Worry is a part of life. We all get caught up in our thoughts sometimes, and it can be easy to get carried away thinking about the next day, what's for dinner, or something you wish you’d done differently. When everyday worries sneak into other parts of your life, it can get out of control, and feelings of typical stress can settle in. Learning how to calm your mind from states of overwhelm can increase your quality of life and keep you moving forward with a sense of ease and fulfillment.
If you are struggling with feelings of anxiety, please reach out to a mental health professional. There are many ways to reduce anxiety, and a therapist or counselor can teach you skills and provide you with resources to reduce stress and promote mental health. There is no shame in asking for a little help!
How to Calm Your Mind
There are many ways to calm a worried mind. Some may be ancient but still effective, and some have been brought to us via new technology. Old or new, finding something that works for you can change your entire outlook and affect how you move through life. Finding that elusive inner peace may take a little practice, but a few simple self-soothing techniques can make all the difference.
There are all kinds of meditation apps, hypnotic podcasts, and soothing playlists to enhance your calming experiences. There are even biofeedback devices that can tune in to your brain activity and help you learn to achieve a serene state of mind. Other relaxing techniques are as old as time (such as deep breathing) and are also easily accessible and often free.
When we are scared or in panic mode, our breathing gets quick and shallow. Our heart rate goes up, and there is a whole cascade of processes linked to the “fight or flight” adrenal response that is super important when we are threatened in some way. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get stuck in this state even when there is no impending doom on the horizon.
Conscious breathing exercises help to send the body and mind signals to invoke the opposite reaction, the relaxing, parasympathetic response that lets our body rest, heal, and digest. Deep breathing oxygenates the blood and brings energy to the digestive organs. It’s letting your body know it's ok to slow down and chill out, and it doesn’t have to be on alert for the time being. Focusing on the breath also helps filter out worrisome thoughts and brings your attention back to the present moment, reducing feelings of apprehension.
The best part is that it’s easy to do and takes very little time. Here is a simple technique that you can do in a few minutes to help ease worry and invoke a relaxed state of mind.
Begin by sitting or lying in a comfortable position. Try to keep your spine straight and your shoulders relaxed if possible.
Take a long deep breath and count how long it takes you to draw the breath in. Then exhale slowly, trying to match the length of your breath in. For example, you breathe in 1-2-3; you breathe out 1-2-3. Do this two more times, and then on the third time, increase the length of the inhale and exhale by one count. Breath in 1-2-3-4; breathe out 1-2-3-4. Continue to extend the count until your inhale and exhale has slowed to 5-7 counts or whatever feels most comfortable. If you feel lightheaded, simply stop and breathe normally. When you have reached around 7 counts (or less is fine!), keep this rhythm for a cycle of 3 more inhales and exhales.
Some people will have more lung capacity than others, and of course, some people will count faster or slower, so do whatever feels right. Don’t get too caught up in the technique, instead pay more attention to the breath itself. How does it feel going in and out of your body? How does this deep breath compare to how you usually breathe? It’s the awareness that really matters and can bring about changes in your consciousness.
Challenge Your Thoughts
Sometimes it really is all in our head. Or at least it can seem that way when you have anxious thoughts whirling around in your head and dropping “worst-case scenario” bombs all over the place. Shhh, don’t tell them, but you don’t actually have to listen to your thoughts. Our thoughts can be magical, creative, and enlightening, but they can also be made of recycled garbage from our past that we don’t need anymore. We all have particular patterns of thinking that may or may not be based on the here and now.
A good practice to try is to challenge your anxious and automatic thoughts. Automatic thoughts are a term used to describe the plethora of biased and often negative thoughts that, you guessed it, automatically pop into your head. The first step is to become aware of your thoughts and start to notice which ones are automatic or repetitive. This is a form of negative self-talk that can be a reflection of our core beliefs or come from our parents, our childhood, or a past experience. People get conditioned to think a certain way, and it’s time to break out of that habit.
Writing these thoughts down can be helpful in learning which ones come up again and again. Challenge the thought by twisting your own words into something more positive. If you are surrounded by negative people or can’t find a positive perspective, seek outside help from a good friend or a therapist. There are also worksheets to help you move through the process of restructuring your thoughts and resetting your thought process.
A simplified example would be taking an automatic negative thought such as “I’m not good at anything” and listing all things you are actually good at (Everyone is good at something!). Then replace this thought with something more positive such as “I’ve got so much going for me” or “I am fun to be around,” or whatever may apply to you and your unique qualities. It might be difficult at first, but once you get started, you can find all kinds of positive thoughts to cancel out or replace those pesky negative ones.
Visualize Yourself Calm
Visualization can be a powerful tool. Athletes, professional speakers, and performers often use visualization methods to enhance their performance. It may seem surprising that imagining something can affect your reality, but it’s true! It can take a bit of practice, but it will get easier the more you do it, and with time you may be able to see yourself accomplishing great things and picturing yourself filled with tranquility.
Guided visualization is a good place to start if you are new to this idea. Having someone talk you through what to imagine will take the guesswork out of it and make it easier to relax. Then, over time you can take your favorite parts and create your own imagery that leads you to a calm state of mind.
There are specific visualization techniques you can use for everyday stress reduction, or you can simply imagine yourself in a beautiful natural place such as the forest or a beach. Soothing sounds that mimic the places you try to visualize, such as chirping birds or ocean waves, will help set the scene and minimize distractions. Sit comfortably, or lie down, add some deep breathing and let yourself be carried away by the illusion of your choosing. You can also do simple visualizations that focus on a specific purpose, such as a healing light infusing into your body or putting all your troubles in bubbles and then blowing them away. There are no rules here. If it’s helpful and you can envision it, let yourself get swept away with your imagination.
