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The High Cost of Calm

Why relaxing is so much work.

Lisa Shin, used with permission.
Lisa Shin, used with permission.

Say the word and it helps conjure itself: calm. The “ah” sound dawdles, insists on taking its time. We ride for a second on the exhale. If only the release lasted longer than a syllable.

Perhaps, once, calm came on its own and settled in when worry or obligation retreated. But in a hyperstimulating world where intrusion is the default, interruptions are benignly labeled “notifications,” and watches don’t rest silently on wrists but buzz with the demands of others, the nervous system is constantly pitched into arousal mode. Calm no longer arrives unbidden. It has to be actively sought.

And that is the very definition of a high-wire act. After all, doesn’t calm reside in the absence of effort? Given the nature of modern human awareness, the relief of stress now constitutes a stressor itself. The standard prescriptions—master your breathing, meditate on your mantra, clear your head—can themselves spark anxiety, especially if you’ve attempted them before with no success.

Yet science suggests there is a path through this conundrum. Calm is both a psychological state and a physiological one, and so it can be found by resetting the collaboration between body and mind. The dividing line will vary from person to person, but somewhere between the two, a new balance can be calibrated.

The human nervous system requires a deceptively simple ingredient for calm—a sense of safety. It’s not just a fundamental part of Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs; feeling safe undergirds growth. Lacking that sense of security, our bodies are poised for defense, vigilant for threats whether real or imagined. Every system goes on high alert, reinforced by every substance coursing through our veins.

Some such arousal is necessary. It keeps us going. Our minds evolved to keep us alive, and worry is the mind’s way of telling the body that we may be in danger, from within or without. It’s a feature that served ancient humans especially well when threats to life and limb regularly emerged in the natural environment. Today, though, those feelings often become activated in response to threats that do not merit them. And the cost of constant vigilance is high, not merely exhausting for us but actually corrosive in ways ranging from stiffening veins to hollowing out memory.

We need no reminders that the past year has thrown each of us into a state of unremitting vigilance against an invisible virus capable of killing seemingly at random. The pandemic has been a driver of systemic exhaustion, and each meeting Zoomed, mask donned, and hand scrubbed has been a reminder of the constant threat.

Elusive as it may be, though, calm remains necessary for well-being. Devoting energy to calming practices isn’t merely aspirational, it’s essential. Only when the nervous system is released from defensive mode can inner resources be redeployed to enage in repair, recovery, imagination, and exploration and to enable social engagement—all vital elements of well-being.

Finding calm is a skill that can be learned. It can be pursued from the top down or the bottom up. From the bottom up, for example, deep breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, counteracting the nerve signals that put the brain on alert; it may be the fastest and most universally effective approach.

Tuning out, and detaching from news updates, people’s demands on our time, and anything else that seems as if it could add to our burden, might work for a time, but sooner or later apathy is likely only to prompt feelings of guilt that add another layer to our anxiety.

Having a reliable practice to call on to quell distress and restore calm allows us to respond to life’s real challenges by maintaining focus, intelligence, and intention. A single approach won’t work for everyone, but fortunately, there are multiple paths to reining in racing thoughts and physical reactivity. Ideally, one develops a portfolio of go-to practices.

Below, Psychology Today experts propose some of the most effective techniques—including, yes, deep breathing—for you, your loved ones, and your children.

Lisa Shin, used with permission.
Lisa Shin, used with permission.

Staying Calm When Everything Goes Wrong

These cognitive-emotional skills can help you cope.

By Alice Boyes, Ph.D.

1. Don't jump to conclusions before you have full information.

I once got a message that multiple attempts were being made to access my bank account. This freaked me out, but it turned out it was a financial app I use pulling information from the account, which I had authorized but forgotten about. In the moment, though, I had to recognize the possibility that foul play was involved—and tolerate that anxiety until the bank’s customer service line opened the next day. The lesson: Don’t panic prematurely.

