Few things are as annoying (and anxiety-heightening) as someone telling you to calm dow when you are, in fact, not calm at all. But if you are looking for advice on how to calm down that *actually* works to reduce anxiety, panic, fear, or anger in real time, read on. Ahead, two psychologists offer 10 effective strategies to help you chill out when you’re already in the midst of it.
First, a bit of background. When you feel like you need to calm yourself, you can think of it as being “triggered,” says licensed psychologist and certified executive coach Sarah Sarkis, PsyD. Similarly, emotions—anxiety, excitement, even joy—are stimulating, adds licensed psychologist Brandy Smith, PhD. When you’re calming down, you’re basically deescalating, she notes. For instance, you might notice your hammering heart rate slowing or your headspace shifting away from worry and racing thoughts.
But here’s the thing: “Calm is not always [an] option,” Sarkis says. Sometimes you need to be alert, and strong emotion is your body’s way of waking you up to something. In fact, Smith notes that emotions you perceive as negative can work for you—for instance, anxiety can be functional, and anger can be informative. On top of that, emotions aren’t all or nothing: “A situation may only allow us to come down to a five,” Smith says. And sometimes, you’ll just have to ride it out. The good news? There’s a beginning, middle, and end to what you’re experiencing.
This content is imported from poll. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.
More good news: Learning the early warning signs of escalating emotions—restlessness, butterflies, tense shoulders, etc.—can help you catch your feelings earlier and potentially have some influence over them, says Sarkis. The key is to be genuinely curious, she says. Everybody’s symptoms are different—and they can differ depending on the intensity of what you’re experiencing, Smith adds. Knowing your own body can help you figure out how to best select strategies from your calm-down toolkit.
Meet the experts: Sarah Sarkis, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist and certified executive coach based in Boston. Brandy Smith, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with Thriveworks in Birmingham, Alabama and Lynchburg, Virginia.
10 Ways To Calm Down
One more crucial tip to keep in mind before you dive in: You want to practice the strategies below even when you’re not feeling like you need to calm down, Sarkis advises. “It’s really hard to show up to game day if you don’t know the skills that could help you,” she explains. As for when to use each one, that’s ultimately for you to determine. Different tools will work for different people in different situations.
1. Try breathwork.
In particular, Sarkis likes box breathing, which can help activate your parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. Basically, it entails inhaling for four seconds, holding for four, then exhaling for a count of four seconds, WH previously reported.
Smith recommends practices with longer exhales than inhales. (4-7-8 breathing entails inhaling through your nose for four seconds, holding for seven, and exhaling through your mouth for eight seconds, and it can help relax your nervous system.) Pro tip: Some people find it helpful to put a hand on their stomach to feel the sensation of their breath, or to picture their breath moving through their body and slowing down, Smith says.
2. Get some exercise.
Sometimes, we just have too much energy that needs to be expelled, Smith says. Sarkis, too, notes that it can help to “run the foam off” when you’re feeling a little bit revved up or anxious, and suggests activities like walking, running, biking, or hiking.
3. Change the scenery.
Both Sarkis and Smith recommend stepping away to help you calm down. Sometimes, your physical environment can contribute to a sense of feeling “stuck” that escalates your distress, Smith explains. Stepping away—even if it just means taking a break to go to the restroom—can help, she says.
Plus, it can give you space to deploy other strategies that you might not be comfortable practicing in front of other people, like self-talk (more on that later) or breathwork. In particular, Sarkis recommends getting outside for some fresh air.
4. Engage the senses.
Got a quote that resonates? Sounds that soothe you? Fragrances that bring back certain memories? Smith suggests using them to help yourself refocus and feel less threatened. Some people also like to use weighted blankets because they find comfort in that feeling of containment, she says. And if you’re spiritual, she adds, there might be something related to those beliefs that you could read or do to calm down.
5. Use self-talk.
Acknowledge what you’re feeling and reassure yourself that you’ll be OK, Smith says. Here’s a sample script for you: “I am feeling intensely right now, and that feels difficult. But I can get through this.” It’s important to avoid going to a judgmental place, as that won’t help you, Smith notes. Talk to yourself like you would a loved one going through the same situation.
6. Indulge in a massage.
Massage can be helpful for some people, whether it’s an actual sesh you book with a pro, a massage from a loved one, or just something you do for yourself, Smith says. Check in with your body to notice where you’re feeling tension, then focus on that area, she advises.
7. Practice pushing back.
Cold plunges and sauna sessions may sound strange in this context, but consider this: Provoking internal intensity with these methods can help you get better at pushing back against intense reactions, according to Sarkis. These types of situations allow you to create environments that mimic the early signs of being triggered emotionally (think: an increased heart rate) and practice working through it, drawing on tools like breathwork and meditation.
8. Focus on your sleep.
This one’s got multiple benefits: First of all, sleep is crucial for tolerating stress, per Sarkis. So, making an effort to fix disrupted sleep can help you avoid feeling triggered in the first place. Plus, she adds, being well-rested helps you access your best self and a greater set of resources to manage the triggers you do face.
9. Consider cutting down on caffeine.
Caffeine is a stimulant, Sarkis explains, and your central nervous system may not need that stimulation. Play around with cutting your caffeine consumption in half, she advises, or figure out another limit that works best for you.
10. Set boundaries.
Listen to your body (use that genuine curiosity!) and figure out what triggers you, Sarkis says—it could be the news, social media, tech, or something else. Then set some boundaries and fix the ones that are broken. For example, you might create dedicated no-tech times or take five minutes for yourself between meetings—where you don’t check your email, BTW—to give your central nervous system a break, Sarkis notes. We all have broken boundaries, she adds. Find them and push back.
At the end of the day, remember that it’s not problematic in and of itself if you need to calm down—problems arise, Smith says, when you’re “elevated” for too long. But there are instances in which you should seek professional help. If you’re experiencing consistent panic attacks, Sarkis says, get someone in your corner to help you work out a game plan. If you’re experiencing dramatic mood swings, she adds, it’s a good idea to work with a psychiatrist to unpack them and work on helpful interventions. (And relentlessly reach out until you find someone who’s really hearing what you’re saying about your experiences, Sarkis notes.) Ultimately, if you don’t feel safe, seek medical attention.
Erin Warwood is a San Francisco-based writer, runner, and sparkling water enthusiast. She holds a B.B.A. from the University of Notre Dame and an M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University. In her free time, you can find her watching Survivor, trying new Peloton workouts, and reading Emily Giffin novels. Her ultimate goal: become a morning person.