How to Calm Yourself Down: 5 Tactics for Moments of Overwhelm
by AnnaMarie Houlis
Feelings of overwhelm can happen suddenly – like when you receive bad news, say, or you’ve encountered an unexpected obstacle – or they can happen gradually, as in a build-up of sleep debt that’s left you feeling off your game. No matter the origin or onset, your stress is valid.
Even when it feels like an impossible feat, there are ways to calm yourself down in moments of extreme overwhelm. Especially if you’re already prepared with techniques that work for you. Here are five tools for calming down:
1. Practice deep breathing exercises
Three deep-breathing techniques that Khanna recommends are alternating nostrils, implementing a seed mantra, and using bumblebee breath.
Another calming exercise is box-breathing (also known as the 4x4). This exercise is simple, but powerful for reducing overwhelm. Inhale two, three, four. Hold two, three, four. Exhale two, three, four. Hold two, three, four. The focus on the sensation of your breath and your concentration on counting should help you calm down.
Growing research reveals that deep-breathing exercises like these can actually trigger neurons in your brain that tell your body to relax. Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine and the University of California have identified 175 brain cells that work with your breath and – as such – have the power to calm your mind.
2. Push back against anxiety with the ‘Reframing’ CBT technique
Using a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) technique known as “reframing” can help push back against anxiety. Reframing entails countering negative thoughts by noticing positive feelings.
“One tip I always share with clients about reframing is that we don’t need to look for the best thought, just a better feeling one,” explains Khanna, who utilizes CBT in her practice.
Perhaps, for example, you’ve just been laid off from work. Learning that you’re out of work, albeit an impermanent break until you find a new job, can be overwhelming. But maybe you also feel a pang of relief – because you’ve been feeling unfulfilled in that job anyway, and now you have the push you needed to explore opportunities elsewhere.
In this case, you are reframing the inundation of negativity by viewing the situation in a better light.
3. Do some low-impact exercise
One way to kick bad vibes is by doing some exercises. Taking a step away from your stress to focus on a low-impact exercise can actually pacify your stress and boost endorphins simultaneously.
For example, soothing stretches, such as yoga’s cat-cow or restorative child’s poses are great places to start. Or step out of the office for a mindful walk.
Whatever you choose, physical activity can release stress, boost your mood, help you think more clearly, improve the quality of your sleep, and enhance your overall cognitive function by producing endorphins – which are natural painkillers. All of these effects are especially helpful when stress has depleted your mental energy.
4. Get your meditation on!
Meditation strengthens our ability to root the mind in the present and approach life’s challenges with more clarity, calm, and intention. As such, it can be a real game changer when it comes to overwhelm.
“Meditation doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult; it just has to be,” says Hannah Goodman, a therapist in Rhode Island. “It’s about awareness of when you wander away from the breath, and it’s about gently—and without judgment—bringing yourself back.” Meditation can be as simple as picking a few select words as your personal mantras to repeat every morning.
Keeping this simple approach in mind can empower you to try meditating the next time you’re overwhelmed.
5. Journal about your stress
Journaling is a proven way of assuaging feelings of overwhelm because it helps you clear your thoughts and curate a tangible plan.
Research published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General indicates that expressive writing can reduce intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative situations, all while improving the working memory and helping us simplify and organize fragmented memories. As such, the researchers believe that writing can free up cognitive resources for other mental activities, such as the ability to cope more effectively with stress.
So write down your worries. You may even want to ask yourself questions regarding what you can do in that moment to help yourself find balance or overcome the struggles you’re facing. Having it written right there in front you may help you see solutions more clearly.
If you frequently feel overwhelmed, it might be helpful to speak with someone about how, and why, that happens. Seeing a therapist can help you understand your unique patterns, as well as develop a plan to reach your personal peace of mind.