Mind Your Mind: Self-soothing skills for exam season

One time, my therapist and I talked about the importance of having healthy coping mechanisms, such as self-soothing skills.

“Think of your five senses,” she said, then made an analogy of a baby crying. “How would you go about soothing a screaming child?” she asked, and at the time, I had no idea what to answer.

She tried to convey to me that when we are emotionally distressed or experiencing an overwhelming amount of negative emotions, we can nurture ourselves using the same types of strategies that parents use to soothe their distressed child.

I’d like to share my favourite self-soothing skills, based on physical techniques that use the different body senses. It’s important to remember though, that skills need to be learned and practiced, which can take a while to figure out what feels comfortable and helpful to us.


Sometimes when I am feeling distressed, I like to find soothing things to look at. Self-soothing strategies involving your sense of vision can have a powerful effect on your mood. Some examples include:

  • Looking at pictures, paintings or other art pieces
  • Watching the sunset or sunrise
  • Looking at the stars, snowflakes or trees
  • Driving at night, watching the bright city lights
  • Watching your favourite show or movie
  • Reading inspirational quotes
  • Looking at animal photos
  • Going for a walk outside or visiting a garden


Recently, I bought a sound machine with different options that allows me to play soothing sounds. Hearing soothing sounds can help with relaxation or even be a great tool for distraction. I also find that having background noise while studying helps me with focusing and absorbing information, which is perfect for exam season. Some of my favourite skills that involve my sense of hearing include:

  • Listening to audiobooks
  • Playing white noise on my sound machine
  • Listening to nature sounds like trickling raindrops or ocean waves
  • Listening to classic lullabies or melodies
  • Listening to podcasts

I also want to mention that in some situations, calling a friend or a crisis line can be a good option, since hearing another human voice can have the power of making us feel less alone in our struggle.


Pleasant smells can remind us of happy memories, or distract us from our current emotional distress. When I want to fill my environment with a soothing smell, I automatically turn on my diffuser and add a few drops of essential oils in the process. Other options involving the sense of smell can include:

  • Lighting scented candles
  • Spraying air freshener
  • Rubbing lotion on your body or putting on perfume
  • Visiting a bakery or café


When feeling emotionally upset, it can be easy to turn to junk food, sugary snacks, caffeinated drinks or alcoholic beverages. However, carefully tasting different savory flavors can also act as distraction from whatever negative emotional state we may be experiencing. My favourites are:

  • Brewing some herbal tea or hot chocolate
  • Chewing on peppermint gum
  • Cooking your favourite meal


Lastly, we have touch. For example, every night before going to bed, I jump in the shower while at the same time throwing a fuzzy blanket in the dryer. Climbing into bed wrapped in a warm blanket then not only makes me feel relaxed and nurtured, but also safe and secure.

  • Hugging someone else
  • Taking a bubble bath
  • Swimming
  • Taking a hot or cold shower
  • Basking in the sun
  • Cuddling with an animal

To sum things up, I think it’s important for us as students to create our own sensory self-soothing kit. We’re often under a lot of pressure, juggling academics and dealing with a whole bunch of other stressors. Self-soothing skills can serve as valuable tools and help us navigate the different challenges that we face daily as university students.

The authors of this column are not mental health professionals. If you need additional support, please contact Student Health Services, Sexual Assault Support Centre and/or the Wellness Centre. In case of an emergency call 911.