Good news! You can calm and soothe yourself when you hurt.
It takes a long time, some training, and a lot of practice, but you can learn how to calm yourself during a depressive episode, an anxiety attack, a panic attack, a bipolar episode, or something similar.
You start the process by noticing what things you do that calm you down: concrete actions that take place outside of your mind, like reading a book, writing in a journal, playing on social media, eating an apple, meditating, being mindful, or talking on the phone. Whenever you find something remotely soothing, write it down. These soothing behaviors will be your coping tools, so you need to write them down and practice using them whenever you are in emotional distress. It’s best to always continue to build your “toolbox”, using your established skills as you move through life and writing down any new helpful behaviors that come up along the way.
Writing down behaviors is important because most of us will not remember off-hand what to do in the middle of a crisis. Write down your coping skills in a place where they will not get lost and that you can refer back to easily. A note or email on your phone is useful. I use this article, and you are free to use it as well. Take comfort wherever you can. I add to my toolbox as I go along. Some tools are better suited to particular feelings or situations than others, so I rifle through all of them to find one or two that fit the situation.
Writing down truths or affirmations is equally as important to your toolbox as concrete actions. Write down all of the statements that you need or want someone to say to you in a time of crisis to comfort you. Write down true things that are hard to remember when you are upset, like “I am loved”, “I will feel normal again”, “I am good enough”, I am strong”, “I have survived this before”, or “This will pass.” The fact that you wrote these things down at a time when you believed them will be an enormous boon to their validity when you are hurting. You know that they were objectively true to you at one point in the past and therefore remain true in crisis, regardless of how many negative things you currently believe about yourself and your life.
When you have a difficult situation come up, go to your toolbox and see what fits. The immediate goal is to lessen suffering, not eliminate it. You are not failing by not becoming instantly happy. The more you practice these skills, the stronger your ability to cope will become. You will eventually get to a place where you do use a skill and truly feel better. Use patience with yourself. Speak kindly to yourself; no name-calling. You are not stupid or weak or ugly or worthless. You officially no longer have permission to call yourself any of those things, even if they feel true. You’re being told what to do by a stranger on the internet, but I know that any voice telling you such a true and important thing will carry at least a little weight. The truth is that you are a human with intrinsic worth, your experience as a human is valid, there is beauty in you, and you are surviving something terribly difficult. You deserve to be loved, especially by yourself. No more name-calling.
Calming and soothing yourself takes lots of practice, and it is not the only tactic you can use to feel better. Medicine is the cornerstone of many people’s treatment as well as mine personally, and therapy is also enormously helpful. If you do get to go to therapy, enlist your therapist in your efforts to build a set of coping skills. That’s what they’re there for. You have the right as a patient to determine the goals you have for yourself in therapy. My current goal is simply “to reduce suffering”.
I recommend medicine and therapy as a primary treatment strategy, but I know that’s not an option for everyone. Using coping skills and tools, however, is something anyone can practice. Remember that you have to build up your skills through practice and that they will become more effective over time. Don’t give up. It is possible to feel better.
If I have a situation that causes me pain, the first thing I need to do is figure out how to feel better. After that, I can try to resolve the situation. This is where my coping skills come in. My coping skills are anything I can think or do to make me feel better. They range from meditation and mindfulness to re-watching comedy specials on Netflix and cuddling with my husband. Some are extremely simple, like reading or cleaning when I’m on the manic side. Others are just statements I reread that I originally had physically written down on index cards kept in my “toolbox”, which is the box I keep made out of a re-purposed shoe box. Now I use this article to “thumb through” my tools at a glance.
Examples of statements, affirmations, and truths that help me include the following below. Remember that they are true for you, too, and you are free to write them down yourself to use when you get upset.
Go through your toolbox and pick some actions and truths. This is always the first action you take, so it’s the only one you need to remember.
- You are strong.
- You can do hard things.
- You are so loved.
- You have been through this before, and you always come back. It just takes time. Wait it out.
- You are enough. You are more than enough. It is unbelievable how enough you are.
- You will not let depression win. Just be stubborn enough to not let it take you out.
- You are loved. Always. No matter what.
- You are worthy.
- Stay where your feet are.
- This WILL pass.
- You are beautiful, inside and out.
- Breathe. Breathe. Slow down.
- Your life has a purpose of your own choosing.
