Discover science-based tips to help you calm down an anxious mind and body.
Maybe we're feeling anxious about the future, angry about being slighted, frustrated about the direction our life is going in, or all of the above. These emotions can lead to increased sympathetic nervous system activation (Charmandari, Tsigos, & Chrousos, 2005). As a result, we can feel wired, strung out, anxious, or even tired (from being wired for too long).
So, calming anxiety usually means we want our body to return to homeostasis (or its normal resting state). Generally, it involves feelings of relief, a reduction in negative emotions, and a general sense that we're okay. Given how unpleasant we might be feeling at times, learning strategies to calm down can be a great boon to our well-being.
Check out the strategies below to start calming your anxiety:
1. Try Mindfulness
A recent meta-analysis showed mindfulness-based therapy can reduce anxiety and depression (Khoury et al., 2013). Although mindfulness doesn't work for everyone and can result in negative experiences for some (Krick & Felfe, 2019), when it works, it is a great tool for calming down. Often, mindful meditations are guided, which helps us stay focused on our breathing and our bodies and not on the thoughts that are making us anxious.
2. Manage Ruminative Thoughts
It's not uncommon for us to think about the bad stuff. We might replay that horrible interaction we had with a friend over and over again in our minds. Or, we might keep going over what we'll do if the worst happens. But at some point, this is just rumination, and we're better off stopping the thought cycles and taking a break from trying to mentally solve all of our problems.
Unfortunately, it's not always easy to stop rumination. You may have heard the saying, "Neurons that fire together, wire together." Basically, this means that when we think in certain ways, it becomes easier for our brains to keep thinking in those same ways. So when we decide we want to break out of negative thought patterns, it can be tough.
Some of the best ways to stop these repetitive thoughts involve forcing the brain to focus on something else. I don't just mean will the brain to stop—that rarely works. I mean give it something so distracting that it can't help but change focus. For example, taking a cold shower or doing a few sprints can work well. And the science suggests that both of these strategies do indeed help calm us down (e.g., Mourot et al., 2008).
3. Write in a Journal
Daily journaling, especially about emotional experiences, has been shown in research to result in small but meaningful improvements in mental and physical health (Pennebaker, 1997). Although ruminating about the past and playing it over and over again in your head is not helpful, sometimes writing it all down and getting it out of your head can be. Perhaps that is why journaling can be such a useful tool.
Other types of journaling may help induce feelings of calm or well-being as well. For example, gratitude journaling is a popular type of journaling that has been shown to be beneficial (Kaczmarek et al., 2015). By shifting our focus to the things we're grateful for, we can potentially decrease negative emotions and feel a bit calmer.
4. Try Yoga
Yoga has become a popular activity in recent years. For some, it helps them get exercise. Others use it to increase flexibility. And others use it to calm and relax the body and mind. The calming effect of yoga appears to be more than anecdotal. Research has shown that doing yoga regularly can result in reduced cortisol, a key stress hormone (Thirthalli et al., 2013). So if yoga feels like a good fit for you, it may help you calm down your anxiety.
5. Practice Acceptance
For some people, relaxation techniques like the ones described above can function as a way to avoid unwanted negative emotions—and they paradoxically end up increasing emotional distress. The antidote seems to be to adopt acceptance and passivity (versus control) over the body and mind (Wilson, Barnes-Holmes, & Barnes-Holmes, 2014). In other words, we need to engage in calming or relaxing strategies without focusing obsessively on how well it will work for us. For example, instead of doing deep breathing while we continually ask ourselves, "Do I feel calm yet?" we have to be present, let the emotions come out as they want to, and then fade in their own time.
Charmandari, E., Tsigos, C., & Chrousos, G. (2005). Endocrinology of the stress response. Annu. Rev. Physiol., 67, 259-284.
Kaczmarek, L. D., Kashdan, T. B., Drążkowski, D., Enko, J., Kosakowski, M., Szäefer, A., & Bujacz, A. (2015). Why do people prefer gratitude journaling over gratitude letters? The influence of individual differences in motivation and personality on web-based interventions. Personality and Individual Differences, 75, 1-6.
Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., … & Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: a comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review, 33(6), 763-771.
Krick, A., & Felfe, J. (2019). Who benefits from mindfulness? The moderating role of personality and social norms for the effectiveness on psychological and physiological outcomes among police officers. Journal of occupational health psychology.
Mourot, L., Bouhaddi, M., Gandelin, E., Cappelle, S., Dumoulin, G., Wolf, J. P., ... & Regnard, J. (2008). Cardiovascular autonomic control during short-term thermoneutral and cool head-out immersion. Aviation, space, and environmental medicine, 79(1), 14-20.
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological science, 8(3), 162-166.
Thirthalli, J., Naveen, G. H., Rao, M. G., Varambally, S., Christopher, R., & Gangadhar, B. N. (2013). Cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga. Indian journal of psychiatry, 55(Suppl 3), S405.
Wilson, C. J., Barnes-Holmes, Y., & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2014). How exactly do I “let go”? The potential of using ACT to overcome the relaxation paradox. SAGE Open, 4(1), 2158244014526722.