can be very helpful. Who is better than animals at being in the moment, after all? Be super present with them, paying extra attention to their patterns, the way their fur feels on your hands, and the cute and consistent way they’re breathing.

If you’re not with the animal when you need them, close your eyes and imagine what it would be like if they were there. That can also make a big difference.

8. Visualize someone who loves you.

Sometimes when I’m upset and need to self-soothe, it can be difficult immediately connecting with my self-love. That’s where my grandma comes in. Though she’s been gone for many years, I can still hear her voice comforting me, telling me she loves me and reminding me that it will all be OK.

Whether the person who comes to mind for you is someone in your life now or someone who is gone but not forgotten, it can be helpful to hold onto their love for you at the moment you need it most. What would they tell you if they knew you were upset?

9. Create a list of things that bring you joy.

I recommend putting your list on a GoogleDoc so that you can easily find it later. You can also text it to yourself so that you have an ongoing list right there on your phone. Fill that list with places, people, music, memories, and even food that you love and that makes you happy. Even just calling these things to mind can help you switch gears when you need to, and effectively elevate your mood.

10. Make plans for later.

Changing your focus from whatever is vexing you to imminent plans with yourself or a close friend can uplift your mood at the moment.

Make the plan for today or tomorrow, if possible, so that you have something tangible to look forward to. And don’t worry about it being a tiny thing; even a 20-minute walk after work, during which you’ll listen to your favorite podcast, can be a giant stress reliever. Honing in on logistics (which podcast will you listen to? Can you queue it up? Is your favorite scarf nearby so can you wear it later?) can give your anxiety a moment to lessen, too.

Jasmin Singer is the author of Always Too Much and Never Enough and The VegNews Guide to Being a Fabulous Vegan, as well as the co-host of the long-running Our Hen House podcast and the producer of the Kinder Beauty podcast, A Little Kinder.

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