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Calm Your Nervous System and Move Through Overwhelm

A primer of research-based ways to calm yourself down quickly.

Key points

  • Many tips can help reduce anxiety when people feel overwhelmed. Some come from the field of dialectical behavior therapy.
  • Strategies include deep breathing, naming emotions, and reflecting on times you have acted competently in the past.
  • Identifying the techniques that work for you can help mitigate overwhelming emotions more quickly the next time they arise.
Source: jplenio/pixabay

Are you finding it a bit overwhelming to get out in the world more as things open post-pandemic? Are you experiencing another overwhelming change?

Sometimes we need to calm ourselves down quickly. I find that it helps to try a combination of new techniques and techniques that have worked for me in the past. Some of these tricks come from a school of therapy called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and others from brain research.

Tips for Calming Down in Privacy

1. Bend your head slightly and touch your tongue several times gently to the roof of your mouth, just behind your teeth. You can try it without bending your head if that will look odd. This can relax your neck. If you often have a stiff neck or jaw, you may be helped by learning to rest your tongue in that spot.

2. Exhale longer than you inhale. Try to inhale for four counts, then exhale for six. If your breathing is fast—let's say your inhale is only three counts—make your exhale four. You can do this discreetly. Try Stasis for more breathing techniques.

3. Name your emotion. Ask yourself, Am I feeling mad, sad, or afraid? Let the first answer that comes to mind be correct. Brain imaging research shows that naming emotions shifts our focus to a different brain area, giving the emotion less power.

4. Notice and take care of your body. In most social situations, even at work, it's okay to stop to drink water or go to the bathroom. If you're in a meeting, lower your shoulders, which are probably scrunched up, and sit or stand up straighter.

Tips for Calming Down in Privacy

1. Do a forward bend. This one comes from DBT. Bend over to touch your toes (though you don't have to reach them) and breathe deeply and slowly for at least 30 seconds. If you're sitting, put your head between your knees. Come up slowly.

If that helped a little but you need more, bend over again and make your exhale longer than your inhale.

If you're alone and you know your issue has to do with feeling abandoned, isolated, or unacceptable to others:

2. Make eye contact with anyone. This tip is also from DBT. Sometimes you can't handle a personal conversation or there's no one available you trust. You may not even be able to make small talk. But contact with another human being can still help you. Keep it simple: Go to a store, pick up a small item and say hello and make eye contact with the person at the cash register.

If you're at home:

3. Put your face in ice-cold water. This is another DBT technique. Fill a bowl with icy cold water and lean over, hold your breath, and put your face in the water (make sure that the most sensitive part of the face, underneath the eyes and above the cheekbones, feels the water). Try to stay for 30 seconds. I've tried just putting an ice cube on my forehead, wrists and the back of my neck.

Once you're a little calmer:

4. Do the opposite of whatever your feeling would suggest. If you're angry and want to hurt someone, pull out your phone and "Like" a photo of a loved one on Instagram or text a heart with "Thinking of you" to your sister. You don't have to be nice to the person who made you angry. But if you can, more power to you! Don't worry that you're not being true to your current emotion. Feelings can follow action. This insight goes back to the founder of American psychology William James. (You can read more on that here.)

Sometimes when I'm feeling unable to work on a particular project, I do another task, to contradict the feeling of helplessness. If I'm writing a story and feel overwhelmed, I might write an email or even a blog post. I'm procrastinating but still getting something done—and countering the "I can't work" feeling.

5. Pick an "I'm good!" reminder. Feeling incompetent is one of my overwhelm triggers, so years ago I developed a trick that I pulled out to remind myself that I'm competent. I taught myself to roll my head around to the right, while rolling my eyes to the left. I can also do the reverse, rolling my head to the left, while rolling my eyes to the right. This requires concentration, so it takes your mind away from the emotion. More importantly, I'm "acting opposite" to the "can't do" feeling.

An easier variation is patting your head with one hand while you move your hand in circles on your stomach with the other.

Is there something you can do that you're proud of, that makes you feel like "I'm good!" For example, if you're good at memorization, choose something to remember and when you're feeling inadequate, recite it to yourself. I'm old enough that I used to know phone numbers by heart before we had numbers stored in cell phones. Memorize some numbers (this is a good move anyway, in case you ever lose your phone.)

Are you proud of your poetry? Pick a poem in advance that you'll recite to yourself in a bad moment.

Are you good at puns? Recall some you made up.

Can you sing? Hum a favorite song under your breath.

Are you proud of your travels? Make a mental list of your most adventurous trips.

The key is to keep this handy in your mind to do when you're feeling overwhelmed.

6. Pray. My authority here is all the great religions of humankind. If you don't believe in God, think of a person who inspires you because she's especially loving or devoted to others in her work. I think of this as "God in a person." Just thinking of her kindness and dedication can be calming.

Think of a child or any person you love and you'll awaken your own compassion. Research shows that we are more resilient when we are compassionate, and extend that compassion to ourselves.

Source: Stevebidmead/Pixabay

7. Draw upon nature. Remember a beautiful spot in nature. This well-known technique originally came from Buddhist meditation practice. Remember a beach, mountaintop or garden, a moment when you felt at peace. Look at photos of nature. If you can go for a walk, pick a spot with some greenery.

8. Do something kind. In moments of overwhelm, we tend to feel worthless. But you probably did a good deed in the last day or week. Remember your good deeds and you'll tap into your compassion. If possible, think of a kindness you can do soon.

Remember that these feelings are temporary and will pass. You're learning strategies to make them pass more quickly in the future. Also remember that everybody, absolutely everybody, has experienced moments of overwhelm. That person who seems so put together, happy, talented, lucky, resourceful and hard-working? That person has bad moments, too.

I like to think of leaves on a stream. Sometimes the water underneath us is calm, and sometimes it isn't. Does it make any sense to blame the leaf?

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