Therapist

How to calm your mind when stressed

That’s why having a few strategies you’re familiar with can help you when you’re feeling anxious or angry. Consider adding these calming tactics to your toolbox.

But what happens when that anxiety or anger takes over, and you can’t calm down? Being able to calm yourself in the moment is often easier said than done.

We all worry and get upset from time to time. It’s a normal part of life.

Here are some helpful, actionable tips you can try the next time you need to calm down.

1. Breathe

“Breathing is the number one and most effective technique for reducing anger and anxiety quickly,” says Scott Dehorty, LCSW-C, of Delphi Behavioral Health.

When you’re anxious or angry, you tend to take quick, shallow breaths. Dehorty says this sends a message to your brain, causing a positive feedback loop reinforcing your fight-or-flight response. That’s why taking long, deep calming breaths disrupts that loop and helps you calm down.

There are various breathing techniques to help you calm down. One is three-part breathing. Three-part breathing requires you to take one deep breath in and then exhale fully while paying attention to your body.

Once you get comfortable with deep breathing, you can change the ratio of inhalation and exhalation to 1:2 (you slow down your exhalation so that it’s twice as long as your inhalation).

Practice these techniques while calm so you know how to do them when you’re anxious.

2. Admit that you’re anxious or angry

Allow yourself to say that you’re anxious or angry. When you label how you’re feeling and allow yourself to express it, the anxiety and anger you’re experiencing may decrease.

3. Challenge your thoughts

Part of being anxious or angry is having irrational thoughts that don’t necessarily make sense. These thoughts are often the “worse-case scenario.” You might find yourself caught in the “what if” cycle, which can cause you to sabotage a lot of things in your life.

When you experience one of these thoughts, stop and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this likely to happen?
  • Is this a rational thought?
  • Has this ever happened to me before?
  • What’s the worst that can happen? Can I handle
    that?

After you go through the questions, it’s time to reframe your thinking. Instead of “I can’t walk across that bridge. What if there’s an earthquake, and it falls into the water?” tell yourself: “There are people that walk across that bridge every day, and it has never fallen into the water.”

4. Release the anxiety or anger

Dehorty recommends getting the emotional energy out with exercise. “Go for a walk or run. [Engaging] in some physical activity [releases] serotonin to help you calm down and feel better.”

However, you should avoid physical activity that includes the expression of anger, such as punching walls or screaming.

“This has been shown to increase feelings of anger, as it reinforces the emotions because you end up feeling good as the result of being angry,” Dehorty explains.

5. Visualize yourself calm

This tip requires you to practice the breathing techniques you’ve learned. After taking a few deep breaths, close your eyes and picture yourself calm. See your body relaxed, and imagine yourself working through a stressful or anxiety-causing situation by staying calm and focused.

By creating a mental picture of what it looks like to stay calm, you can refer back to that image when you’re anxious.

6. Think it through

Have a mantra to use in critical situations. Just make sure it’s one that you find helpful. Dehorty says it can be, “Will this matter to me this time next week?” or “How important is this?” or “Am I going to allow this person/situation to steal my peace?”

This allows the thinking to shift focus, and you can “reality test” the situation.

“When we’re anxious or angry, we become hyper-focused on the cause, and rational thoughts leave our mind. These mantras give us an opportunity to allow rational thought to come back and lead to a better outcome,” Dehorty explains.

7. Change your focus

Leave the situation, look in another direction, walk out of the room, or go outside.

Dehorty recommends this exercise so you have time for better decision making. “We don’t do our best thinking when anxious or angry; we engage in survival thinking. This is fine if our life is really in danger, but if it isn’t life threatening, we want our best thinking, not survival instincts,” he adds.

8. Have a centering object

When you’re anxious or angry, so much of your energy is being spent on irrational thoughts. When you’re calm, find a “centering object” such as a small stuffed animal, a polished rock you keep in your pocket, or a locket you wear around your neck.

Tell yourself that you’re going to touch this object when you’re experiencing anxiety or frustration. This centers you and helps calm your thoughts. For example, if you’re at work and your boss is making you anxious, gently rub the locket around your neck.

9. Relax your body

When you’re anxious or angry, it can feel like every muscle in your body is tense (and they probably are). Practicing progressive muscle relaxation can help you calm down and center yourself.

To do this, lie down on the floor with your arms out by your side. Make sure your feet aren’t crossed and your hands aren’t in fists. Start at your toes and tell yourself to release them. Slowly move up your body, telling yourself to release each part of your body until you get to your head.

10. Drop your shoulders

If your body is tense, there’s a good chance your posture will suffer. Sit up tall, take a deep breath, and drop your shoulders. To do this, you can focus on bringing your shoulder blades together and then down. This pulls your shoulders down. Take a few deep breaths.

You can do this several times a day.

