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How to create a self-soothing box

If you celebrate Christmas, you’ve probably been busy planning, buying and wrapping presents for other people. But how about you take a pause and give a gift to yourself?

I’m talking about creating a self-soothing box. While techniques like thought diaries, gratitude lists and deep breathing are highly effective in managing negative thoughts, stress and anxiety, sometimes we need something more tangible – a physical aid in reducing worry, introducing calm, and enhancing wellbeing.

I first came across the idea of a self-soothing box on the amazing They Are the Future website, which is full of great psychological resources for parents. I was looking for a way to help my eldest child learn to self-regulate his emotions, and loved the idea of a “calm box” that he could fill with helpful items to soothe the nervous system (as long as he can keep it away from his little sister!). I then came across the idea again in Dr Julie Smith’s brilliant book Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? and have since used it with some of my coaching clients to help them cope with strong feelings of overwhelm and anxiety.

Self-soothing boxes are designed to calm the nervous system by using physical, tangible items that connect to the senses. Any kind of box will do – an old shoe box is often the perfect size; you can decorate it to make it look more appealing. Fill it with things that will help to soothe and calm you, thinking about each of the senses, such as:

  • A lavender roller ball

  • A tea bag

  • A pen and paper for journaling or doodling

  • A stress ball, fidget spinner, or Rubik’s cube

  • Photos to bring back happy memories

  • Phone numbers of supportive friends or family members

  • Colouring book and pencils

Just by taking 5 or 10 minutes with one or all of these items, you can really calm the nervous system by grounding and even resetting yourself.

I suggest practising using the box before you actually need it – often when we’re struggling with difficult emotions, we bypass the rationale part of our brain and therefore might forget all about the self-soothing box. Practising in advance can help to create the pathways in our brains that will remind us to reach for the box when we really need it. And make sure you put it somewhere accessible, too!

What’s in my self-soothing box?

The pictures below show my self-soothing box, and my son’s (I've included this in case you have kids and think it could be helpful for them).

My box contains: colouring book and pencils; soothing scent (technically speaking it’s a pillow spray but, you know, you can make up your own rules!); notebook for journaling; the Little Book of Calm; a hot chocolate sachet; and a scrapbook with pictures and loving messages that my best friends made me for my hen do, which never fails to cheer me up.

My son’s box contains: lots of tactile sensory toys like a pop-it, fidget spinner, blu-tac and stress ball; a mini cuddly toy; colouring book and crayons; some pull-back cars – and the box itself can be coloured in, too.

Self-soothing on the go

When working with a coaching client recently, we came up with the idea of having a self-soothing box at home, as well as a ‘mobile version’ for when she was out and about. This can be really helpful if you experience social anxiety or sensory overwhelm, and can include everyday items that won’t draw attention or make you feel self-conscious. Ideas for a mobile self-soothing kit include:

  • Hand cream in your favourite scent

  • Spinner rings or necklaces that are designed for fiddling

  • Earphones to listen to a playlist of calming music that you’ve created on your phone

  • Squashy keyring (you can also use essential oils to add scent to this)

  • An album of photos on your phone that lift your mood

Again, practice and experiment with what works for you, and see if you can use these boxes and kits to help you feel calmer and more grounded. Make time to try it this holiday season – you may find that it’s a gift that keeps on giving!

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