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Let’s face it: there are many stressors we face in life — from relationship problems and job issues to the uncertain state of the world. Whether it’s just a little stress or a big ball of panic in the pit of your stomach, learning how to calm down is essential for all of us.
The problem is that learning how to calm down isn’t always easy, especially when you are in a moment of panic or stress. As someone who has dealt with anxiety for all of my life, there have been many times when I have felt flooded with stress and anxiety, with no clear way of relieving it.
Calming Down May Seem Impossible, But It’s Not
When I feel afraid that I will never be able to calm down, I remind myself that stress, panic, and anxiety are bodily reactions. When you are faced with a trigger — such as an upsetting text from a friend, or the approach of an event that you’re dreading — your body is flooded with “fight-or-flight” hormones.
Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol make us feel as though we are being chased by a lion, whether or not something of that nature is actually happening (usually, in this day and age, it’s not!). But your body doesn’t know the difference. You could be receiving an email from your boss that triggers a stress reaction or, alternatively, be physically running away from a robber — your body doesn’t know the difference and may react the same way.
Once the fight-or-flight reaction is activated, it can be difficult to stop experiencing feelings of stress or panic, or even to talk yourself out of them. However, there are ways to calm down your nervous system — techniques you can use to bring your body and mind back to a more balanced state.
Probably the biggest challenge is how to calm down when you are in a moment of anxiety or panic. Again, it’s important to remember that you are experiencing both an emotional reaction as well as a physical one. So you want to utilize techniques that address both so that you can bring your body and mind back into a place of homeostasis, i.e., calm.
So, how to calm down when feeling overwhelmed? What are ways to calm yourself down in the moment?
These are my favorite tried-and-true methods that have gotten me through many moments of anxiety and panic.
1. Reframe Your Situation or Relabel What’s Happening
When you are feeling stressed or panicked, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of negative thinking. You may think to yourself, “I am stressed over nothing,” or “Why is this happening to me?” Or you may think even more extreme things like, “I’m a terrible person who can’t handle their emotions.” Your stress may lead you to believe in scary ideas — that you are going to lose your job, that your relationship is going to crumble, or that your life or livelihood is on the line.
Reframing the situation can be so helpful. I will say things to myself in response to those types of negative thoughts. “You are experiencing anxiety right now,” I’ll tell myself. Or I’ll say something like, “That’s not true; that’s just your anxiety talking.” I will also try to remember to treat myself as I would treat a loved one who is feeling anxiety — with compassion, rather than condemnation.
This kind of relabeling and positive self-talk doesn’t always seem like it’s doing much, but if you continue with it, and combine it with other techniques, it can do a good job of calming you down.
2. Get Outside And Get Moving
One of the best ways to counteract those stress hormones flooding your body is to exercise. I find that going out for a walk or a run is one of the best ways to calm down. Getting out of the house is a good way to change the scene — the fresh air is soothing, and flooding your body with endorphins is a great antidote to all the stress hormones.
I love to listen to music while I exercise. Music is another great way to distract yourself from your anxious thoughts. It gets your body moving, and can elicit feelings of excitement and lightheartedness. I’ve also found that singing along to music is a great release and a good way to calm down and ease tension.
I know what you’re thinking: How can I meditate when I’m feeling stressed? How can I calm down or sit still when my thoughts are racing? I get that, but I’ve actually found that mindfulness and grounding exercises — if you give them a chance — can be really helpful and are a great way to calm down.
First of all, just the act of sitting still and closing your eyes helps to remove some of the stimuli of the outside world, which can help calm down your stress response. I have found a few guided meditations on the web that I find helpful, too. There are some specifically meant to help people calm down while they are panicking and these have been invaluable to me.
4. Ground Yourself Physically
Any way that you can provide proprioceptive input, or techniques which bring you back into your body, can be incredibly grounding when it comes to calming down. Some techniques can involve special objects that you touch when you are feeling anxious, such as a rock or a bracelet; weighted blankets serve a similar purpose.
One of my favorite grounding techniques is what I call the “trace the hand technique,” because it combines proprioceptive input with breathing. Here’s how you do it:
- Starting with your thumb, use your opposite hand to trace your finger from the bottom to the top
- Inhale as you move up the finger; when you get to the top of the finger, exhale
- Repeat this as you go from finger to finger
- Switch hands if you need more; repeat as many times as needed
5. Just Breathe
Everyone says “just breathe” when they hear that someone is anxious. This can actually be very frustrating for someone who is trying to figure out how to calm down! It can feel dismissive, patronizing, and you might feel misunderstood. You might think, “Well, I’m breathing right now — how’s that going to help?”
The thing is, engaging in deep breathing techniques, especially ones that are deliberate and methodical, can help you immensely. Like exercising and grounding techniques, deep breathing can change the hormonal balance in your body and quell your stress response.
There are many breathing techniques out there, but one of my favorites is simply breathing in and then breathing out, emphasizing the exhale and lengthening it. This is a great way to “trick” your body into calming down. I also like to lie down on my back, and place my hands on my torso. As I feel my chest rise and fall, I find that I end up slowing down my breath, and coming into a state of calm.
Simple Ways You Can Create A Calmer Life
Learning how to calm down doesn’t just involve learning ways to calm down during a moment of acute anxiety or panic. One of the best ways to manage your stress and anxiety is to be proactive, so that you experience fewer moments of anxiety overall.
What does that mean? It means living your life with intention, and practicing certain techniques — including the ones that might come in handy during an anxiety attack — on a regular basis.
Here are some things you can incorporate in your day-to-day life to be calmer overall, and so that, when you are inevitably faced with the common stressors of life, you will have experience in how to calm down.
- Practice breathing on a regular basis — try different techniques and incorporate them into your day
- Write down your worries and fears — you can do this at night right before bed, you might even sleep better
- Exercise regularly — even a walk down the block will help keep your anxiety in check overall
- Reduce caffeine and sugar — these are stimulants that can irritate your nervous system
- Mediate — even five minutes a day can have an impact on your mental health
- Talk it out — have a friend or two you can confide in when the anxiety starts creeping in
- Learn to say no — this can be to situations, people that are triggering, or who aren’t kind or compassionate
- Learn to say yes — to self-care, mental health days, and hobbies and interests that nourish your spirit
When To Seek Therapy
You may get to a point where you have tried all the techniques meant to help you calm down and create a more balanced life, but you are still suffering — that’s okay! It’s by no means a failure, in fact, I congratulate you for being proactive and open to trying suggestions. If your feelings of anxiety or stress, however, are impacting your day-to-day life — in areas such as your appetite, ability to sleep, meet deadlines at work, or care for yourself or your family — it is time to seek the professional help of a licensed therapist.
Really, anytime you feel overwhelmed by stress or anxiety, seeking help from a therapist is an excellent idea.
These days, you don’t even have to leave your house to connect to a therapist. Virtual and telehealth therapy appointments have become the norm, which is a great thing for so many of us. This means that you can receive therapy in the comfort of your own home, on your own time, and in a way that feels emotionally safe for you.
Your therapist can help you come up with calming techniques specific to your situation and personality. They will help you understand your triggers so that you can work through them more easily. Your therapist will listen to you with compassion and make sure you know that your feelings are normal, understandable—and most of all, that you have the capacity to feel better and calmer.
Wendy Wisner is a freelance writer and lactation consultant (IBCLC) whose work has appeared on/in The Washington Post, Family Circle, ELLE, ABC News, Parents Magazine, Scary Mommy, Babble, Fit Pregnancy, Brain Child Magazine, Lilith Magazine, and elsewhere.