We face countless stressors throughout life. Whether we’re worried about relationship problems, job issues, or the uncertain state of the world, let’s face it…life can be stressful. If it’s just a little stress or a big ball of panic in the pit of your stomach, learning how to calm down is a skill we could all practice.
It might feel like learning how to calm yourself down is impossible, especially when you’re in the middle of a stressful or scary situation. Secreting the stress hormone cortisol can make you feel out of control and as if you’ll never return to a normal state. Once the fight-or-flight reaction is activated, stopping or talking yourself down is not easy. 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. We can show you how.
Keep reading to learn 5 proven ways to calm down at the moment (plus 10 more bonus tips you can do in a matter of minutes). When you know how to change the pattern, calming down is possible.
1. Reframe Your Situation or Relabel What’s Happening
Feeling stressed or panicked makes it easy to get caught in the trap of a negative thinking cycle. You may think, “I’m stressed over nothing,” or wonder, “Why is this happening to me?” Sometimes, even more extreme things can cross your mind, like, “I’m a terrible person who can’t handle their emotions.” Stress can convince us that the unthinkable is inevitable. You will lose your job, your relationship will crumble, or your livelihood will be on the line.
Reframing the stressful situation with positive self-talk is a proven, effective way to stop negative thoughts. Try telling yourself things like:
- This is just my anxiety right now
- That’s not true; that’s just the anxiety talking
- Who told me this? How do I know it’s true?
It can also help to remember to treat yourself how you’d treat a loved one with an anxiety disorder — with compassion rather than condemnation. This relabeling and positive self-talk may not seem like it’s doing much, but if you continue and combine it with other techniques, it can be tremendously effective.
“Oftentimes, when the emotional brain is turned on, it can be challenging to accurately look at what’s happening in the moment. Taking a moment to slow down, take a deep breath, and allow yourself to think more clearly is the first step. You can then more clearly evaluate what’s happening. While you cannot change the stressors, you can change how you respond and relate to the situation.”– Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH.
2. Get Outside and Get Moving
One of the best ways to counteract stress hormones is through physical activity. Even something simple like going for a walk or run can help with strong emotion. How does exercise reduce stress? Getting out of the house is an excellent way to change your scene — the fresh air is soothing, and good-mood hormones like endorphins are released when we exercise.
Meditation for stress works by forcing you to calm down and sit still, which can be precisely what you need when your thoughts are racing. Neuroscience research shows that mindfulness meditation and grounding exercises can be powerful ways to relieve stress if you give them a chance. Especially when practiced consistently and over time, medication can slow amygdala activity in the brain while enhancing connections between it and the prefrontal cortex. These both work to combat negative stressors and help you recover after you do experience types of stress.
Sitting still and closing your eyes helps remove stimuli from the outside world, which can help calm down the stress response. Try using a guided meditation app if you struggle with being in the moment during meditations.
4. Ground Yourself Physically
Any way you can provide proprioceptive input — sensory input for muscles and joints — can effectively calm your mind.
Some proprioceptive input techniques involve touching special objects, like a rock or a soft bracelet, when you feel anxious. Using a weighted blanket serves a similar purpose.
Grounding techniques like “trace the hand” is another effective method with the added benefit of combining proprioceptive input and 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. Focus on Your Breathing
We’ve all heard: breathe when you’re anxious. Unfortunately, that statement can be infuriating rather than calming for many people. It might feel dismissive or condescending, and it often feels like whoever is saying it grossly misunderstands you.
“While you have likely seen tips on breathing over and over again, they’re highlighted for very important reasons. They work! When you focus on slowing down your breathing, it allows you to begin to think more clearly, and your emotions will begin to feel more settled.”– Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH.
Engaging in deep breathing techniques that are deliberate and methodical can be immensely helpful in calming down. Like exercising and grounding techniques, deep breathing changes the hormonal balance in the body, quieting the fight or flight stress response. You can take it up a notch with diaphragmatic breathing, which you can do lying flat or sitting down. Diaphragmatic breathing is also known to help when you have an anxiety disorder.
There are many other breathing exercises out there, and none of them are complicated. One great, simple strategy is to just breathe in slowly and then breathe out. Emphasize the exhale and lengthen it.
Deep breathing is a great way to “trick” your body into calming down. You can also try lying down on your back, placing your hands across your torso. As your chest rises and falls, you’ll begin slowing your breath, bringing your mind into a calm state.
12 More Tips for Calming Down
Looking for more tips on how to calm yourself down when stressed? Try these 10, easy-to-do-anywhere relaxation techniques.
