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8 Self-Soothing Habits to Try in the New Year

These self-calming techniques can help you manage everyday stressors.

Michelle Honeyager
Michelle Honeyager Contributor
Michelle is a contributor for CNET.
7 min read
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By their nature, negative thoughts can easily run wild and take over our lives. Something nasty someone did in the past can sit right alongside worries about finances, future career moves or our long-term health . It can be difficult to remove thoughts about the situation if something stressful is going on. You might lose sleep or find yourself distracted throughout the day. That's where the practice of self-soothing can help.

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Self-soothing is any relaxing practice to distract ourselves from negative thinking and help us feel better. Examples might be breathing exercises, playing uplifting music, taking up a mindfulness hobby like yoga or connecting with others.

One study looked at oxytocin release and self-soothing behaviors. Oxytocin, a natural hormone linked to feelings of well-being and anti-stress, gets released in the brain from a series of low-intensity stimulation behaviors such as touch and stroking, but it can also be released by pleasant situations overall. Self-soothing is to release feel-good hormones by consciously choosing pleasant activities.

For more mental health tips, check out how gratitude improves your mental health and tips to manage depression during the holidays.

Below are eight ways to practice self-soothing techniques to lift your spirits and disrupt feelings of stress

8 self-soothing techniques to start using today

Next time you're feeling stressed or anxious, try using one of our favorite self-soothing techniques.

Put your breathing to good use

Try a few breathing techniques to help you focus away from negative thoughts. Deep breathing and other breathing exercises can help us distract ourselves from negative thinking and increase feelings of relaxation. Some calming techniques that use breathing include:

Diaphragmatic breathing: This exercise helps us use our diaphragm to increase deep breathing. The diaphragm is a muscle below the lungs, and using it to breathe properly is associated with reducing blood pressure and heart rate while improving relaxation, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

To practice diaphragmatic breathing:

1. Lay flat on your back with your knees bent or supported by a pillow. Also, have your head supported. You can also do this sitting up. 

2. Put one hand on your upper chest and the other right under your ribcage. 

3. Breathe in through your nose as deeply as you can. You should feel your stomach rise or expand, while the hand on your chest should stay fairly still.

4. Breathe out through your mouth, exhaling completely. Make sure the hand on your chest stays as still as you're able. 

5. Repeat for as long as you feel is necessary to feel relaxed or for however much time you have.

Woman doing breathing exercises.
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Square breathing: Another method is square breathing, which relies on counting to focus thoughts and get the relaxation benefits of slow breathing. With this method, simply exhale completely. Then slowly inhale through your nose, while counting to four. Hold that breath, counting to four again. Exhale for a count of four through your mouth, and then hold your breath again for a count of four. Repeat for the length of the exercise.

Pursed lip breathing: Another popular breathing technique is pursed lip breathing. This technique makes you have to put more effort into breathing, and thus slows your breathing and helps you focus on just your breath. To perform this technique, start by exhaling all the way and then inhaling for two counts through your nose. Purse or pucker your lips like you're going to whistle. Then slowly exhale while counting to four. Repeat for as long as is comfortable or needed.

If you have chronic or temporary nasal congestion, feel free to breathe through your mouth when the instructions call for breathing through your nose.

Practice the 5-4-3-2-1 technique

This is a coping mechanism for anxiety. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, the method relies on grounding you in the present so that you can focus on something besides anxious thoughts. It requires you to recognize things from your immediate environment. To perform the exercise, use the following steps:

5: Acknowledge five items you can see around you. This can be anything from the floor to a ceiling fan.

4: Acknowledge four things around you that you are able to touch, such as your hair or the ground.

3: Acknowledge three things around you that you can hear, such as air coming through a furnace vent or a bird outside.

2: Acknowledge two things you can smell, such as some hand lotion or you could even check what the pillow smells like in your bedroom. 

1: Acknowledge one thing you can taste, like lingering food tastes from lunch or a mint taste from brushing your teeth. 

Use your inner dialogue for self-validation

This is also called positive self-talk. We can easily fall into negative self-talk, which can include anything from beating ourselves up mentally for perceived mistakes to worrying about negative judgments others might have. Positive self-talk re-routes these thoughts into a more positive mindset. 

Finding a good set of self-talk lines is a highly personal experience. You'll usually have to address specific insecurities or find phrases that resonate with you. Self-talk practice usually involves subverting negative thoughts that make you feel low. For instance, instead of thinking how embarrassed you are, remind yourself that you took the chance and were brave for trying.

To start, some common and general positive self-talk phrases include:

"I can do it."

"I am good enough."

"I can try again if I make a mistake." 

"I make the best effort I can."

"I'm doing my best." 

Try searching for positive self-talk phrases and see which ones resonate with you. One or two may jump out at you, and you can try relying on them to see how they make you feel. Try as many as you need to see which sticks. Consider working with a therapist to reduce negative self-talk and work on phrases tailored to your situation.

Change the environment

Sometimes something in our environment can bring us down. It might be as simple as getting less daylight during the winter, so you might look into lamps that mimic natural sunlight.

Sometimes if we expose ourselves to too much negative media , that can also turn our general outlook towards the negative. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a study showed that media exposure to COVID-19 news related to anxiety and subjective loneliness levels. You don't need to completely cut off all stressful media, but it might be useful to regulate how much you consume in a week or use tools that manage media exposure, like apps that help you limit time on social media.

You might also work to change your immediate surroundings. Repaint your walls to soothing tones, redesign your home with more uplifting and colorful decor or even just tidying up your room can make a big difference. Play around to see which décor choices elevate your mood.

Create a go-to playlist

Music can help elevate our mood. You have likely experienced the first-hand joy of rocking out to your favorite music. Create a playlist of all your feel-good favorites.

Remember to branch out and try new genres, songs and artists. You might find your new favorite song that never fails to lift your spirits. Creating a playlist of all new songs might also orient you in the present moment, instead of listening to a song that reminds you of the past.

Hug someone (or yourself) 

Woman in a white shirt hugging herself against a pink background
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Above, we discussed how touch might help you release feel-good hormones. As such, try to connect physically with someone you care for. Give them a hug, or even try hugging yourself.

Hugging yourself may sound strange, but it can relieve pain and improve your mood. To hug yourself, wrap your arms around you in a way that feels most comfortable, rest your hands on your shoulders or upper arms and squeeze yourself for as long as you need to. You might give a hard hug if that's what you need right now, or a softer and more soothing hug.

Try gently stroking your shoulders or forearms to get the sensation of touch. You can do this while self-hugging or not. 

Try a mindful hobby 

You can also look for a hobby that orients you in the present moment or is associated with soothing practices. For instance, anything that incorporates deep breathing can help add feelings of relaxation, like meditation, yoga, qigong or tai chi. You could also try meditation apps.

Look for other hobbies that can add a positive mood boost by going outside, like walking, gardening or cycling. These activities can be mindful, too, if you focus on the present moment as much as possible while doing them. 

Journal your feelings 

Finally, try writing out your feelings, which can help us cope with anxiety, depression and stress, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. You might try journaling about how you're feeling and why and write out ways to help yourself feel better or problem-solve.

You can also find many books or articles helping you write from a prompt. These often start as questions that you then answer. They're meant to help you reflect and often focus on self-growth. For instance, some prompts ask you to describe your perfect day, ideal home or goals for the future. Some prompts even help you work through social anxiety. Try searching for anxiety-busting journal prompts.

Try some general journal prompts to help you focus on the positives in your life. One common prompt is "Today, I'm grateful for…" 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.