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How to make a self-soothe box

By Katie Condliffe, Occupational Therapist at Cygnet Hospital Bury

In our latest blog Katie Condliffe, an occupational therapist at Cygnet Hospital Bury looks at self-soothe boxes and why they can be a great way to manage feelings of anxiety, panic and stress.

What is a self-soothe box?

A self-soothe box is a box you can make that contains things that ground you, make you feel more relaxed and reduce symptoms of panic, anxiety, emotional distress or low mood.

If you find yourself struggling with anxiety or panic, a self-soothe box is a great way to manage those feelings and help you feel calmer and more relaxed. I use the box often in my role in CAMHS, and a self-soothe box is one of their first strategies that young people at Cygnet Hospital Bury use when they are experiencing a crisis period.

At Cygnet Hospital Bury, I can offer the young people a sensory assessment, which looks at individual needs. We then plan what items to include in their sensory box as part of this. Not every individual is the same and the sensory boxes are often all very different. We prepare a wide range of things that young people can choose from and they decide what they want to include in their self-sensory boxes. For example, some people find the smell of lavender relaxing, and other people hate the smell.

Self-soothe boxes don’t just have to be for young people. They are suitable for anyone who experiences periods of anxiety or emotional distress and who would benefit from strategies to help them to regulate their emotions. A lot of people are experiencing an increased level of anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic, and a self-soothe box can be suitable for anyone who wants to feel more grounded or relaxed.

When should someone use a self-soothe box?

When someone is starting to feel anxious, angry, sad or distressed they can reach for their self-soothe box and find something to distract themselves. It helps someone to be mindful in the moment and focus themselves on something other than the emotion that is overwhelming them.

What goes into a self-soothe box?

It’s good to create your self-soothe box when you are feeling in a positive space and calm. For some added creativity, you can decorate the box for the self-soothing kit. The young people at Cygnet Hospital Bury also really enjoy the process of decorating a box. We usually buy blank boxes so that they can personalise to their own taste and we have sessions where they decorate their boxes.

I would recommend that someone has a range of sensory items and something to focus their mind on. When thinking about what to include in your box, start with items that stimulate the five senses: vision, smell, sound, taste and touch.

Vision

You could include family photos, pictures of your favourite landscape, postcards, anything that stimulates good positive memory. If you don’t have favourite pictures, you could keep a nostalgic item that encourages a similar thought process such as an old blanket or favourite teddy bear.

You can include a colouring book and pack of colouring pencils, this is a low stimulus activity that requires you to concentrate. An alternative way to use this item is to colour with your non-dominant hand, this is an excellent strategy for focussing your mind and bringing someone into a mindful space.

Smell

This can be an essential oil, candle, diffuser, perfume or something that you might associate with positive memories. Typically, the sense of smell is closely linked with memory, more so than any of our other senses. At Cygnet Hospital Bury, we occasionally have a session where young people try various different smells to identify which help them to relax or concentrate. I would recommend that younger children are supervised if using things such as essential oils or candles.

Sound

This can be personalised depending on what kind of music you prefer. Some people found white sound quite relaxing to have in the background. Others enjoy including relaxation or meditation CD, animal songs or audio books. It’s a good idea to create a positive song playlist or to download positive songs on your phone so that you do not have to go and search for it when you are struggling.

Taste

You can include strong mints, chocolate, chewing gum and sour sweets. Herbal teas and calming teas also help people to relax. You could also keep a small bottle of water in a self-soothe box, which works as a gentle reminder to stay hydrated. Drinking water is an effective way of reducing symptoms of panic as the regular sipping is a good way to keep a steady rhythm to your breathing.

Touch

Include something that you can touch as this encourages your muscles to relax. Therapy putty, stress balls, spiky balls, and squishy balls are great for this. When we are experiencing a high level of emotions, our bodies automatically prepare reflective responses. Therefore, you need to override the automatic responses by doing exercises to relax your muscles. Others might enjoy including different hand creams, feather or soft and fluffy fabrics to hold.

What else could help when we feel anxious?

Some people put in a booklet of positive quotes from films, books, or a favourite poem. Someone might also choose to include bath bombs or a favourite bubble bath, this can act as a reminder to take some time for themselves and enjoy a soothing bath. You might want to make and include a deck of prompt cards which you can use and include strategies such as ‘speak to a member of staff’, ‘go for a run’ or ‘call a friend and talk to them. Other activities can include: word searches, word games, sudoku, knitting, crocheting, collaging, games on your phone etc.

One of the techniques we encourage the young people to use is to write a supportive and encouraging letter to themselves, which includes advice or tips for getting through a crisis. We then ask them to seal it in an envelope and put it in their sensory box. They can then read this when they are feeling low or distressed and it can serve as a reminder for the things that help them in a crisis.

Self-soothe boxes can be versatile, you can make smaller boxes for a child or young person to take with them to school, on holiday, in the car or when on a sleepover.

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