2. Distinguish between a bump in the road and the end of the road.

In the pursuit of any long-term goal, it’s normal to experience setbacks that require some extra work or exact a temporary emotional toll but don’t significantly change where you end up. Your retirement account, for example, may bounce around through market rallies and slumps, but by the time you stop working, the average return is likely to line up pretty closely to your original expectations. Or you may get a ticket because you didn’t notice a sign prohibiting parking in a certain spot. It’s a mistake, it’s aggravating, and it has a cost, but it doesn’t have to ruin your week. The lesson: You might experience detours that are stressful in the moment but shouldn’t prevent you from succeeding in the long run.

3. Ask yourself what you need to learn, if anything.

In some emotionally challenging situations, there is a lesson to learn so that you don’t repeat the error. But often there just isn’t. In the parking ticket example, you might’ve concluded that you needed to increase your vigilance about street signs. But that shouldn’t really be a priority if you’re only likely to screw up once a decade. Extreme vigilance can ramp up stress but deliver minimal returns. The lesson: If there’s an obvious takeaway from a bad experience, embrace it, but recognizing that rare slipups may not be worth the effort of prevention can help limit anxiety.

4. Consider a debrief.

Venting endlessly about something that has gone wrong is unlikely to help you: Often it can be psychologically beneficial just to briefly voice a complaint, especially if you tend to feel better when you stand up for yourself, regardless of whether the complaining has any real impact. After a stressful incident, it can be helpful to share it with people you trust to be supportive. Receiving empathy from someone you care about can be just the release you need to keep you from excessive rumination. But then try to look ahead; it will be better for you—and for whomever you’re unloading on. The lesson: Become attuned to the amount of rehashing that’s helpful by gauging whether your rumination rises or falls after you share.

Alice Boyes, Ph.D., is the author of The Anxiety Toolkit.

Lisa Shin, used with permission.
Lisa Shin, used with permission.

12 Ways to Curb Anxiety

Getting to the other side doesn’t have to be so hard.

By Linda Esposito, LCSW

Anxiety is so omnipresent that one could argue that something is wrong if racing thoughts, sleepless nights, and tightening in your chest aren’t a part of your identity. It’s almost as if calm is a myth. But it’s not, and while it’s not always easy to discover, you can help yourself get on the right side of inner peace with some discipline, creativity, and commitment to intentional acts of calm.

1. Memorize this question: “What is a different way of looking at my situation?”

Ask yourself this question every time you start to feel overwhelmed. Getting out of habitual patterns of overreacting to stress and uncertainty is a key step toward regarding yourself as a capable problem-solver.

2. Walk, or take your dog out, for 30 minutes a day or go for a hike.

Literally and metaphorically, movement can get you unstuck. Not only are you getting out of your home; you’re getting out of your head—especially if you have a wily dog that will keep you on your toes.

3. Drink a lot of water.

Staying hydrated is a simple way to improve mental health. Water facilitates the delivery of nutrients to the brain, removes toxins and inflammatory markers, and improves cognitive function.

4. Drop and do 10 pushups.

When your heart starts racing, maybe because your boss just bombed your inbox with requests, a short burst of heightened physical activity can help you get rid of nervous energy.

5. Think of a person you admire who sees a glass as half full.

When you’re stymied, ask yourself what this person would do. Anxiety can make you feel isolated, even when you’re not physically alone. If you’re not getting positive vibes from those around you, think of your admired person for inspiration.

6. Practice the Pomodoro Technique.

When you’re stressed and demotivated about deadlines or responsibilities, working in small batches of time can help you focus and gain a sense of control. Set a timer and work for 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break. Repeat the cycle three or four times, then take a 15- to 20-minute break.

7. Find a mindful activity to ease yourself through transitions.

If you have a hard time leaving work stress behind, and tend to dump it on your partner as soon as you get home, build yourself a buffer. When you sign off from work, spend a few minutes in silence to make peace with what’s happened during the day, then take a few cleansing breaths before switching gears with presence and intention.

8. Clear your clutter.

It’s no secret that a messy space makes for a messy place inside your head. Before bedtime, spend 15 minutes tidying up and organizing your home and home office. When you can easily locate what you’ll need first the next morning, life runs more smoothly.

9. Read a newspaper rather than tracking the news online.

Salacious sidebars on your screen can easily become time-sucks that not only contribute to procrastination but also prevent you from detaching for a more calming activity.

