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How to Build Distress Tolerance Through Self-Soothing

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In moments of extreme stress or anxiety, it can be difficult to feel in control of our emotions. Sometimes we may find ourselves turning to unhealthy behaviours just to get through the overwhelming distress we feel. The good news is that there are steps we can take to learn and practice healthy ways of coping in times of emotional stress.

What is distress tolerance?

Distress tolerance can be thought of as a person’s ability to cope with intense emotions. In a moment of emotional crisis, an individual with low distress tolerance may become extremely overwhelmed and feel out of control. They may even engage in destructive behaviours such as self-harm or substance use. While these behaviours may serve as a way to avoid feeling distressing emotions in the moment, they have consequences and often exacerbate pain in the long run.

Building up distress tolerance allows an individual to experience a stressful situation or intense emotion without acting in harmful ways. A person can increase their distress tolerance through learning various skills that help them to accept their circumstances and cope with what they are feeling in times of emotional crisis. One key distress tolerance skill is called self-soothing.

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The role of self-soothing

In times of emotional crisis, an individual can utilise self-soothing techniques to re-ground themselves and return to a calm, centred state. A person can practice self-soothing strategies on their own when they begin to feel stressed, anxious, or upset.

In practising self-soothing, it can be helpful to think about incorporating each of the five senses. Let’s take a look at some examples of self-soothing techniques.

Self-soothing techniques through your five senses


  • Look up pictures on the Internet that you find calming to look at.
  • Keep a collection of photographs that you find pleasurable that you can look at in times of distress.
  • Go outside and take a walk, being mindful of the nature around you.
  • Mindfully take in the surroundings and colours in your environment, wherever you are.
  • Watch an enjoyable TV show or funny YouTube video.


  • Put on music you find soothing.
  • Sing or hum along to your favourite songs.
  • Call someone whose voice you find comforting.
  • Listen to an audio-book or a podcast that makes you feel relaxed.
  • Go outside and notice the sounds around you.


  • Light a scented candle.
  • Take a bubble bath and use your favourite soap or body wash.
  • Go outside and take in the fresh air.
  • Purchase your favourite flowers.
  • Visit a coffee shop, bakery, or perfume shop to enjoy the aroma.


  • Treat yourself to your favourite meal.
  • Sip a soothing drink (coffee, tea, hot chocolate, etc).
  • Chew gum or suck on peppermint candy.
  • Indulge in some comfort food (in an appropriate portion).
  • Savour a piece of fruit.


  • Pet an animal.
  • Wrap yourself in your favourite blanket.
  • Enjoy a soothing bubble bath or long shower.
  • Put on comfortable clothes that feel good on your skin.
  • Hug someone.


Learning to self-soothe can assist you with tolerating intense emotions when they arise without turning to impulsive or risky behaviours. While self-soothing doesn’t make the pain go away, it can help to lessen the intensity of your distress and find your grounding again in the midst of a crisis.

Marie Miguel is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp.com.

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