Self-Soothe DBT Skills: Sensory Strategies for Distress Tolerance

by | Nov 6, 2023 | Anxiety, Adolescents, Children, Depression, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Young Adults

Written by Dr. Jessica DaCosta

Dr. Jessica DaCosta is a post-doctoral fellow at Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy. She specializes in the use of CBT and DBT interventions to treat children and adolescents with depression, anxiety, cutting and self-injury, and suicidality.

Life is filled with ups and downs, moments of calm and episodes of distress. In today’s fast-paced world, managing emotional upheaval has become more crucial than ever. Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT, offers a toolkit of strategies to navigate these challenging moments, ensuring we respond to them in healthy, constructive ways. Among the most effective tools in this toolkit are the Self-Soothe skills, which utilize our sensory experiences to bring about calm and equilibrium. In this article, we’ll delve into the world of DBT, understand its core principles, and explore the sensory strategies that can help you cultivate resilience in the face of emotional distress.


Introduction to Distress Tolerance in DBT

Everyone has experienced challenging situations at some point in their life, along with the feelings of emotional distress that come up as a result. Our ability to tolerate that stress ultimately dictates how we handle a given situation. As we go through emotionally difficult experiences, we can learn and practice coping skills to help us manage the related feelings of distress. For many people who have low distress tolerance, they may experience an added difficulty when managing their feelings, leading to actions that may worsen situations, intense and overwhelming feelings, and unhealthy or destructive coping mechanisms and behaviors. DBT, there are three states of mind: Wise Mind, Emotion Mind, and Rational Mind. With the right skills, we can access our “Wise Mind” to help us to get through intense emotions and difficult situations, without making things worse by engaging in harmful behaviors. By learning distress tolerance skills, you can work on improving your ability to handle everyday stressors. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) teaches strategies that can help you work through challenging situations by using a calm, rational, and healthy approach.

Person practicing self-soothe deep breathing in a serene natural environment.

Understanding DBT and its Modules

DBT is a form of therapy created for individuals who have difficulty managing their emotions and behaviors. Some individuals engage in negative and harmful attempts to cope with emotions. DBT helps people to experience and regulate their emotions without necessarily acting on them. More specifically, DBT helps people better understand the connections between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and how changing harmful patterns of thoughts and behaviors can improve how they feel. In DBT, there are five skill modules. These skill sets include: mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and walking the middle path. Distress tolerance skills can help us manage strong emotions. These skills teach us how to tolerate the distress, learn to sit with it, manage our emotions, and think clearly. We may not be able to change a challenging situation in the moment, but we can change the way we feel, how we cope, and behave. As a result, we can control our behaviors to be more thoughtful and intentional with our actions.


The Importance of Self-Soothing for Distress Tolerance

When experiencing a situation that causes intense emotions, it is helpful to find a way to quickly relax using different body senses. Self-soothing DBT skills for distress tolerance can help you during those moments when you feel especially overwhelmed. The DBT self-soothe skill focuses on engaging with pleasant sensations through the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. You may already have an idea of what sensory strategies help you feel more relaxed when facing a stressful situation, and for others, it can take some practice to find which self-soothe skills will work best. As you try out different self-soothing techniques, observe which activities are most relaxing and bring you the greatest amount of stress relief. It may take some trial and error, but after some time and practice you can develop a list of self-soothing strategies which work best for you so that you can confidently turn to them in challenging moments.

Individual practicing multi-sensory self-soothe techniques in a serene setting, emphasizing DBT strategies.

Engaging the Five Senses: Self-Soothe Techniques

Here are some suggestions on how to engage your five senses and practice the DBT self-soothe skill:


  1. Look at a picture of someone important to you, like a loved one or a pet.
  2. Sit on a park bench or look out your window and enjoy looking at the nature around you.
  3. Observe the colors of the sunset.
  4. Watch a movie with beautiful scenery and a pleasant storyline.
  5. Notice the different objects and their details around the room you are in.


  1. Listen to your favorite genre of music.
  2. Pay attention to the sounds of the rain or gentle ocean waves.
  3. Listen to an audiobook or podcast.
  4. Put on a playlist of soothing soundscapes.
  5. Play an instrument.


  1. Enjoy a non-alcoholic beverage, like a cup of hot chocolate or tea.
  2. Chew on a piece of gum or candy.
  3. Eat some of your favorite snacks and be mindful of the flavors.
  4. Cook a comfort food and savor the smell of each ingredient during the process.
  5. Go to a restaurant and order your favorite meal.


  1. Cuddle with your pet.
  2. Wrap yourself in a soft blanket.
  3. Put on your most comfortable clothes.
  4. Play with a fidget toy.
  5. Brush through your hair.


  1. Light a pleasant-smelling candle
  2. Use your favorite scented lotion.
  3. Focus on the scents in the air around you.
  4. Bake something pleasant and be mindful of all the scents.
  5. Notice the scents of nature, like flowers in the garden or the scent after it rains.


Tailoring Self-Soothe Techniques to Individual Preferences

Not all these suggestions will work for everyone, but these are a good starting point to find and practice the skills that work best for you. Consider your go-to hobbies and favorite things to generate more ideas, with a focus on the sensory experiences related to them. You may also consider the different activities and experiences you might be able to engage with in your typical environments (e.g., school, work, home, community spaces).

There are many ways to learn DBT skills, such as through books, discussing them with your CBT or DBT psychologist, watching educational videos, and reading articles from trusted and credible resources. The best way to practice this skill, and many other DBT skills, is to first try it when you are not distressed. Just like when we prepare for a test ahead of time, we want to prepare for distress and overwhelm before it happens. Practicing skills when you are calm will provide you with the tools you need, when you need them!

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