Laura Riss, PsyD on Mar 16, 2023 in Mood and Feelings
When life grows overwhelming or you just need some support and help, therapy is an excellent first step. Of course, taking that step can be intimidating or overwhelming. Plenty of resources exist to help clarify what to expect at your first therapy session. Of equal importance is what comes next and how you can practice intersession self-care.
Therapy can be really tiring. The things you work on in therapy might be emotionally charged, and it can be challenging to find the right words to express yourself as you work with your therapist. In session, your therapist can support and guide you in these moments. This is part of the process of progress. However, it is crucial to give yourself the space to decompress and to take care of yourself in between sessions so that you can continue working toward your goals in therapy effectively. We have constructed a bit of an intersession self-care kit composed of skills you have or things you may already have at home.
Oftentimes in therapy, you work with and through thoughts and feelings. In session, these are expressed outwardly and communicated with your therapist. Without the structure of a therapy session, daily thoughts and feelings may be fleeting. They can come and go. However, sometimes we find ourselves stuck with them, and in the flow of day-to-day life, we neglect them and forget to give them an outlet. These can build up!
One way to offer them an outlet before your next session is journaling. Noting your thoughts and feelings at the end of each day, or even just when they feel big, can help you to express them before they become overwhelming. It helps you to check in with yourself and provides a starting point for determining what you might need. If you note feeling stressed, that may be a good indicator that you should incorporate some relaxation into the next day. Perhaps you run yourself a bath instead of rushing through a shower.
Journaling may help point you to small steps to take to manage your mental health before your next session. Additionally, journaling gives you a record of the thoughts and feelings that you may want to bring up in therapy. Sometimes you approach a session with the intention of discussing something specific, but when the session starts, it slips your mind as you work with your therapist. A journal gives you a tangible record and can serve as a reminder of your progress in therapy as you review your thoughts and feelings between each session.
It can also be supportive to jot down joyful, peaceful, or funny moments throughout the day as a reminder of the things that are going well. Being able to notice even the smallest positive experiences can be a healing part of intersession self-care.
A journal has no one format. It need not be a bound notebook or pen and paper. It can be as accessible as a note on your phone or messages to yourself. You can experiment and find the medium that works best for you!
2. Art Supplies
You do not need to paint like Picasso to make art. Even preschool style scribbles reduce stress! Crayons and a coloring book absolutely qualify as art and can serve as an excellent form of intersession self-care. Coloring is a really healthy way to calm your brain and encourage relaxation in your body. With an outline on the page, all that’s left is picking colors and filling each section. There is no right or wrong, and there is absolutely no judgment or comparison. You could color entirely outside of the lines. It is a repetitive, soothing activity that can assist you in sitting with yourself, breathing, and just being. Perhaps you color in color palettes that reflect your mood or you choose coloring pages that resonate with you. The “adult” coloring books with complex mandalas and flowers may be more your speed, but “children’s” coloring books tend to have bigger areas to color in with less complex designs, and you are never too old to color Disney characters. Whatever is most enticing to you is perfect. Despite what primary school teachers may have led us to believe, there is no right way to color. Of course, for the more artistically inclined, sketching, drawing, and more involved crafting may be more appealing. Creating art of any sort can be a form of expression, and it can just be something enjoyable. Coloring books and crafts are great, but all you really need is a pen and paper. You can make art with anything you have at home, and it is a really beneficial activity for oneself between therapy sessions.
3. Fidget Toys
Fidget toys can serve as great physical tools. Restlessness, nervousness, impatience, and anxiety may manifest physically. These are often things you feel and experience throughout your body. Fidget toys may work as an outlet. Through little movements, playing with a fidget toy can help expel some of the tension that emotions like nervousness or impatience create. They also may be helpful in situations or environments that feel overwhelming. In the face of overstimulation, fidget toys can provide a bit of a distraction. You may notice that fidget toys are sometimes available to you during your therapy sessions for these very reasons.
