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How Can I Calm Myself Down? Cognitive Self-Calming Methods

Megan Mulroy, LPC

We’ve all been in overwhelming situations that feel unbearable and intolerable. There are a variety of things that cause us pain and distress. Maybe you are in a fight with your partner, or maybe you were disciplined at work or school. Maybe something completely out of your control happened like a car accident that made you late. If you ever feel unable to tolerate painful events, urges, and emotions, Marsha Linehan, the creator of DBT, has created several coping skills that you can use immediately to self-soothe. These tips are especially helpful when you can’t control a situation, but you can control how to handle it. 

Linehan recommends using these skills when the situation is highly stressful, short-term, and creates intense pressure. Another key indicator on when to use these skills is when you want to act on your emotions, but know it will only make things worse. Here are some skills for tolerating distress (Linehan, 2015): 


Stop: Freeze! Try not to move a muscle, as your emotions may try to make you act before you have time to think.

Take a Step Back: Remove yourself from the situation and take a breath. 

Observe: Bring awareness to yourself and notice what is going on inside and outside of yourself. What is the situation? What are your thoughts and feelings? How are others responding? 

Proceed Mindfully: Act with intention. In deciding what to do, consider your thoughts and feelings as well as others. Think about which actions you can take that will make the situation better or worse. 

TIP Skills

Tip the Temperature: Plunge your face into a bowl of cold water or take an ice pack to your face. Hold this for 30 seconds. Regulating your temperature will help you to quickly calm down. This signals to your brain that you are diving underwater, which causes your heart rate to slow while reducing blood flow to nonessential organs and redirecting blood to your brain and heart. This will help you better regulate your emotions. 

Intense Exercise: When your body is revved up by emotion, intense exercise can help you to self-soothe and work out some excess energy. It doesn’t have to be a long workout, but do your best to make it vigorous by running, jumping, weightlifting, dancing, and other fast-paced exercises. 

Paced Breathing and Paired Muscle Relaxation: Breathe slowly and deeply from your stomach. Slow your breath down below its usual pace (to about 5-6 breaths per minute) and breathe out slower than you breathe in. Pair this with progressive muscle relaxation exercises. Notice the tension within your body, and say the word, “relax,” with each exhale. 


When we are activated, we need help to find appropriate distractions to tolerate distress.

Activities: watch TV, go for a walk, play games, call a friend, or listen to music, 

Contributing: volunteer for a cause you are passionate about, help a friend or loved one, donate things you don’t need, or do something kind for someone else. 

Comparisons: Compare how you are feeling now to a time in which you felt different, and think about people coping the same as you or less efficiently than you. 

Emotions: Be sure to evoke a different emotion than the one you are distressed by. Watch a horror movie or a comedy, or read a romance novel. 

Push Away: Distance yourself from the situation by leaving it alone for a while. If you can’t physically leave, mentally push away and build an imaginary wall between yourself and the problem. Imagine putting the problem in an envelope and mailing it to your therapist’s office. 

Thoughts: Simply think of other thoughts. Count sheep, sing a song in your head, reminisce on a pleasant memory, or do a puzzle. 

Sensations: Engage your senses- squeeze a stress ball, hold ice in your hand, blast loud music, or take a hot or cold shower. 

We hope you find these tips helpful when working through distress and stressful situations. To learn more about how to tolerate distress, counseling can help. Schedule an appointment with a therapist in Chicago at Symmetry Counseling by calling 312-578-9990, or connect with us online today.

Work Cited 

Linehan, Marsha M. DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets . Guilford PRess, 2015.

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