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How to Build an Anxiety Toolkit

By Linda Rodgers

As you learn what helps you manage your anxiety, you can take what you’ve learned to create an anxiety toolkit. When your emotions become too overwhelming or your thoughts begin to spiral out of control, you can reach for it and pull something out.

It doesn’t have to be fancy. Use a shoebox, baggie, or pencil case to stash the stuff that helps ground you best. If you like pretty pouches, you can pick one you like or decorate one yourself. Keep it in your room, backpack, or purse.

You can fill it with anything, such as a stress ball or mini-coloring book. You can keep a pair of earplugs or headphones there. Or a box of mints. The idea is to fill it with things that appeal to all five senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.

“When we’re anxious, we get into the cycle of repeating the same thoughts, the same behaviors, over and over again,” says Jennifer Teplin, LCSW, a licensed therapist and the founder of Manhattan Wellness in New York City. “Distraction is grounding and can break us out of those repetitive thoughts.” 

Having stuff you can smell, taste, see, touch, or hear is more likely to calm you down and help you focus your thoughts on something tangible at the same time.  

Therapists also call anxiety toolkits distress-tolerance kits because the objects can help you tolerate distress instead of trying to get away from it at all costs, such as cutting yourself or getting drunk or high. Then you can see that, with time, the feelings will pass. 

Whatever you want to call it, here are some ideas for what to put inside it.

To Touch

  • Silly Putty
  • A stress ball
  • A small stuffed animal
  • A soft cloth, such as velvet or a piece of a baby blanket
  • A fidget spinner
  • A smooth stone or pebble

To See

  • A small book
  • A mini coloring book
  • Photos that make you happy, on your phone or printed out
  • A crystal (good for touching too)
  • A mini or toy kaleidoscope

To Smell

  • Essential oils
  • A scented candle
  • Cologne
  • Car freshener
  • A sachet
  • Chapstick

To Hear

  • A special playlist of songs that make you happy or calm you down; you  can also search for “anxiety relief” or “calming” playlists on YouTube, Spotify, or Pandora 
  • Headphones
  • An audio book or podcasts
  • A five-minute guided meditation on YouTube or a meditation app such as Insight Timer, Headspace, or Calm

To Taste

  • Crunchy snacks or snacks you ate when you were little, such as Goldfish or Ritz Bits
  • Sweet or sour candy
  • Caramels
  • Gum
  • Mints
  • Hot chocolate packets or herbal tea bags

Other things that may be useful are a small pad of paper and pencil for writing down thoughts, a journal if you like to write in one, and a note or card from a family member or close friend. “Write a note to yourself when you’re feeling really good,” Teplin suggests. “When you’re anxious, it’s really powerful to have a note from yourself that things will get better and easier.

The idea isn’t to pull out everything. It’s to have a range of items so you can use whatever seems helpful in the moment. Have fun with it and build a toolkit with the soothers that work for you. 

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text HOME to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, text or call 988.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.

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