They are a tool that you can employ between sessions as well. They are great to include in your intersession self-care kit. What is especially great about them is that fidgets encompass a pretty wide range of things. You can really fidget with just about anything, and you can make a fidget toy out of day-to-day household items. For example, a chain of paper clips makes a perfect fidget. You can even rip off a piece of paper towel and crumple it to twist as a ball between your fingers. Pretty much anything goes, and you get to reap the benefits!
4. Hand and Nail Care
Way too often, our hands take the brunt of our stress. We work with our hands. Typing, writing, touching — we do it all with our hands. We also find a lot of stress in our hands. Think knuckle-cracking, hand-wringing, and nail-biting. These are all telltale signs that there is a lot going on in our minds. That is natural, but it sometimes takes its toll. Keeping up with nail and hand care via manicure kits, hand lotion, or whatever works for you is a wonderful way to find some relaxation and take care of yourself. It is so important to practice self-care in between therapy sessions. Taking the time to tend to your well-being, mental and otherwise, is an excellent practice for your overall health. Do not discount the little things within that. Your hands may seem like a small body part, but they do so much, and it can be great to start small. Getting into the habit of taking care of your hands can help you work up to the integration of larger acts of self-care. You always have to start somewhere!
5. Comfort Items
Look around your environment and consider the items that are readily available and bring you ease. This may be a pillow, blanket, stuffed animal, pet, grounding stones, or anything of that nature. These are comfort items. Comfort items are an excellent addition to intersession self-care kits because they are especially beneficial in moments when we need to self-soothe. Therapy can bring up important but uncomfortable topics. While they are important for therapeutic progress, they can be off-putting, especially when our reactions to conversing such topics may occur later in the duration of time between therapy sessions. Hugging a pillow, wrapping yourself tight in a blanket, playing with a furry friend, or holding grounding stones are some physical methods of finding comfort. You know that stuffed animal that you still have tucked away because you feel like it is embarrassing but you cannot quite let go of it? That is another incredible comfort item that, realistically, most of us still have. A comfort item does not need to conform to this list. These are just some common examples that you may have already lying around your home. Figure out what brings you comfort, and add it to your kit!
6. Support for Your Senses
The scent of lavender or the warmth of tea are two common soothing elements. Aromatherapy, candles, and tea can be the finishing touches to a self-care session. The environment and headspace you create for yourself to practice self-care in are really important. Self-care can be practiced in passing moments, but sometimes it is important to set aside a space and a set amount of time for it. Elements that appeal to your senses may enhance the space, time, and your self-care experience. Aromatic elements like a diffuser that can make the space smell like lavender or a scent of your choice is one potential inclusion. Another may be candles; these can create a softer glow in place of fluorescent lighting. They may also contribute to warmth and scent, so they appeal to multiple senses. Comfort and self-care should be a full-body experience, so including care for all of your senses is crucial. Tea is another sensory tool. It facilitates warmth throughout oneself, and it can introduce taste. It also helps you stay hydrated. When we are stressed or overwhelmed, sometimes basic needs like hydration slip our mind. This can exacerbate stressors or emotions, so considering it in self-care is important. Sips of cool water or hot tea can complete an intersession self-care routine.
Music is a great way to take care of yourself between therapy sessions. Songs are something we can relate to through lyrics, rhythm, and more. Music can act as a medium for channeling emotions outwardly, which is important so that we do not hold them in. Oftentimes, we choose to listen to music that reflects our moods, thoughts, and feelings; songs can offer solace. Perhaps you turn to music to try and shift your mood — to feel more hopeful or happy. Research shows that music can improve mood, energize you, help you relax, and so much more.
Music is an especially valuable addition to intersession self-care due to its convenience, accessibility, and flexibility. At the touch of a button, you can immerse yourself in a playlist of relaxation, joy, confidence — whatever your heart, mind, or ears desire. A huge component of self-care is acknowledging your emotions and lending them the space to be processed; music is a great means of doing so. You can create a playlist for joy that is so overwhelming you cannot keep it in and you just need to dance around your room. You can create another for those strong emotions that foster the urge to scream — long drives with lyrics you can sing every word to can feel almost cathartic. Sometimes when you are down, you need to acknowledge and process it before moving forwards. Somber songs can help facilitate that, and moving through a playlist with some sad beats at the beginning but with upbeat, motivational songs at the end can be mirrored in your emotional state. There are even specific beat frequencies that have been proven to reduce anxiety. Some songs have been composed with the intention of relaxation. “Weightless” by Marconi Union is one such example. There is physiological evidence that listening to the song reduces short-term stress. Grab your headphones!
