Some people seem to have a natural predisposition for ease and tranquility. When faced with adversity or just handling concerns or annoyances of daily life, they hardly ever appear ruffled or upset. The rest of us have to work at staying calm. Fortunately, there are many techniques readily available to make the process easier.
Balance Between the Systems
The nervous system is a wonderful, complex mechanism. Responsible for controlling most mind and body functions, its divisions command a lot of how we think and feel. If you haven’t seen a diagram of the nervous system since biology class, take a quick peek. You’ll notice that much of what we experience happens in the brain (the central nervous system) and along the spinal cord (the peripheral nervous system), comprised of autonomic and somatic responses.
There are two primary divisions of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, or as you might have heard them referenced, “fight or flight” and “rest and digest.” Both are automatically activated—a spike in adrenaline is the fight response when we need to quickly remove a child’s hand from a hot stove burner, and deep breathing is the rest response to help quiet the nerves before speaking in public.
The body and mind naturally respond to both external stimuli and deliberate behaviors. What you can learn is how to foster balance between the two systems so that when the sympathetic side is activated, it doesn’t stay in that state for too long; otherwise, it has disastrous effects on your health. Regardless of how automatic the parasympathetic response is, scientists believe there are many ways to manage our energy more effectively so this system moves into action more quickly when we need to calm down.
Immediate Calming Techniques
When we feel stressed, agitated, scared, uneasy, or threatened in any way, the last thing we want is for someone to say “Calm down!” or “Relaaaaax.” Neither of these phrases actually has the desired effect.
But internal dialogue coupled with purposeful action can help you acknowledge what your sympathetic system is responding to and prompt your parasympathetic side to take over.
- Breathe. Since the parasympathetic system controls respiratory action, deep breathing sends a signal to your brain to settle down. Most of us breathe quite shallowly when anxious or upset, so the key is to control the breath more effectively for the desired reaction. Try these breathing techniques in the short term, and continue to do them long-term for greater effect.
- Stimulate the vagus nerve. One of the primary cranial nerves, the vagus nerve is also the longest nerve in the body and encircles major organs, often referred to as the “command center” of your parasympathetic nervous system. Improving your vagal tone helps promote a sense of calm because it signals both the brain and all these other areas of your body. Deep, rhythmic breathing, humming, and washing your face with cold water are all good ways to heighten the vagal tone quickly—then use meditation and gut microbiome wellness for long-lasting development.
- Pause and find a focal point. Sometimes referred to as the S.T.O.P. Method, this technique involves: stop action momentarily and fix your gaze on something neutral; take deep breaths to put yourself into the present; observe what’s happening with your emotions, physical reactions, and thoughts; and then proceed with conscious awareness.
- Label, then relabel, your emotions. It’s easy to fall into the catastrophe dimension, where everything is filled with fear, dread, and pressure. Neuroscientists suggest the exercise of identifying negative emotions, and then categorizing them in a positive way. This displaced focus, similar to the pause above, helps disengage the sympathetic nervous system from its hyper state. So worry becomes concern, dread is caution, flustered is excited, and so on. By the time you finish, you’re likely to be more relaxed.
People who experience various forms of anxiety and other mood disorders often learn these techniques in cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of counseling because they help reframe their reactions and experiences.
Developing Calm With Regular Practices
All of the methods mentioned above can be enhanced with greater focus. You might also find success with other proven techniques for improving the response of your parasympathetic nervous system and lessening how long your sympathetic side remains alert. Additional practices include:
Numerous medical studies continue to reinforce the positive effects of yoga for reducing anxiety, releasing dopamine as a natural mood enhancer, encouraging better sleep, lessening fatigue, and fostering better whole-person awareness.
Scientists support meditative practices to manage the stress response; while you may still react to stress, you won’t do so as intensely as you might have before regular meditation practice.
An acronym for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, this technique helps recalibrate a person’s reactions to negative memories and experiences. Too often, our stress response is elevated because of these past circumstances and has a more challenging time backing down.
One of the easiest ways to balance the nervous system is with regular exercise, because it promotes a release of “feel good” chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins, reduces negative stress chemicals such as cortisol, and improves sleep, which lessens the stress response overall.
Experts use somatic healing to help people release grief and trauma from the body and teach skills for future self-regulation.
Passive Muscle Relaxation
This combination of focused breathing and muscle contraction/release helps acknowledge tension held throughout the body and systematically let it go.
Learn More Holistic Care Techniques
Cottonwood Tucson has a philosophy of whole-person wellness, which includes supporting many aspects of holistic techniques to encourage a better way of life. Learn more about our approach to care.