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Two Behaviors That Can Calm You Completely

You already have them. Here is how you can use them.

  • Stress hormones activate the sympathetic nervous system.
  • Cultivating oxytocin-producing memories in anticipation of stressors can have a calming effect.
  • Activating the parasympathetic nervous system calms by overriding the sympathetic nervous system.

Inhibit the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The amygdala releases stress hormones when it senses anything it is not used to. The stress hormones activate the SNS. When activated, the SNS increases heart rate, breathing rate, and causes tension.

Just thinking of a threat can release stress hormones and activate the SNS. This action can be blocked by an oxytocin-producing memory. If we plan ahead, we can remain calm in a stressful situation by pre-linking the stressors we expect to encounter to an oxytocin-producing memory.

  • Step 1: List the expected stressors. Break each stressor down into parts.
  • Step 2: Identify an oxytocin-producing memory. Oxytocin-producing memories are nursing a baby, holding a newborn, sexual foreplay or afterglow, interacting with an affectionate pet, or getting a solid hug for half a minute or more.
  • Step 3: One by one, connect each stressor-part to an oxytocin-producing memory with a sequential linking or with a simultaneous linking technique.

Sequential linking: Bring a stressor-part to mind and quickly switch to the oxytocin-producing scene.

Simultaneous linking: Vividly recall the oxytocin-producing scene and bring an imaginary photo of a stressor-part into the scene.

Simultaneous linking works faster but sequential linking may be easier. Once the links have been established, when you encounter the stressful situation, each stressor-part you encounter will cause the release of oxytocin, limit activation of the SNS, and allow a calm state to be maintained.

Activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is activated when we unconsciously receive signals from another person's face, voice, and touch that indicate they are no threat to us in any way. When activated, the PNS overrides the SNS through stimulation of the vagus nerve. When stimulated, the vagus nerve slows the heart, slows breathing, and relaxes the gut. To provide calming, pre-link each stressor-part to such a person's face, voice, and touch in the following manner.

  • Step 1: Think of the people you know who are not judgmental or critical. Select a person who accepts you unconditionally and is on the same level as you. It does not have to be a person who is still in your life. It can even be a person who is no longer alive.
  • Step 2: Bring to mind the presence of the calming person. One by one, link each stressor-part to the person's face. For example, imagine the person is holding a photo of a stressor-part by their cheek.
  • Step 3: Link each stressor-part to their voice. Imagine you and the person are looking at the photo together and having a conversation about what is in the photo.
  • Step 4: Link each stressor-part to their touch. While having the imaginary conversation, pretend they are giving you a hug, or whatever touch is appropriate.

These two strategies provide powerful calming. By inhibiting the SNS and activating the PNS, you can control anxiety and panic in stressful situations such as in an elevator, on a bridge, in a tunnel, getting an MRI, and in social situations.

This double-barrel approach—SNS inhibition plus PNS activation—provides effective protection. It is the only strategy I have found that can control high anxiety and panic during the most challenging parts of flight: takeoff, cruising high above the earth, and turbulence. Detailed information on using this approach on the ground is available in my book Panic Free and in the air, SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying.

What about breathing exercises? Breathing exercises are often recommended as a way to activate the PNS. Though breathing out does activate the PNS, breathing in deactivates it. Stimulation of the vagus nerve—and thus protection against stress—switches on and off. In a peaceful environment, constant protection is not needed. But in a stressful situation, on and off protection makes no more sense than opening and closing an umbrella in a rainstorm.

What about meditation or mindfulness? Mindful meditation allows anything into awareness without judgment and promotes personal growth. Meditation that uses a mantra is a form of escape. Since a few moments of escape may be helpful to end obsessive thoughts or get through in-flight turbulence, I teach my fear of flying clients the 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise. But as a regular practice, escape stands in the way of personal growth and of adjusting to reality.

More from Tom Bunn L.C.S.W.
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