“While at times it can feel quite overwhelming and nearly impossible to calm down, it’s important to remember that you can build your own personal toolbox of strategies. Practicing these strategies when you’re calm will help build the skills for when you need them in the moment.”– Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH.
1. Palm push
You can sit at your desk or even in your car and do this one.
- Push the flat of your palms together and hold
- Count to 10 and relax
- Repeat as many times as needed until you feel a sense of calm take hold
2. Pressure points in the hand or head
Pressure points are wonderful ways to refocus and relieve stress.
- Using the thumb of one hand, press and release various areas on the palm of the other hand until you find sensitive spots
- Hold firm pressure and release
You can also do this on a pressure point on the forehead between the eyes. Just above the bridge of the nose, press down and move in small circles with firm pressure.
3. Sigh deeply
Mindful breathing is great, but it can be challenging if you’re in the middle of a conversation or with others. Mindful sighing can be a quick but effective version of deep breathing. To do this breathing exercise correctly, follow this relaxation technique:
- Breathe in slowly
- Silently count to 10
- Sigh loudly to energize and refocus
4. Close your eyes
The American Psychological Association (APA) has extensively researched sleep and stress. They found that even just 60 – 90 minutes of extra sleep can make us healthier, happier, and safer. Can’t sleep? Just closing your eyes for a few minutes can help reset your mind by reducing stimulation.
5. Hug yourself for 10 seconds
Hugs can reduce stress and anxiety, and some studies even suggest there are actual health benefits to getting a squeeze. It sounds incredible, but in one study, frequent hugging resulted in less severe illness. You don’t have to wait for someone else to give you one, either.
- Squeeze your back and belly at the same time to calm yourself down the next time you feel overwhelmed or anxious
6. Monkey stretch
Stretching is known to reduce stress levels and calm our minds. It’s one of the reasons yoga has been practiced for thousands of years.
- Extend your arms out in front of your body, then bring them down
- Stretch your arms out to the side, then bring them down
- Extend your arms up past the head
- Finally, bend down, letting your head dangle between your knees for a few seconds
7. Do a Superman pose
A popular yoga pose known as full Locust or airplane position, the Superman pose is good for calming you down when you’re stressed or distracted.
- Lay on your stomach
- Extend your arms in front of you (in a “flying” position)
- Stretch your legs behind you and hold them straight and slightly off the ground
- Hold for 10 seconds
8. Do a 5-second wall push
Pushing your weight against something solid can have a stabilizing effect. To do a wall push:
- Face an open wall and firmly plant your feet several inches out
- Push against the wall with flat palms for 5 seconds
Shaking for stress relief is natural in the animal world and can also help reduce human stress levels. You might feel silly doing it, but the next time you’re upset, try shaking your whole body for a few minutes. (If it feels too ridiculous, dancing can work, too!).
Research shows that acute hypernatremia (which can result from insufficient water intake) can impact your stress response. Start your day with a large glass of water, and keep a full bottle on your desk or in the car to sip on throughout the day.
Knowing how to calm down isn’t as difficult as it seems. While it’s true that just one of these tips probably won’t cure all your stress and anxiety, making minor adjustments to your days using some of the simple techniques and tools discussed here can significantly impact your ability to manage stress.
Journaling for mental health or expressive writing is another way to alleviate stress and other mental health conditions, such as depression and panic disorder. The long-term benefit of expressive writing is that it can improve one’s psychological well-being.
If you feel like you’ve tried everything, but are still feeling overwhelmed or stressed, it may be a good idea to consider stress therapy. Talkspace is an online therapy platform that can connect with you a licensed mental health professional who can help identify the root of your stress and anxiety and help you progress towards a calmer future. Get started with Talkspace today; professional mental health care is closer than you think.
- Taren AA, Gianaros PJ, Greco CM, et al. Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: A randomized controlled trial. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2015;10(12):1758-1768. doi:10.1093/scan/nsv066. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4666115/. Accessed October 22, 2022.
- Stress and sleep. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/sleep. Published 2013. Accessed October 22, 2022.
- Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Turner RB, Doyle WJ. Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness. Psychological Science. 2014;26(2):135-147. doi:10.1177/0956797614559284. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797614559284. Accessed October 22, 2022.
- Krause EG, de Kloet AD, Flak JN, et al. Hydration state controls stress responsiveness and social behavior. Journal of Neuroscience. 2011;31(14):5470-5476. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.6078-10.2011. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3086063/. Accessed October 22, 2022.