11. Identify pressure points to calm anger and anxiety

Going for a massage or getting acupuncture is a wonderful way to manage anxiety and anger. But it’s not always easy to find time in your day to make it happen. The good news is, you can do acupressure on yourself for instant anxiety relief.

This method involves putting pressure with your fingers or your hand at certain points of the body. The pressure releases the tension and relaxes your body.

One area to start with is the point where the inside of your wrist forms a crease with your hand. Press your thumb on this area for two minutes. This can help relieve tension.

Life throws chaos at us on a regular basis—whether it’s our finances, our relationships, or our health. In the work world, around 50 percent of people are burned out in industries like health care, banking, and nonprofits, and employers spend $300 billion per year on workplace-related stress.

This essay is adapted from Emma Seppälä‘s talk “<a href=“https://positiveorgs.bus.umich.edu/events/building-resilience-in-times-of-chaos/”>Building Resilience in Times of Chaos</a>.”

This essay is adapted from Emma Seppälä’s talk ” Building Resilience in Times of Chaos .”

In response, we just keep on pushing through, surviving on adrenaline. We overschedule ourselves; we drink another coffee; we respond to one more email. If we stay amped up all the time, we think, we’ll eventually be able to get things done.

But all that does is burn us out, drain our productivity, and lead to exhaustion.

There’s another way—a calmer way. Cultivating a more restful, relaxed state of mind doesn’t mean we’ll drown under all our responsibilities. Instead, research suggests it will bring us greater attention, energy, and creativity to tackle them. And science also points to simple ways we can tap into that calm state of mind to be more resilient in our chaotic lives.

A stressed mind vs. a calm mind

Stress was never meant to be a 24/7 experience. As Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky explains, you’re really only supposed to feel stressed in the five minutes right before you die. When you are being chased in the savanna by a wild animal, your stress response is supposed to save your life—it mobilizes your attention, muscles, and immune system to get you quickly out of danger. When animals escape, they come right out of fight-or-flight mode and into “rest-and-digest” mode, where the parasympathetic nervous system is working to replenish their resources. 

That stress response is supposed to be short-lived because it wears down your body, your health, and your energy. It also impacts things like your emotional intelligence and your decision making. When you’re tightly wound up, you are more likely to react to situations than to respond with reason.

You also perceive the world differently. Stress makes us narrowly focused, preventing us from seeing the bigger picture. When we’re calmer, our attention becomes broader. In fact, we literally see more things. In one study, participants went through a three-month meditation training. They then engaged in something called the attentional blink task, in which you watch images appear rapidly one after another. Usually when people do this exercise, their attention doesn’t pick up all of the target images. But after that mindfulness training, participants were able to pick up more of the target images than pre-retreat—suggesting that their state of mind had become more attentive.

Being able to attend more means that you notice more things about other people and you’re able to communicate with them in more powerful ways. High stress and anxiety (or any kind of negative emotion) make us self-focused, for an evolutionary reason: When our ancestors were stressed, it was because they were in a survival situation. It was good to be focused on yourself so you could save your life.

When we’re stressed, we’re less likely to notice if a colleague looks burned out or sad and more likely to get irritated if they don’t perform as we expect. However, when you’re in a calmer and happier place, that’s probably the day when you will have more empathy: You’ll notice your colleague and take the time to reach out and ask if there’s anything you can do to support them.

When you’re calm, you also manage your energy because you’re not burning yourself up constantly, spending your days with your sympathetic nervous system in overdrive. Calm helps you focus on what you need to do and get it done much more quickly.

Calmness can also impact your creativity. Research suggests that our most creative ideas come in moments when we’re not actively focused or stressed. We are most creative when our brain is in alpha wave mode, which is a relaxed state of mind—like when you’re in the shower or taking a walk in nature. Indeed, people who go on an immersive nature retreat for four days come back with 50 percent increased creativity.

If you want to get the most out of yourself in terms of your productivity, creativity, and innovation—making progress at work or just solving the basic problems of life that you’re faced with—calm is the key.

How to cultivate a calm state of mind

We know how to become stressed. Most of us are really good at activating our adrenal system and getting wound up. The question becomes, then, how do you wind down? Research suggests several practices that not only feel good but also put us into a calmer, more relaxed state—a state from which we can cope better with whatever life throws at us. 

1. Breathing. 
Jake, who appears in my book The Happiness Track, was a U.S. Marine officer in charge of a Humvee on a convoy across Afghanistan, when his vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device. After the explosion, he looked down and saw that his legs were severely fractured below the knee. In that moment of shock, terror, and pain, he remembered a breathing exercise that he had read about for extreme wartime situations.

It allowed him to do his duty, which was to check on everyone else in the vehicle. It gave him the presence of mind to give orders to call for help, and to then tourniquet his own legs and prop them up before he fell unconscious—which saved his life.

Our breathing is a powerful way for us to regulate our emotions, and it is something we take for granted. Through your breath, you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system—the calming response in your body.

