How to Calm Down
Everyday life can be rife with stressful moments: a delayed commute, a setback at work, the pressure of upcoming bills, parental duties feeling too much, or a fight with a loved one. Different circumstances on different days can leave anyone feeling wrung out for different reasons. And all this is piled on top of already-stressful conditions where the human mind is never at rest, always moving from one thought to another, and from one obligation to the next. Is it, therefore, any wonder that the mind struggles to calm down at the end of a stressful day, week, month?
When we pile acute stress, caused by specific point-in-time threats or scares, on top of chronic stress, or underlying feelings of anxiety and worry, both our mental and physical states suffer. The American Psychological Association has found that long-term stress affects every system in our bodies.
Learning how to calm down can help us manage those stressful moments and take care of our brains and our bodies. Specific exercises can help us get through periods of anxiety, worry, or frustration. Long-term, mindfulness meditation is a key part of maintaining a calmer approach to life and its myriad distractions and issues, helping us to replace stress responses with clarity. That is what meditation leads to — a calmer, clearer, more compassionate, more contented mind.
This short meditation can teach you how to notice what you’re holding on to and how to drop the preoccupying storyline, allowing you to reframe stressful situations.
A 3-minute meditation to help release stress
Have you ever tried to tell a toddler in the throes of a tantrum to “just calm down”? Have you ever told this to yourself? Or, worse still, maybe someone has even dared say this to you in a heated moment? Of course, it’s an easy thing to say but a much harder thing to actually do (particularly for the toddlers).
When we’re in stressful situations, our bodies react accordingly. Our palms start to sweat. Our hearts race. Our blood pressure soars. Those are results of our body’s fight-or-flight reaction being activated. And while that biological response is helpful when it comes to escaping immediate danger or priming us to take down an attacker, it’s not as useful when the stressful situation at hand is being stuck in traffic.
Luckily, that stress response can be countered by a variety of ways to calm down, including several that we can do whenever and wherever. There’s no one answer as to how to calm someone down, but these are good places to start:
Breathe deeply. Slow, deep breathing, where you fill up your belly with breath and exhale it over several seconds, can help create comfort and relaxation, per research published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. That’s because breathing deeply stimulates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, decreasing our blood pressure and heart rate and relaxing our muscles. Try box breathing, where you breathe in for a count of four seconds, hold the breath for four seconds, and exhale the breath slowly for four seconds before starting again.
Ground yourself in your surroundings. Noting what you can hear, see, touch, taste, or smell can help you move your awareness and focus from your racing thoughts to your surroundings. If you’re looking for options on how to calm yourself down, this is an easy one to try out. Ask yourself what each of your senses is taking in and note how your body feels in its surroundings.
Get outside. Nature is calling, and you must go. A 2020 study found that spending as little as 10 minutes outside can improve mood, focus, heart rate, and blood pressure. And the great outdoors are even more calming if you have time to move around in them. Immediately after exercising, you’ll experience a flood of endorphins, which trigger positive feelings and can help quiet down anxiety and stress, and in the long run, exercise can reduce the number of bad mental health days you experience, per a study in the journal Lancet Psychiatry. Try a walking meditation the next time you feel yourself losing your cool.
Practice gratitude. Not for the situation that made you all riled up, but for all the other things in life that you’re thankful for. Gratitude is positively correlated with a greater sense of wellbeing and happiness, per Harvard research, and can have effects not just over time but immediately, too, like by helping to lower blood pressure. Keeping a regular gratitude journal or list is a good way to cultivate appreciation in your daily life, but in an acutely stressful situation, try listing out loud three things you’re grateful for. They can be big or minuscule, widely applicable or incredibly personal. Whether you’re giving thanks for the sunshine on your face or your children or the last great book you read, that gratitude can help you calm down.
The above exercises are meant to help in moments of crisis, when you want to know how to calm yourself down and need an answer that can help bring a sense of focus and peace back into that present moment.
In the medium term, it’s a good idea to look at the situations you find yourself in that regularly lead you to feel acute stress. Are there habits of yours, people you interact with, or decisions you make that cause you to feel heightened stress and anxiety? What can you do to change that?
For what you can’t change—which is a lot—you’ll be best served by creating an environment within your mind that is calm, comfortable being at rest, and approaches new situations with clarity. Starting a mindfulness practice can help do just that.
The best way to calm yourself down over time is to approach life with a greater sense of acceptance. Know that life is not easy, or fair, or even controllable. Don’t resist what is happening around you or to you. Instead, recognize that everything is always changing, and that accepting that change is the first step towards living within it.
But like reasoning with a toddler, that’s much, much easier said than done.
Operating that way requires a heightened sense of awareness. The untrained human mind is easily distracted by passing thoughts, anxieties, and emotions, and it’s hard to be cognizant of the present moment while we’re living in it. It’s harder still to accept that moment for what it is. Practicing mindfulness meditation helps to tame the mind and improve that sense of awareness, as well as decrease overall stress.
Mindfulness, or the ability to be fully present in a given moment, helps us by allowing us to respond to our thoughts and emotions with calmness and empathy, instead of letting our body’s stress response take over. It doesn’t keep us from feeling anger at a family member during a disagreement, for instance. But mindfulness can help us recognize that anger without it carrying us away in a swell of anxious emotion.
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