10 ways to self-soothe an anxious mind
From mindfulness meditations to cold water swimming, and aromatherapy – these techniques can help return balance to your body and mind
words Hannah Bertolino
Add together two years of a global pandemic, stop-start social lives, a debilitating fear of climate change, political upheaval, cost of living crises, and days upon days spent doom-scrolling on social media… and it’s no secret that we’re in an anxiety epidemic. In fact, according to a 2022 study by The Prince’s Trust, 46% of young people say the pandemic has worsened their mental health issues, 40% report feeling anxious about socialising, and 23% report that they “always feel anxious”. With this in mind, it’s more important than ever to check in with ourselves, connect with those around us for support, and look after our anxious minds.
Fortunately – no matter how big your anxiety is, which ways it’s manifesting, where it stems from, or even if there’s no specific reason for it at all – there are practical, at-home strategies that can help. Specifically, psychologists and doctors recommend trying trying self-soothing practices – AKA any activities or techniques that can help regulate your body back to a state of equilibrium, counteracting mental health issues that might bring your body out of its natural balance.
It’s important to seek professional help if you need it, but sometimes short-term solutions can help stem the stress. Here’s some small soothing practices – from meditation to aromatherapy, cold water swimming, journaling, and more – so you can explore some methods for making yourself feel better in a more immediate way. Check out our guide on how to self-soothe your anxious mind below.
When anxiety creeps in, it’s easy to get lost in your thoughts or symptoms… here's where mindfulness comes in. Defined as the practice of being physically present, mindfulness helps to stay in touch with your own thoughts and feelings, and your surroundings rather than getting stuck in your head – helping to reduce stress and improve focus. To put this into practice, try following a short, guided meditation from apps like Headspace, Calm, or Balance next time you feel anxious thoughts coming through.
Cold water swimming
While any form of physical activity is proven to have a positive impact on your mental health, studies show that cold water swimming is especially effective in treating anxiety. Just like entering a stress-inducing situation, jumping into cold water triggers our bodies’ fight-or-flight response, activating our sympathetic nervous system, spiking blood pressure levels, and flooding the body with noradrenaline and cortisol. By swimming in cold water often, your body will train itself to manage its response to unrelated stressors in a process called ‘cross-adaptation’. For more info, check out Woo’s guide to cold water swimming here.
Emotional freedom technique (AKA tapping) is an alternative treatment for both mental distress and physical pain – meaning it could help to relieve any physical manifestations of anxiety, like nausea, headaches, or chest pain. Similar to acupuncture, the practice encourages tapping on different pressure points on your body to trigger soothing stress responses in your brain. Try it here.
4-7-8 breathing technique
If you’ve started to feel overwhelmed or panicked while on-the-go, breathing techniques are a quick, easy way to signal for your nervous system to slow down. This one – referred to as 4-7-8 breathing – simply includes breathing in for four seconds, holding your breath for seven seconds, then exhaling for eight seconds. Specifically, this practice will activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to relax the body back to equilibrium after a stress response has been triggered.
Creating a sensory toolkit or self-soothing box
…meanwhile, if you’re at home, try putting together a self-soothing box full of different items that can ground you, make you feel more relaxed, and reduce symptoms of panic. From soft blankets to scented candles, quotes with affirmations, squishy stress balls, hand creams, and chocolate – choose items that can activate your different senses, distracting you from your stress and keeping you grounded in the moment.
Created by Dr. Steven Ruden and Dr. Ronald Ruden, havening is a new, alternative therapy technique that uses distraction, touch, and eye movements to reduce any anxieties related to negative memories, such as phobias, grief, or PTSD. Specifically, the technique uses a mixture of therapeutic touch and looking towards different directions – all while thinking of your anxiety – to increase serotonin to the brain and detach your mind from any negative associations with the topic… therefore creating a “haven” from the anxiety.
For those looking for a simpler approach to working through anxious feelings, look no further than classic, pen-and-paper journaling. Rather than overlooking your anxiety – which often can cause it to build up over time – journalling allows you to examine the root of the stress and shift your thoughts from anxious to empowered or action-oriented. If you’re looking for some more tips or structure in your journaling, check out Woo’s favourite self-help and journal guides here.
Aromatherapy oils and perfumes
Whether diffused into the air, applied topically to your body, or simply smelled, aromatherapy oils can help you feel less anxious or stressed. According to research, scents have a proven link to the part of our brain that controls memories and emotions – allowing different smells to invoke soothing feelings of nostalgia and comfort. Scroll through our favourite scents here.
As anxiety elicits a stress response in our body, it often can come with negative emotions, thoughts, and feelings – disrupting positive thought patterns. While it may feel silly, research has shown that labelling feelings of gratitude and thankfulness in our lives can rewire the focus of our brains, leading to a decrease in anxiety and negative thoughts. We recommend keeping a gratitude journal, listing a few things you’re thankful for each day, to practice.
Just like practising gratitude, these same techniques can be applied to the thoughts, beliefs, questions, and ideas that we speak to ourselves – otherwise known as “self-talk”. According to research, shifting our inner dialogue towards a more optimistic outlook can help fight off anxiety by reducing stress and pain to improve our overall physical well-being. To get started, try acknowledging any negative thoughts that you have and counteracting it with a positive affirmation; for example: “It’s impossible” could turn into, “I’ll take it one step at a time.”