That’s why we turned to breathing to help veterans—50 percent of whom don’t see any improvement in their trauma symptoms from therapy or medication. The veterans were skeptical, but we began teaching them different breathing exercises. Within a couple of days, some of them started sleeping without medication; after the week-long program, many of them didn’t qualify as having post-traumatic stress anymore, and that persisted up to a year later.

Using your breath, you can change how you feel. In another study, researchers observed people feeling different emotions and found that there was a different pattern of breath for each one. Then, they gave other people the different breathing patterns to perform and asked them, “How do you feel?” It turned out that doing those breathing exercises actually evoked the emotions.

One of the most calming breathing exercises you can do is to breathe in (e.g., to a count of four), hold, and then breathe out for up to twice as long (e.g., to a count of six or eight). You can gently constrict your throat, making a sound like the ocean, which is used in deep relaxation breathing. As you’re doing this, especially thanks to those long exhales, you’re activating the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure.

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2. Self-compassion. Often we are our worst critic. We think that being self-critical will help us be more self-aware and make us work harder, but that’s a myth. In fact, according to a good deal of research, self-criticism destroys our resilience. We’re less able to learn from our mistakes when we beat ourselves up. Self-critical people tend to have greater anxiety and depression, and an inability to bounce back from struggles.

Imagine someone running a marathon for the very first time in their life, and they trip and fall. Someone on the sidelines says, “You’re a loser, you’re so not a runner. What are you doing here? Go home.” That person is our internal, self-critical voice. Self-compassion is somebody on the other side, who says, “Everybody falls, this is normal. You are so awesome, you’re totally killing this.”

Self-compassion is the ability to be mindful of your emotions—aware of the emotions that are going on inside whenever you fail at something. It doesn’t mean you identify with them; you can just observe and notice them, without feeding the fire. Self-compassion also involves understanding that everyone makes mistakes and that it’s part of being human. And it is the ability to speak to yourself the way you would speak to a friend who just failed, warmly and kindly.

When we adopt this attitude, research suggests, we are calmer—we have less feelings of stress as well as lower cortisol levels. We’re also more resilient: We’re less afraid of failure, and more motivated to improve ourselves.

3. Connection. How often are we actually present for another person 100 percent? When was the last time somebody was 100 percent present with you, even your spouse?

There’s a loneliness epidemic in the United States and across the world. We know that those feelings of loneliness are extremely destructive to our body and mind, leading to worse health and even earlier death. And the stress and lack of calm in today’s world may contribute to this loneliness because of the way that it tends to make us self-focused.

Our greatest human need, after food and shelter, is to connect with other people in a positive way. From the moment we’re born until our last day, we have a deep and profound longing to belong to one another. And when we fulfill that need, it brings us more calm: The oxytocin and natural opioids that we release when we connect may exert a calming influence on our bodies, and the knowledge that we have the support of others can soothe our minds. When we face adversity, research suggests that our relationships and community have an important role to play in our resilience.

So how do we create a state of mind where we feel more connected?


The good news is that by taking care of yourself and your own well-being with practices like breathing and self-compassion, you are able to turn more attention outward to feel more connected, as well. Positive emotions like calm naturally make us feel closer to other people. You can try specific practices that research has found to boost your sense of connection, as well.

4. Compassion for others. Imagine a day when things aren’t going well for you—you spilled your coffee on yourself, and it’s raining. And then a friend calls who’s having a true emergency in their life, and you jump up and go help them immediately. What happens to your state of mind in that moment?

All of a sudden you have high energy; you’re completely at their service. That is what practicing altruism, service, and compassion does to your life.

It increases your well-being tremendously, as many of us have experienced when we perform little acts of kindness. When we feel compassion, our heart rate goes down and our parasympathetic nervous system is more activated.

Kindness and compassion can also help protect us from adversity. In one of my favorite studies, researchers found that people who had been through traumatic life situations had a shorter lifespan. But among these participants, there was a small group of people who just seemed to keep on living. What was going on with these people?

When the researchers dug a little deeper, they found that they were all engaged in helping friends and family in their life—from assisting with transportation or shopping to housework and child care. Service is one of the most profound ways to nourish the community around you, but also to nourish, inspire, and energize yourself. It’s like that children’s book—when you fill someone’s bucket, it also fills yours.

Cultivating calm isn’t about avoiding every kind of stressful emotion. In fact, when we make time to breathe, connect, and care, some of the negative feelings we’ve been running from might catch up with us. But that’s the time for self-compassion; it’s okay to feel bad. Resilience doesn’t mean that we’ll be happy all the time, but it does mean we have the energy, the mindset, and the support from others to help us weather the storm.

Center for Positive Organizations logo

The talk this essay is based on is part of the Positive Links Speaker Series by the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations. The Center is dedicated to building a better world by pioneering the science of thriving organizations.

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