Training yourself in times of nonstress becomes increasingly important, because you build up those practices for accessing calm quickly. Even years of meditation or yoga practice, however, aren’t always enough to handle the challenges of the modern world. When anxiety takes you by surprise, these strategies will help you catch your breath and calm your mind.
1. Be Ridiculous: To calm yourself quickly, tell your autonomic nervous system that it’s OK to stand down. One cue that works surprisingly well is silliness. If you’re anxious before an important call, have a one-song dance party. Make faces in the mirror. Translate the day’s headlines into pig Latin.
2. Focus on a Game: The Scientific Solution to Building a More Resilient Brain and Life, is redirecting a racing mind by playing games, especially ones that require some concentration. Play Tetris on your phone or a round of 20 Questions with a friend.
3. Slow Your Breath: Rapid, shallow breathing is a common feature of anxiety, but that deliberately slowing the breath down — to six or seven breaths a minute — and inhaling twice the usual volume of air can lower sympathetic nervous system activity by as much as one-third.
4. Listen to Your Environment: One way to tune out the noise in your mind is to tune in to the sounds around you: the chirping birds outside your window, a humming air conditioner, a horn beeping down the street, the sound of a copy machine. “Allow your ears to simply receive whatever sounds arise,”.
5. Take a Play Break: If you can step away from a tense moment long enough to throw a Frisbee or pet your dog, you’re on your way to calming down. Play can trigger positive neurochemicals — serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins — that increase well-being.
6. Drink a Glass of Water: Simply slowing down to have a glass of water can be calming; it also supports stress recovery. Staying well-hydrated may reduce your HPA-axis response to stress.
7. Listen to Music: If you need to get out of your head, put on some tunes you love and listen actively, with your eyes closed. Calming music especially can have a direct effect on the autonomic system. This may be why music is now being used therapeutically in emergency rooms, as well as in pain-management and stress-reduction programs.
8. Sing: Produce your own instant music therapy by belting out a song or two (singing loudly with the radio absolutely counts). Singing can measurably improve immunity, decrease stress, and raise oxytocin levels, which help promote social bonding.
9. Monotask: If you’re feeling anxious about having too much to do, approach each task in a conscious way. “I’m going to answer emails for 10 minutes,” for example, or, “I’m taking 10 minutes to clear off my desk.” Even if you can’t complete them on the first try, it can be calming to get a start on lingering tasks — which is often the hardest part.
10. Alternate-Nostril Breathing: Deep breathing is useful for slowing down the sympathetic nervous system and alternate-nostril breathing can be especially relaxing. First, exhale completely, and then inhale deeply. On your next exhale, place an index finger against your right nostril to close it off. Inhale through the left nostril, and then close the left nostril as you release the right nostril. Exhale completely through the right nostril, and then inhale through that side. At the top of the inhale, close off the right nostril, release the left, and exhale. Repeat for 15 rounds.
11. Pet an Animal: Find the nearest domesticated mammal and give it a friendly scratch behind the ears. Studies show that petting dogs can lower your blood pressure, and having a pet of your own can be a reliable source of unconditional love that keeps stress in check over time.
12. Enjoy Some Greenery: Take a walk in the woods, if possible. Research on “forest bathing,” a practice that originated in Japan, has revealed that spending time among trees and plants can measurably lower cortisol, blood pressure, and pulse rate. Gardening is also a calming activity that gets you outdoors.
13. Express Your Thanks: Numerous studies have found gratitude to be a life changer, bringing feelings of greater well-being and reducing depression. So write a note to a friend, say thank you to three people in an hour, express gratitude for the little things every day, like “Thank you, universe, for that amazing parking spot.” Or, “Thank you, universe. I am still alive. Perhaps my anxiety doesn’t know everything after all.”