10. Focus on reality.

Gratitude-attitude quotes are everywhere and “positive thinking” rules the day, but slapping on a smile isn’t going to solve every problem. In fact, constant positivity, especially when it’s forced or insincere, can be a form of avoidance. Sometimes you need to take off the rose-tinted glasses to see your smudged, cloudy challenges as they are.

11. Make a fun plan with the right people, those who are good for your mental health.

Just the act of making plans creates positive anticipation and boosts your mood.

12. Accept your anxiety.

Maybe you have to work harder than other people to find a place of calm, but that’s okay. Sometimes letting go of the need to control outcomes leads to greater acceptance of your circumstances. Reflecting on what you’ve accomplished should bring on the realization that as uncomfortable as worries make you, your track record for eventually overcoming anxiety is probably close to 100 percent.

Linda Esposito, LCSW, is a psychotherapist specializing in stress management.

Lisa Shin, used with permission.
Lisa Shin, used with permission.

Yes, Deep Breathing Will Work—Eventually

These five principles can help to calm your nervous system.

By Seth Gillihan, Ph.D.

Breath is intimately tied to our emotions: It tends to be shallow and rapid when we’re excited or anxious and long and deep when we’re calm. That’s why you’ve probably been told to take a deep breath when you’ve felt stressed and anxious, like before public speaking. Breathing is also closely connected with our nervous system. When we breathe in a particular way, we can engage the calming branch of the autonomic nervous system (the parasympathetic part) to soothe our minds and bodies.

Psychiatrist Suvrat Bhargave emphasizes the value of using breath to slow our anxiety response. “We have two main responses to anxiety and fear,” he says. “Our thoughts speed up, and our bodies speed up.” And while we may know on a rational level that our fears are probably unfounded, “it sure doesn’t feel like it,” he says. “It feels as if something bad is about to happen right now. So you have to bring yourself back to a state of rest before you can move forward and deal with being anxious.”

You may have tried deep breathing to calm yourself before, with little or no success. “It’s easy to believe when we’re highly anxious that nothing has worked and nothing is going to,” Bhargave notes. “That’s what anxiety wants you to believe—that you’re never going to be rid of it.” Don’t give up. “Breathing is so essential to bringing yourself back to a state of homeostasis, back to a balance,” he says. “My response is, respectfully, I promise you that you didn’t do it right before.” If you’ve struggled to achieve calm through breathing, consider trying again with these principles in mind.

1. Focus on the breath, not the anxiety.

When you’re feeling anxious, Bhargave says, deep breathing “is the most tried-and-true method for bringing your body back down again.” But breathing for relaxation can backfire if we become too focused on whether it’s working. If we’re constantly monitoring our anxiety, our minds can override the parasympathetic response to the breathing. Instead, bring your attention to the breath as fully as possible. Feel the sensations, such as the belly rising and falling, and notice the sound of the breath. Consider counting breaths as well, to give the mind less opportunity to focus on the anxiety.

2. Train yourself to associate the breath with relaxation.

Try repeating two words—one on the inhale and one on the exhale—as part of your practice. This occupies your anxious mind and conditions the mind and body to link those words to your parasympathetic response. “Use the same words every time,” Bhargave advises, “because you’re conditioning your emotional being to respond to certain cues.” It doesn’t matter what the words are—in...out, just...breathe—as long as they work for you. You might prefer words that have personal significance for you, Bhargave says, as his own do for him. “They symbolize a lot of things for me, so they strike a chord within the deepest part of me.”

3. Fill your lungs.

If you’re chronically anxious, you may have a habit of taking short, shallow breaths. It takes practice to change that pattern. “It has to be a true deep breath, the kind where your body posture changes when you inhale and again on the exhale,” Bhargave says. When you inhale, feel your low belly expand first, then your ribs, and finally your chest. Make the breath deep, without straining. Aim to feel it like a wave that rises, gently reaches a crest, then slowly falls again.

4. Extend the exhale.

Effective breathing isn’t just deep; it’s also slow. The most soothing part is when you exhale, so make it last as long as possible. At first, you might try breathing in for about two seconds and exhaling for four, then pausing for a couple of beats before inhaling again. Over time you can extend this pattern to four-eight-four, which will correspond to a very calming pace of four breaths per minute. Many variations can be effective; what's most important is finding a technique that resonates with you. n

Seth Gillihan, Ph.D., is a psychologist specializing in mindfulness-centered cognitive behavioral therapy.

