Self-soothing Techniques

Being in Control of Overwhelming Emotions

“I just get so angry and then all hell breaks loose!”

“I feel so anxious at work and start crying at the littlest criticism.”

“When my boyfriend doesn’t call me back quickly, I just freak out and send 40 texts.”

Human emotions are strong. This is great when they feel positive like joy, excitement, and happiness. But when the emotions are uncomfortable, we may not know what to do with them and consequently feel out of control.

Adults who are able to smoothly (and authentically) handle strong uncomfortable emotions are skilled in what are called self-soothing techniques. A self-soothing technique is a way to be present with a challenging emotion while also having choice about how you react to it. It is not about repressing your feelings or numbing yourself with alcohol or emotional eating. It is about acknowledging the ebb and flow of emotions, knowing that you are ok, and choosing to calm yourself in a healthy way.

To build your skills in self-soothing, I recommend a few simple practices to try, to see what works best for you. One that is possible to do in all situations is intentional deep breathing. Breathe in from your diaphragm to a count of four, pause for a moment, and the exhale to a count of four. Self-massage is another great self-soothing technique, whether rubbing your hands, wrists, feet, or forehead. Music can have a powerful pull over our emotions. Have a few songs that you know make you feel good always at hand and play them if you start feeling overwhelmed with an emotion. Journal writing is also a powerful way to be present with uncomfortable feelings. And remind yourself that you’re ok and that this emotion will pass.

Please don’t feel embarrassed if this is something you want to work on (or if you do, just self-soothe your way through those emotions ;). From children to adults, we all go through a process of learning how to soothe ourselves in healthy ways. Emotions come and go; often quickly, if we let them.

Jennifer Gunsaullus, Ph.D.

Sex Therapy & Relationship Counseling in San Diego