Everyone gets caught up from time to time. Life can be hectic, so whether you’ve had a stressful day at work, you’ve just heard some upsetting news, or you’re feeling anxious, it helps to have some effective ways how to calm down at hand.
If you’re experiencing anxiety and stress, you might hear people tell you to ‘just calm down!’ but that rarely helps, does it? The initiative to calm down must come from you, the person who needs to calm down. Hearing it from other people can be frustrating because it seems they don’t know the extent of the stress or anxiety we’re feeling.
Still, they are right. Often, stress, anxiety, panic, and worry are self-perpetuating. When you’re caught in their throes, it’s important to take a moment to step back and calm yourself down by using some tools and techniques to reduce stress. Returning to a calm state won’t fix everything itself, but it will put you in a much better position to manage whatever’s going on in your life at that moment.
If you want to learn how to calm yourself down effectively, this article is for you. We’ll offer some tried and true, evidence-based, expert tips and advice to help you hack your nervous system when you’re stressed and come back to a state of calm, peace, and relaxation.
The tips will include breathing exercises, ways to mind and manage your mental health, and effectively handling stressful situations. First, let’s take a quick look at the science of calming down.
The science of calming down
It’s easy to notice the difference in your body when you’re stressed versus when you’re calm and relaxed. One feels like tension, muscle tightness, maybe even nausea. The other feels like ease, bliss, or perhaps even nothing at all.
The autonomic nervous system
Being stressed and being calm are two distinct physical states. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for which state we are in at any given time. The ANS is the part of the nervous system that regulates bodily functions such as temperature, heart rate, and arousal.
It is the mechanism used to elicit the well-known fight or flight response – a mammalian survival response in which the body mobilizes for action to fight or flee from a threat. More specifically, the fight or flight response is governed by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), one of two branches of the ANS.
The sympathetic nervous system
When we face a threat, which could be anything from a predator on the horizon to excess demands and looming deadlines at work, we become stressed. Stress serves a survival function because it motivates us to take action to ensure our survival. It gets our bodies ready to flee from the lion pouncing towards us or motivates us to stay up that bit later to finish all of our work.
Stress, or fight/flight, is governed by the SNS. When we feel anxious, panicky, or we’re excessively worried, fidgeting, shallow breathing, and wide-eyed, our SNS has been activated. To come out of this state, we need to deactivate the SNS and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS).
The parasympathetic nervous system
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for governing the ‘rest and digest’ bodily functions. It is the opposite of SNS. The PSNS conserves the body’s energy by reducing blood pressure, countering the stress response. The energy it saves is used for other important bodily functions like digestion and urination. When the PSNS is activated, we feel calm, relaxed, and peaceful.
To live a physically and mentally healthy and happy life, we should spend much of our time on PSNS activation. It’s essential to have a healthy balance of activation between the SNS and the PSNS. Still, if we stay in SNS activation for too long, we face some health risks, such as inflammation, anxiety, and many other illnesses and diseases.
Tips on calming down
Below we have outlined some effective tips and advice to help you hack your nervous system, deactivate the SNS, and activate the PSNS to help you feel more calm and relaxed in your daily life.
1. Deep breathing
Bringing your attention to your breath and breathing deep into your diaphragm is undoubtedly one of the most effective ways to calm down. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing has consistently been proven to reduce blood pressure, boost your mood, and help the body and mind relax. It has also been found to reduce anxiety, depression, and the intensity of anger.
Suppose you’re not familiar with diaphragmatic breathing techniques; no need to worry. There is a wealth of guided breathing videos and step-by-step instructions available online to help you get started.
Note that deep, diaphragmatic breathing might feel a little unusual at first, especially if you’re not used to it. It involves the intake of a lot of oxygen, more than your body is used to if you’re regularly stressed, anxious, and only shallow breathing.
To get started, try the following deep breathing exercise.
How to breathe into your diaphragm
- Find yourself in a comfortable position, sitting or lying flat on the floor (it’s up to you!)
- Bring your attention to any tension in your body, particularly your shoulders. Intentionally drop your shoulders.
- Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.
- Breathe in through your nose for three to four seconds. Bring your awareness to the breath moving through your nose all the way down to your abdomen.
- Notice the hand on your stomach rises but that the hand on your chest does not.
- Breathe out through pursed lips (as though your lips are around a straw) for three to four seconds.
- Repeat for three to five minutes, or until you’ve had enough.
Exercise, whether it’s going for a walk or lifting heavy weights, is a great way to counter the body’s stress response. Research proves that exercise can boost mood, reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression, reduce stress, and prepare the body to handle stressful situations effectively. It significantly improves your mental health and improves your distress tolerance.
