In times of high stress, follow one or all of these suggestions to bring calm to your system and spirit.
– Consume News Wisely – Be mindful of how much news you consume and the effect it has on you. Priming the brain with negative images can gear it toward threats, and this can spur a state of perpetual anxious watchfulness. Set a media limit and be selective about your sources. Avoid sensationalist news outlets, which often use scary drama to hook news consumers and keep them hooked.
– Slow Your Breath – Rapid, shallow breathing is a common feature of anxiety, but that deliberately slowing the breath down — to six or seven breaths a minute — and inhaling twice the usual volume of air can lower sympathetic nervous system activity by as much as one-third.
– Listen to Your Environment – Tune in to the sounds around you: the chirping birds outside your window, a humming air conditioner, a horn beeping down the street, the sound of a copy machine. “Allow your ears to simply receive whatever sounds arise,” recommends Nancy Colier, author of The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World. If the sounds annoy you (like a neighbor’s television), try listening without attaching any meaning to the noise.
– Carry a Talisman – Objects have the power we assign them. Pick an item that has some meaning and carry it with you. It might be a stone from a beach you love, a button from your grandpa’s old coat, even a Lego from one of your kids. Pull it out whenever you need a reminder that there’s more to life than whatever concern is dominating the moment.
– Take a Play Break – If you can step away from a tense moment long enough to throw a Frisbee or pet your dog, you’re on your way to calming down. Play can trigger positive neurochemicals — serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins that can lower cortisol levels.
– Get Tech Support – Install an app like Calm, Headspace, Buddhify, or Sattva on your smartphone. Each one has simple meditations that help you start breathing again — and then, breathe deeper. Some also have reminders that nudge you to take regular breaks throughout the day.
– Drink a Glass of Water – Simply slowing down to have a glass of water can be calming; it also supports stress recovery. Staying well-hydrated may reduce your HPA-axis response to stress.
– Listen to Music – If you need to get out of your head, put on some tunes you love and listen actively, with your eyes closed. Calming music especially can have a direct effect on the autonomic system. This may be why music is now being used therapeutically in emergency rooms, as well as in pain-management and stress-reduction programs.
– Sing – Produce your own instant music therapy by belting out a song or two (singing loudly with the radio absolutely counts!). A 2013 McGill University meta-study showed that singing can measurably improve immunity, decrease stress, and raise oxytocin levels, which help promote social bonding.
– Monotask -If you’re feeling anxious about having too much to do, approach each task in a conscious way, suggests Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of The Distraction Addiction. “I’m going to answer emails for 10 minutes,” for example, or, “I’m taking 10 minutes to clear off my desk.” Even if you can’t complete them on the first try, it can be calming to get a start on lingering tasks — which is often the hardest part.
– Eat Some Protein – Low blood sugar is a frequent trigger for emotional upset. If you haven’t had any protein in the last few hours, eat a handful of nuts or a hard-boiled egg.
– Name the Feeling – If you’re spinning out, slow down and name the feeling: “OK, so this is anxiety.” “This is fear.” “This is anger.” Simply applying language to emotions brings the neocortex, the reasoning part of the brain, back online. This helps put the brakes on a reactive response.
– Pet an Animal – Find the nearest domesticated mammal and give it a friendly scratch behind the ears. Studies show that petting dogs can lower your blood pressure, and having a pet of your own can be a reliable source of unconditional love that keeps stress in check over time.
– Enjoy Some Greenery – Take a walk in the woods, if possible. Research on “forest bathing,” a practice that originated in Japan, has revealed that spending time among trees and plants can measurably lower cortisol, blood pressure, and pulse rate. Gardening is also a calming activity that gets you outdoors.
– Reconsider Caffeine – Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. Ask yourself if your current panic attack could be coffee induced. If so, try drinking calming chamomile tea instead.
– Make a Request – If you’re worried, try articulating what you want instead of what you don’t want. Be specific, like, “I want to have enough time tonight for a luxurious bath while listening to the deep tracks on my old Eric Clapton albums.” Whether it happens or not, at least some parts of your brain will respond to the request itself as if it’s already occurring.
– Write About What Matters – If you can take a few minutes for a writing practice, try this: Stanford researcher and best-selling author Kelly McGonigal, PhD, asks her students to write for 10 minutes about their top value, such as being a good friend or working for social justice. “The main exercise is to [understand] why these things are important to you,” she says. This can change how you relate to the stress you’re feeling.
– Taste Your Food – When you notice you’re wound up and scarfing down a meal, pause for a moment. Take a deep breath and try tuning in to whatever you’re eating. Chew much slower than you would normally and really experience that sensation. Taste it completely and pay attention to the texture and smells. This kind of conscious chewing aids digestion.
– Use a Mantra – Originally used as a word or a sound designed to deepen a meditation practice, “mantra” has evolved to mean “a statement that’s repeated frequently.” This kind of repetition has cognitive benefits, allowing you to develop new neural pathways based on what you’re saying. An especially useful mantra during anxiety can be the simple “I am safe.”
– Express Your Thanks – Numerous studies have found gratitude to be a life changer, bringing feelings of greater well-being and reducing depression. So write a note to a friend, say thank you to three people in an hour, express gratitude for the little things every day, like “Thank you, universe, for that amazing parking spot.” Or, “Thank you, universe. I am still alive. Perhaps my anxiety doesn’t know everything after all.”