Are you feeling stressed right about now? If you are, that’s okay — chances are, so are most of the people you know. Whether your challenges are driven by what’s happening at work, in your personal life, or in the larger world, there are many things you can do to help yourself feel safer, more balanced, and better able to cope even when you can’t control what’s happening around you.
Here are a handful of techniques — both physical and mental — you can use to calm yourself so you can return to your challenges with a more balanced outlook. Each one helps you separate from the situation that’s bothering you and creates a brief opportunity to restore your sense of self.
Lengthen your exhalations. If you breathe in for, say, three seconds, try timing your outbreath to last for five or six seconds. Breathing out expels carbon dioxide and prepares you for a fresh, oxygenating inhale. When you breathe out longer than you breathe in, you relax your parasympathetic nervous system: your stomach stops churning, your jaw unclenches, and your eyes go back to their normal state rather than widening and staring, as if you’re trying to scan the savannah for predators. A lengthened exhale lets your body and brain know that you’re not running for your life, and when your body and brain feel safer, you can start to feel more okay again.
Go somewhere else in your mind’s eye. Where are the places that you’ve felt happy, satisfied, energized, or safe? Perhaps you think of a beach, a mountainside, or even a museum as a place where you can truly be yourself, in a more natural state and at peace. Close your eyes and picture the scene. Look really carefully to notice everything that’s there. Enhance the picture with as much texture, color, and light as you can. This is not exactly remembering, it’s more like reconstructing. Let your mental vision rest on each aspect of the scene as you build up the details in rich profusion. You can even return to the scene and add more embellishments. The point is not to be accurate, but to imagine yourself in surroundings that are pleasant and absorbing for you.
Adjust your whole torso. Often when we’re stressed, we either slump or stiffen. Try lifting your ribcage up out of your waist. Take a breath in and feel your body expand. Let your shoulders settle down in line with your ears. Push your chin back and then release it so your head is in a more neutral position relative to your body rather than jutting forward. Extend your arms out, palms up, and then bring them back to center. You can do these motions one step at a time or all at once. Think about your spine as centered and dignified, upright but not stiff, with the rest of your body parts all in the locations they should be when your spine is holding you up so beautifully.
Hold your own hand or arm. The body often recognizes care before our thoughts do. So clasp your hands together in front of you, no more than about six inches from your body. Don’t grip too tightly, but make sure each hand feels held by the other. You may notice your pulse or the sensation of touching your own skin. You can also cross your arms gently, or put one hand on the opposite shoulder and the other hand on the opposite side of your waist. Pause for a moment and rest. When your mind notices that you are being held, you can experience a sense of being cared for and protected. You can even smile a little, the way you would at someone else if you were holding them to give them confidence or comfort.
Travel through the landscape of your experience. Actually tell yourself what is happening to you and how you feel about it. Put extra care into naming the particular sensations in your body and the emotions that you feel, as well as what you think they might mean. Take the time to examine yourself thoroughly in a kindly, curious way, as if you were driving to a new place by searching for and identifying landmarks, staying attentive to what you are seeing along the way and describing it all for your traveling companions, who are fascinated with everything in the landscape. Then rest — and don’t worry about whether anything changes or not.
Speak to yourself lovingly. If you’re not sure you can come up with a naturally loving tone, speak to yourself the way you wish someone else would, the way you would speak to a beloved pet or a sweet baby. Say the things that would have comforted you when you were young — say, at nine and 13 and 17. Convey the reassurance, attention, and confidence that you’re doing fine now and you will continue to grow. For this moment, put aside any heavy expectations for yourself. Appreciate something about yourself, and if possible, recognize how well you’re handling the current adversity. Use a loving nickname or affectionate term for yourself so it’s clear that you’re addressing yourself in second person, as if you were someone else. Your brain will hear and attend to your encouragements better that way.
Make one choice. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by stressful events, and to fixate on a single tree instead of the forest — or maybe even just a patch of bark. But after you’ve calmed yourself with one of these other techniques, ask yourself what would be the best next step, or what would be one very small thing you could do right now. It might be an action to deal with the problem that’s bothering you, or just something else you need to do. Making a conscious, deliberate choice and acting on it can create stabilizing feelings of closure and effectiveness. These feelings strengthen us and allow us to then be able to face harder things.
Some of these techniques may seem silly to you, but they all work! Try each one, and keep using the ones that help you feel better.