Engaging in regular exercise means that you’ll be less likely to succumb to feelings of fear and panic next time you find yourself in a stressful situation. You’ll be less likely to succumb to feelings of fear and panic and more likely to remain calm and confident in yourself.
3. Write about your experiences
Keep a journal to help you stay calm. Writing about your anxious, stressful, or worried thoughts and experiences is a great way to get them out of your head. It can feel as though a huge weight has been lifted off your shoulders when you see what you’ve been thinking so intensely about written down on a piece of paper.
If you like, feel free to type out your journal. However, writing on paper is a little slower and takes a little bit more care, which can be calming, just like coloring in a coloring book.
One study even found that participants who engaged in expressive writing exercises reported less depression, stress, and anxiety than participants who wrote but did not express their emotions.
4. Try meditation to relax your mind
You don’t need to go to India, live in a cave, or sit on a mountain top to reap the benefits of meditation or prayer. They are effective no matter where you are. You can meditate or pray on a train, in your bed, in the office, or while you walk through your local park.
There is a wealth of guided meditations and prayers available online. They can guide you through 15 to 30-minute meditation and mindfulness practices. These practices help you get on top of your stress and achieve the calm, peace, and relaxation you know you deserve. You can also download an app to help you meditate, such as Headspace or Calm.
If you’re dehydrated or hungry, you won’t be able to handle stress effectively. It’s essential to nourish and fuel your body with healthy food rich in vitamins and minerals. Just like a car needs fuel to function properly, so do we.
It’s important to allow yourself to rest. We need to rest as much as we need to eat, sleep, and exercise. Know that resting is not being unproductive. In fact, it’s more productive than not resting at all.
Not resting and taking a moment to allow the body and mind to relax soon leads to burnout, damaging your overall health and taking a long time to recover. Thus, taking sufficient rest at regular intervals actually makes you more productive and healthy in the long term.
7. Listen to music
Listening to music has a profound calming effect on the mind and body. Listening to your favorite music might not seem like a priority when you’re inundated with tasks, deadlines, or stress. Still, research proves that taking even just a few minutes to listen to something you enjoy can reduce your stress levels and improve your mood.
8. Immerse yourself in nature
If anxiety and stress get you down, treat your mind and body to a break by getting outside and immersing yourself in nature. Simply going for a walk or a light jog in a natural environment can drastically boost your mood, reduce your anxiety, and provide some mental clarity.
A 2002 study highlights that getting out and soaking up some sunshine can elicit the release of serotonin in the brain – the brain’s natural feel-good chemical. Studies have found that low serotonin levels are strongly associated with depression and anxiety, so doing whatever you can to boost your serotonin is always a good idea.
9. Challenge negative thoughts
Much of our anxiety and stress comes from the way we think and perceive the events happening around us. While events themselves can be inherently stressful, the way you perceive them and your attitude towards them makes a huge difference in how much they will affect you.
Many of us are guilty of fanning the flames when we get stressed or anxious. We tend to focus on the worst-case scenario and cycle through all the potential negative outcomes.
Instead of allowing your mind to make things worse, use it for your benefit. Challenge any negative thoughts that come up with logic and rational thinking. Ask yourself;
‘Is this really important?’
‘Do I really care about this?’
‘Will this matter in a week, a month, a year?’
‘What is the evidence that what I’m thinking is true?’
When you challenge your negative thoughts, you’ll likely notice that you take away a lot of their power. Challenging and overcoming negativity is a great way to calm down because it gives you the space and clarity needed to replace those negative thoughts with more positive, solution-focused ideas.
10. Massage your pressure points
There are specific points throughout your body that, when massaged, offer some excellent stress relief. The easiest pressure point to find is located between your thumb and your index finger. To access this pressure point and relieve pain and tension in your neck and shoulders (where we carry most of our tension), try the following:
- Pinch the area between your thumb and your index finger until you feel a mild ache.
- Hold for three to five seconds.
- Repeat three to five times
11. Speak to a healthcare professional if necessary
If you find yourself in a chronic state of stress and anxiety and just can’t seem to calm yourself down no matter how hard you try, there may be a deeper health issue that needs to be addressed.
Seek medical advice from a healthcare professional if your stress and anxiety are persistent and impact your daily well-being and ability to engage in school, work, or your relationships.
The Bottom Line
Stress, tension, anxiety, and worry are harmful to our health. While a small amount of stress is healthy and motivates us to take action, it is dangerous when it persists. It’s important to check in with yourself every day, assess how stressed or anxious you are, and take the effective steps outlined above to find some relief. When you do, you’ll find yourself healthier, happier, and more willing and able to engage in your life.