How to build healthy self-soothing habits

I have been thinking about self-soothing. As I caught myself mid scroll as I wondered what on earth I was doing. I was barely even reading, just skimming over the text, looking, for what? I didn’t even know anymore. However, I knew it wasn’t good, I was searching for drama, something that I didn’t want but that fed that human desire to rubberneck at situations that don’t concern us. It was like waking up from a dream with a jolt. When I am engaging in these behaviours I am not using my time effectively. I am missing my tasks and goals. This isn’t who I want to be, but how to become that person? The worst is that I even already know the answer to that question. (So do you). 

When we’re not being our best selves and we realise and reflect I’m sure of one thing – the behaviour is the effect, not the cause. 

Falling down the rabbit hole

So why might we engage in behaviours that are not helpful? I believe it’s when we are feeling overwhelmed and we don’t know how to soothe ourselves. When we are feeling stressed or overwhelmed we look for ways to feel better, but sometimes, we slip into poor habits and techniques. Here are some poor habits I engage in when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed:

  • Shout at the people I love
  • Swear inappropriately
  • Clench my fists and/or jaw
  • Mindlessly scroll
  • Watch TV but not actually watch
  • Eat junk food or don’t eat at all (the latter is a big red flag for me)
  • Make rash decisions

These behaviours become like giant rabbit holes to me and I fall down them time and time again. I do want to add a caveat – sometimes, zoning out in front of the TV is exactly what you need; releasing anger in a safe environment is important; eating junk food is yummy and sometimes, making rash decisions works out well. However, if you are engaging in these self-sabotaging behaviours regularly and it’s stopping you being productive and/or using your time effectively, then it’s an issue.

How to build healthy self-soothing habits

When I notice myself falling down them (which may not be immediate) I often realise that I’m feeling overwhelmed and I need to do something about it. It may be a different emotion for you. What then are better techniques for self-soothing? 

Acknowledge your triggers

One of my biggest triggers for feeling overwhelmed is trying to do too much and forgetting to look after myself. It might be that I haven’t slept well, I have ignored my own boundaries or I am not nourishing myself. It is these things that are the root cause of the behaviours, along with picking up bad habits along the way. 

Experiment with different approaches and ways to calm yourself

There isn’t a one size fits all approach – you have to experiment. That said, I will share with you some approaches I use for the behaviours I mentioned above. Step outside of your comfort zone, you never know what might work for you. 

  • Shout at the people I love – I find a safe space and way to release my anger. Perhaps screaming into a cushion or outside away from others. I asked my kids to hold me accountable for speaking kindly and call me out if I am not doing so. I also regularly journal my feelings
  • Swear inappropriately – I use affirmations and substitute words instead or writing it down instead of saying it out loud or venting to my close friends in a shared WhatsApp group
  • Clench my fists and/or jaw – I use relaxation techniques and notice where in my body I am holding the tension to release it
  • Mindlessly scroll – I use a wellbeing app to set timers so that when the time is up, the app shuts down
  • Watch TV but not actually watch – I turn off the TV or, if it’s something I really want to watch, I make the space to watch the programme mindfully
  • Eat junk food or don’t eat at all (the latter is a big red flag for me) – I plan my food in advance and set a menu and I buy things that are better for me. I also make sure that I eat regular meals
  • Make rash decisions – I talk to others, pause decisions for 24 hours before making a final decision, place things in a shopping basket but wait before I buy. 

Track your progress

I set the intention to hold myself accountable for nourishing my body, mind and soul with activities that are good for me, and that are a productive use of my time.  I use a shared group to write down my intentions for the day and how I am going to achieve them. As I see my progress I am spurred on to make better choices. This means I act more like my best self and the person I want to be. 

Be kind to yourself

It is easy to engage in poor habits, to not fulfil our potential and to not notice for a while. Sometimes, if someone else points it out, we still may choose to ignore the information as we move through the emotions of change. Be kind to yourself when you notice. This isn’t the time to beat yourself up and wish you had done ‘better’. We all have days, weeks, months and even years when we don’t act in accordance with our best selves. The point is that when we do notice, what we need is to acknowledge it and let it be. To sit with those feelings without judgement and then to make a plan to do better. 


We can do this by ourselves, with a friend or we may need to seek professional support. We learn our self-soothing habits from birth and so if we have experienced trauma or pain growing up, this is the most common cause for engaging in poor self-soothing habits. If this is true for you I would recommend seeing a therapist or other professional person who is trained to help people. 


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