8. Brain Games and Mind Teasers
Games, puzzles, sudoku, word search books, and other similar activities are the next addition to our intersession self-care kits. If you find yourself stuck in negative narratives or feeling emotionally overwhelmed, it may be beneficial to redirect your attention. The puzzle sitting in your cabinets that you never got around to finishing can be put to use! Puzzles and brain teasers of all sorts engage your brain, shifting your focus to problem solving. Physical copies of these activities are especially useful. Channeling your energy into moving puzzle pieces, assessing where they do and do not fit, and moving things around takes more mental effort than sliding some pieces around a screen. Sitting with a sudoku book — pencil in hand, etching and erasing numbers as you make the numbers work — functions as pause. Between therapy sessions, some of self-care’s goals are providing tangible outlets and giving pause. This may not always look like the stereotypical image of self-care. As we have mentioned, candles, journaling, music, and more serve as amazing self-care tools. However, different times, settings, and emotions will call for different self-care measures. Sometimes, engaging, stretching, and tending to your brain itself might feel more effective than physical self-care. All of these processes are ultimately intertwined. Physical self-care enhances your mental state, and mental self-care enhances your physical state. Brain games and mind teasers tend to be a mental tool. Sometimes you need to get out of your own head, especially in instances of emotional flooding. Focusing on a word search or puzzle can help you do so, bringing you down from the heightened state that hyperemotion can induce. These activities engage your brain in problem solving processes that support the return to a level-headed state. This is critical as you try to sort through what you want to do next in overwhelming moments.
Our at-home intersession self-care kit has included a number of material resources for supporting yourself between therapy sessions. However, not all self-care and coping skills are tangible, which makes them difficult to remember. Without physical reminders to practice breathing, affirmations, or self-check-ins, they can be easy to forget. The final piece of our self-care kit is a physical list of reminders, affirmations, sayings, and strategies. Luckily, life and emotion is not school, so everything is open-note! That means we should use our resources, but that is a lot more difficult when they are not visible. This tool is especially good for the time between therapy sessions because it reinforces the use of the skills you learn in therapy. A list materializes a lot of the advice and tools your therapist provides. You may even ask to develop this list collaboratively with your therapist in-session.
It is also entirely personalized! For some, list items may include strategies for anxious moments: breathe, ground yourself, practice cognitive reframing, clean or organize, change your environment, stand up or sit down, etc. You may prefer a list of affirmations: progress not perfection, I am enough, focus on what you can control, I am gentle with myself — these are just a couple of examples.
Prompts for productive thinking or a self-check would also compose a great list. A couple of list items might be “What is one thing I can do today or right now to take care of myself?” And “Who am I connecting with today?” The great thing is that there is no limit to the number of lists you create and include in your kit. They can be circumstantial. If you are going through a breakup, a list of things to do other than texting your ex may be really helpful. The additional reminder that texting a friend may be better than late night messages to an ex can make a difference. Your lists may take the form of sticky notes, scattered throughout spaces where you feel you could use them. They may be a couple of pieces of paper that you bullet your full lists on. They could be the first pages of your journal. You can always make a couple and find what works for you! With self-care, it is important to veer away from that classic list we all have — that one titled “To Do.” To-do lists come and go; everyday brings a slew of new tasks. These self-care lists are a constant you can turn to in order to protect your well-being and prioritize yourself as you proceed with all of the amazing things you do.
Any and all steps you take to prioritize you and your well-being are self-care. This self-care kit is by no means exhaustive. However, it is a starting point for gathering some resources you may already have and setting the intentions to take care of yourself. This may be especially useful in between therapy sessions, but it is applicable at all times!
Written with the support of Mia Peirce, Best Within You Therapy & Wellness Intern.
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