It’s all too easy in today’s world to go from calm to crisis in a just few seconds flat. I used to actually be surprised when “bad” things showed up in my world. Not anymore. I’m here to tell you that I’ve learned that the bad stuff is just as much a part of life as the good.
Now, I expect it. I don’t mean that in a pessimistic way. I mean that in a realistic way.
Eckhart Tolle says, “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”
Now, I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve that status. My brain has always been anxious.
When upsetting things do show up in my life, I’ve figured out that I can make things more stressful and difficult for myself, or I can choose to help myself through a challenging situation. I’ve learned mental health tools that I use to calm my mind instantly, which, in turn, calm my brain and body. They work every time for me. They can work for you too.
Here are five practices I frequently use on the spot to help me calm down.
Grounding is a mindfulness practice that asks you to guide your attention away from what is stressing you and notice your physical environment. The scientific evidence for mindfulness helping to calm your brain and body immediately is overwhelming. This practice shifts the activity in your brain and calms your fear center, the amygdala.
There is an ensemble of neural networks, called the default mode network (DFM), that is your brain’s go-to state when it’s at rest — not paying attention to anything in particular. When you are being mindful, by intentionally directing attention inward and cultivating awareness of something (in the case of grounding, your physical senses), you are becoming aware of what your DFM is doing and exerting control over it. Guiding your DFM, through grounding or any other mindfulness practice, is a skill that you practice and develop just like learning to play the piano. You are training your brain to break free of anxiety-producing thought loops to orient itself in the present moment.
Although it’s been well-known for a long time that slow breathing has a calming effect on your emotions and body, and shallow, rapid breathing makes your brain and body anxious, science didn’t know exactly why. Researchers have discovered that your breathing rate is directly connected to your brain through what’s being called the “breathing pacemaker.”
The breathing pacemaker is a group of neurons at the base of the brain stem and was first discovered in mice in 1991. It has since been identified and studied in humans. These neurons have a direct line to the brain’s arousal center and can either tell the brain there’s an emergency and set off the body’s alarms, or keep it on an even keel, maintaining a sense of calm. When you intentionally slow your breathing down, these neurons don’t send the panic signal.
Most of the time, your breathing is managed by your subconscious brain. However, at any moment, you can take control and change how you breathe which simultaneously alters your emotions and nervous system. Therefore, controlled deep breathing is a sure and quick way to lower stress and anxiety on-the-spot.
HEAL – Taking in the Good
Your brain essentially has two settings: reactive and responsive. As long as your core needs are being met, your brain should default to a responsive mode, in which it’s safe, relaxed, calm and peaceful. When something happens in the environment to cause your brain to feel the least bit threatened, your limbic system activates the fight or flight alarm, and your brain shifts to reactive mode.
Having a reactive brain helped keep our ancestors stay alive. However, in today’s world, the alarm sounds all too often. Whenever you feel pressured, worried, irritated, or disappointed the same mechanism kicks in which not only feels crummy and can lead to anxiety and depression but is damaging to your physical health as chronic stress contributes to a weakened immune system and increased risk of heart attack and stroke. In reactive mode, your avoiding brain feels fear and anger.
In Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, Dr. Rick Hanson proposes that we develop what he calls “a responsivity bias” by intentionally internalizing positive experiences into our brains. Hanson calls this “taking in the good.” It’s a four-step process with the first letter of each step forming the acronym HEAL.
Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, offers a practice he calls SIFTing to calm your brain. SIFTing asks you to pause and allow the rational part of your brain, the frontal lobe, to give your emotional brain, the limbic system, some guidance.
With SIFTing, you’re intentionally taking a moment to consciously calm your brain’s instinctual reaction. If you run through the steps outlined in SIFT, you will calm your brain and body at that moment on-the-spot. Because of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change form and function with repetition, over time and with practice, SIFTing can teach your brain to be less reactive and remain in a responsive mode more of the time ongoing. It’s really just another mindfulness practice.
Every minute of every day, your body is physically changing in response to the thoughts that run through your head. Just thinking about something causes your brain to send signals to muscles and release neurotransmitters. These chemicals control virtually all of your body’s functions, including your mood and feelings. This process can hurt you — as in the case of anxious, negative thoughts — or help you.
One way to harness this power to help yourself is through affirmations. Affirmations, also called self-affirmations, are thoughts you intentionally come up with to support, encourage, and calm your brain and body at the moment. They can be positive statements challenging specific negative, depressing, or anxiety-producing thoughts and beliefs. They can also just be general supportive thoughts providing encouragement. Science shows that affirmation can successfully reduce stress and have many other benefits.
Your mind usually thinks in pictures to accompany words. The words in an affirmation, automatically and involuntarily, bring up related mental images. That’s why affirmations and visualization particularly work well together. You can intentionally combine them for an even more powerful mental health tool.