Our senses can be powerful emotional triggers. A certain smell can quickly fill us with memories and their accompanying feelings…a soothing touch can help us to feel safe and calm…the right music can energize, fill us with peace, or move us to tears. Even though we’ve all had these experiences, we don’t always think to consciously harness the power of our senses to help ourselves feel better. And while some of us have learned over the years how to soothe and calm ourselves when upset, not everyone has been able to do so.
I’ve been learning more about DBT techniques recently through some trainings and books, as well as hearing adolescent clients share about their experiences doing a DBT-based IOP program at a local psychiatric hospital. One of the techniques that many of the teens have found especially helpful is creating a self-soothing kit. In DBT, “self-soothing” is using the five sense to calm yourself. To help prevent overwhelming distress, you can make an effort every day to incorporate soothing things into your routine and environment, or you can utilize sensory soothing to grounding yourself when you start to get upset.
Mindfulness is an important component of sensory self-soothing. As you engage in self-soothing, focus your attention on the activity and the sensory experience. When distressing thoughts come back up, set them aside and refocus on your senses and the present moment.
To create a self-soothing kit, get a small box or bag to collect your soothing items, making sure to include something that engages each of the five senses. With my clients, we brainstorm ideas in session and they then put together the kit at home or try out different ideas to see what works best.
For some added creativity, you can decorate the box for the self-soothing kit in session. Try adding colors, images, and words/phrases that help you to feel safe and calm.
Here are some ideas to try:
Photos of favorite people
Postcards of happy memories of somewhere you want to go in the future
Small print of favorite artwork
Affirmation cards with images and quotes
Art supplies and paper
Scroll through pictures on your phone
Clay, playdough, or putty
Puff balls or pom poms
Worry stone or inspiration stone
Small square of fuzzy, furry, or soft material
Lotion to give yourself a hand massage
Feather or soft brush to rub along your arm
Nail file and nail polish
Rubber band to snap on wrist or stretch
Lollipops or other hard candies
Tea or hot chocolate
Scented lotion or spray
Small jar of spices, cinnamon sticks, cloves, or dried lavender
Download the handout at the end of this post for more ideas and to have a printable list for your own reference or to share with clients.
The value of having the “kit” is that everything is already together in one place. When your client starts to feel distressed, they don’t have to think about what they should do or try to find what the need; they can simply pull out the box or bag and begin to try things. For those that are trying to replace self-harming behaviors, having the kit to look through and choose from can create a new, positive ritual to replace previous self-harm rituals. Many of my clients have created a larger self-soothing kit at home and then a travel version to carry in a purse or backpack. However, self-soothing does not need to be limited to the things that fit in a bag and can also include many other sensory experiences. I’ve added more of these “out of the box” ideas to the downloadable handout.
Do you use sensory soothing for yourself or with clients? Have you created a self-soothing kit? I’d love to hear how it went and what some of your favorite soothing items are! Please share in the comments below.
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Carolyn Mehlomakulu is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Registered Art Therapist in Austin, Texas who works with children, teens, and families. For more information about individual therapy, adolescent and child counseling, family therapy, teen group therapy, and art therapy services, please visit: www.therapywithcarolyn.com.
This blog is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental health conditions. All directives, interventions, and ideas should be used by qualified individuals within the appropriate bounds of their education, training, and scope of practice. Information presented in this blog does not replace professional training in mental health, psychotherapy, counseling, art therapy, or play therapy. Although anyone can have a healing experience with art, art therapy requires the direction of a trained art therapist.
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