Lisa Shin, used with permission.
Lisa Shin, used with permission.

8 Ways to Help a Child Achieve Calm

Telling anxious kids to calm down won’t work. Here’s what could.

By Erin Leyba, LCSW, Ph.D.

When children are confronted with anxiety, they feel it intensely, in part because they may not have developed the means to calm themselves yet. Parents may feel at a loss to help children who become too anxious to walk through the door at a classmate’s birthday party, refuse to exit the car when it pulls up to their soccer game, become nauseated before performing on stage or taking a test, or are terrified that they will be injured by an oncoming storm.

When kids are anxious, they often experience the acute stress response known as fight, flight, or freeze, in which the body’s sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline and noradrenaline, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. Kids respond to these perceived crises in different ways: Some scream, shake, or run away, while others may get quiet, act silly, cling, or have a tantrum.

Reasoning with children in these moments, or trying to convince them that their fears are illogical, tends to fail; worse, the effort can lead the parents to become more agitated or angry themselves, creating an intergenerational anxiety loop of increasing intensity. Neuroscience suggests that children are unlikely to regain control of their behavior until they can step out of the fight, flight, or freeze mode. The following tips could help adults help them.

1. Stimulate the vagus nerve.

Stimulating the vagus nerve, located on both sides of the voice box, can interrupt the fight, flight, or freeze mode and send the brain a signal that it is not under attack. Therefore, encouraging a child to chew gum, sing or hum, breathe slowly, or even eat a piece of dark chocolate could help them achieve calm.

2. Encourage breathing.

Anxious children tend to take rapid, shallow breaths directly from the chest. Slower, deeper breaths from the abdomen or diaphragm can help them relax. Blowing bubbles, blowing into a pinwheel, blowing out fingertip “candles,” whistling, or breathing in for a count of three, holding for three, and breathing out for three can help, as can breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth.

3. Push the body.

By activating muscles and joints, activities that push or pull against the body can increase focus and attention and help a child get centered. Pushups against the wall, running a vacuum cleaner, climbing a jungle gym, or pulling a wagon could help kids calm down and regulate their emotions.

4. Distract with humor.

Laughter can significantly reduce anxiety. It provides distraction, relaxes muscles, and releases endorphins that can help combat stress. Cuing up a favorite slapstick video on YouTube or keeping favorite jokes or silly family memories fresh in your mind could help ease a child out of an anxious state.

5. Narrow the focus.

When children are able to narrow their focus or attention, they are closer to achieving calm.
This requires advance preparation. When they are not agitated, help kids imagine a calm state. It could mean thinking of a place they’ve gone on vacation or one they’ve seen in a movie, the memories of which inspire happiness. Later, if anxiety arises, steer discussion to those scenes.

6. Name the feelings.

When kids are in fight, flight, or freeze mode, and emotions are raging, they may feel they’ve lost touch with their minds. A body of research suggests that the strategy of “name it to tame it” could help. Telling the story about what’s upsetting them, and especially naming the feelings they are experiencing, can bring children closer to a feeling of control and, eventually, calm. They may need to engage their bodies before they are able to think clearly enough to talk things out this way, though.

7. Have a plan.

Similarly, talking in advance with a child about an action plan for finding calm when an anxiety-stirring event occurs could help. For example, talk about what to do when they hear thunder, like turning to an activity such as coloring, stringing beads, or playing with an object like a fidget spinner.

8. Have a ritual.

There’s a reason why athletes and musicians often go through a set array of actions before they perform: Rituals can be anchors of stability, and can help an anxious child approach an anxiety-provoking situation with greater confidence and a sense of control. This could mean reading a favorite comic book before a doctor appointment, playing the same CD in the car on the way to every birthday party, or doing 10 jumping jacks before a baseball game. A physical ritual like the latter may be more reliable, as it does not depend on the presence of a specific object, which, if it goes missing, could ramp up a child's stress.

Erin Leyba, LCSW, Ph.D., is the author of Joy Fixes for Weary Parents.

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