- Forgive yourself immediately.
- You will survive this and be happy again.
- This is not your fault.
- You are loving kindness.
- You matter.
- Your loved ones would be heartbroken if you died.
- You deserve to be in less pain. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to have your needs met.
- Other people want to help you, so tell them what you need.
- You go far away, but you always come back.
I also have many soothing or calming actions I can take to feel better. Here are the actions from my toolbox.
- Read a book if manic.
- Call a friend if you need compassion or to be heard by someone.
- Lay down, close your eyes, and relax from toes to scalp if you are tense.
- Play guitar or sing if you need a distraction.
- Listen to an affirming Spotify playlist if you need to center yourself or re-establish your personality.
- Do the big/medium/small ears centering meditation. This is where you sit silently with your eyes closed and imagine your ears are getting bigger. When they are very large, listen for all the sounds you can hear outside of the room you are in. Once you can hear all the sounds, shrink your ears to half their previous size, and listen to everything you can hear inside the room you are in. Then imagine your ears going back to normal, and listen carefully for all the sounds inside your body. This helps to ground you in the present moment, and it also helps with fear and anxiety. It is a very quick and easy meditation and only takes a few minutes.
- Meditate freestyle. Let thoughts occur inside of imaginary helium balloons in your mind, and then let each balloon go up and away as your thoughts come up. Have a thought, but then let it float away.
- Drink cold water.
- Sing until you are warmed up.
- Hold ice cubes in both hands and feel them melt. This is good for distracting your brain from your anxiety, which calms you down for a little bit. It’s good for panic attacks, but the relief doesn’t always last, so have another skill prepared for after.
- Walk. Thinking while walking helps you process emotion, due to the bi-lateral communication between the two hemispheres of your brain.
- Go outside and ground yourself. You ground yourself by noticing something near you and trying to take in as much information about it as you can. Use sight, smell, touch, color, lines, your emotional response to it, its history and where it originated. You can do this with anything. I recommend a tree or a plant.
- Meditate any way you like.
- Splash cold water in your face.
- Watch something comforting you’ve seen before on Netflix. This one is great for depressive and dissociative episodes, especially comedy specials. They have no plot to follow, it’s okay if you tune out sometimes, they have the same volume all the way through, which is good if you are tense, anxious, or agitated), and if you’ve seen it before, you’re not being challenged by trying to take in new information at a time when you already can’t process things you usually know.
- Write about all of your feelings.
- Talk to mom. She wants to help.
- Think about science.
- Color in your coloring book.
- Do crunches or lift weights.
- Find the MOMENT.
- Warm up like you would before a voice lesson.
- Ground yourself in the moment.
- Make sure you’ve eaten. If you haven’t, have fruit. This one is a good solution for when I don’t want to eat anything at all.
- Meditate by watching your breath.
- Cuddle with a loved one.
- Give attention and kindness to your pet. Take your time. Be present with them. They are always in the moment.
- Take a hydroxyzine. This one is specific to me, but I included it because many people take prescription antianxiety medication, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who forgets to take it when I need it most. Hydroxizine is a non-addictive anti-anxiety medicine that I use as-needed for anxiety attacks and episodes. You have options when it comes to psychiatric medication, so keep your doctor informed if something doesn’t work or causes problems, like extreme drowsiness or addiction.
Those are all of the skills and tools in my toolbox. I have others that are newer and I haven’t written down yet, and I will add them to this article as they occur to me.
I highly recommend building your own toolbox, no matter what your issue is. Try the ones above to find out if they work for you, and add to it whenever you find something soothing; either a thought or an action. It will give you a physical touchstone whenever you need it.
I wish you the best of luck in developing your own set of coping skills.
By Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter
I am not a doctor or any sort of mental health professional. I am a psychiatric patient with multiple mental illnesses that I have survived for 13 years now. My secondhand knowledge comes from doctors, psychologists, therapists, books, college courses in psychology, and the internet. My firsthand knowledge comes from the feelings, experiences, thoughts, symptoms, problems, and solutions that I have lived through. I know myself well, but again, I am not a professional. The information on this site is not a replacement for getting an actual diagnosis or professional help. Coping skills are fantastic, and I hope you learn some here and that they help you, but please seek and continue real medical treatment if you are struggling with mental illness. I wish you the best. You can do hard things.