Recite a Mantra
A true mantra is a sacred word, phrase, or sound used in spiritual practices from Vedic traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Nowadays, many people use the term to describe a word or phrase often used to focus the mind and bring the attention back to a specific image, feeling, or idea.
Although this differs from the true meaning of the word, having a personal mantra that you repeat to yourself can be incredibly powerful when cultivating a sense of peace and calm. For most people, a more accurate term would be to call this an affirmation, conjuring feelings of self-confidence, assurance, and comfort.
A personal mantra or affirmation (if you stick with it) can gain more power for you over time, especially if you use it alongside some sort of meditation practice or with breathing exercises. Over time, your mind will associate it with a calm state, and it will be a great tool to turn to when you are feeling stressed or have a bit of worry coming on. Affirmations can be uplifting, reduce feelings of uncertainty, and can change the way we think toward more positive notions.
It’s helpful to be in a serene mood when practicing your personal mantra, such as when meditating or while practicing yoga, but it’s not necessary. It might help to find a place to be alone so that you can say your affirmation out loud at least a few times. Simply take a few deep breaths and repeat your personal mantra three or four times. If your attention starts to drift to other things, simply bring it back to the word or phrase you have chosen. You can speak it out loud or just say it to yourself if you don’t have privacy. With practice, the mantra may even drift into your mind automatically, and you can welcome this experience by continuing to focus on the words you have chosen to uplift, inspire, or soothe yourself.
Listen to Music
Music is something we can all connect with. It’s a great expression of feelings that are not always easily put into words. Learning an instrument or listening to music can reduce stress and is an excellent emotional outlet. Music can also be seen as a distraction, making it easy to pull yourself into another world even when you’re all wrapped up in feelings of uneasiness. It can get you moving to the rhythm, relaxing your body, and singing along can relax your mind. It can be an inspiring experience if you can let yourself fall into the spell of a really good song.
The kind of music that is most relaxing will be entirely personal, but there are some good genres to stick to if you are seeking a calm atmosphere. Some people might like really intense music, and for them, that is relaxing, but something important to pay attention to is how fast the rhythm of the music is or how many beats there are per minute. They say around 60 beats per minute gets the brain to synchronize with the music and changes the brain waves to a relaxed state.
Classical music is great for relaxation, and some (such as Mozart) has been shown to beneficially affect the nervous system, improve focus, and reduce stress. Again, you’ve got to find what feels best for you. Music carries emotion, and the same song can make people respond in different ways. Perhaps there is a song that makes you think of an ex, and you can’t listen to it without getting upset. Maybe Celtic music is super relaxing for some people, but if the bagpipes drive you up a wall, it won’t do much good. Or maybe your 6th grade teacher used to play Kenny G too much, and now you can’t stand it. You can create a playlist for different moods or seek out some made specifically for relaxation.
What is so great about music is that there are so many kinds to choose from and each will bring a different experience. Experiment, explore, and be open to something you may not even expect to like. Let yourself get caught up in a song, and don’t be afraid to sing, dance, or rock out if that is what makes you feel good.
Change Your Focus
Trying not to think about something inevitably makes you even more likely to think about it, so it might seem unrealistic or unhelpful to try to take your mind off of something by thinking about something else. It may seem overly simplistic, but changing your focus really can change your mood.
It can be easy to feel typically stressed when your morning doesn’t go right, or you feel like everything is just piling on. Rather than letting that feeling linger, find ways to divert your attention and change the thoughts around before they get too overpowering. Here are a few ideas:
♦ Develop a gratitude practice.
♦ Go for a walk.
♦ Put on a good song.
♦ Talk to a friend (getting someone else’s perspective can sometimes be helpful).
♦ Do a quick workout, go jogging, or put some music on and dance!
♦ Paint, draw, or do something crafty.
♦ Watch your favorite movie.
♦ Find something or someone funny and laugh!
Relax Your Body
Our bodies hold on to tension even when we don’t realize it. Even now, if you think about it, your shoulders are probably slightly tense, or your jaw could be a bit clenched. Even our eyes hold tension! Consciously relaxing our physical body can quickly relax our mind as well. If you are on your feet all day, have a long commute, or carry little ones around a lot, you probably have extra tension your body is holding on to. Almost all of us have something in our lives that creates physical tension. Usually, we get so used to being in a state of stress or constantly going places and doing things that we start to tune out to how our body feels. This disconnection can lead to accumulated tightness in muscles and joints. Over time, if we aren’t paying attention, the tightness could contribute to repetitive motion injuries or long-term pain issues. Don’t wait for it to get worse before you start tuning in to how your body feels; do something about it.
Self-massage, stretching, yoga, and exercise can all help release bodily stress and can feel so good that it can simultaneously ease your mind. A simple technique that can be combined with deep breathing is a continuous body scan that helps you tune in to where you hold on to tension in your body.
Continuous Body Scan and Purposeful Relaxation
If you have any physical limitations, please stay within your comfort zone. Be gentle with yourself. It is not necessary to tighten your muscles in any extreme way for this to be effective.
Find a comfortable position, preferably lying flat on the floor if possible. This can also be done sitting if necessary. Take a few deep breaths and start to tune into your body. Are there any places of tension, tightness, or pain? On the next inhale, clench your fists tightly, and then on the exhale, release them. Do this twice more. On the third inhale, tighten all of the muscles in your arms, from your wrists to your shoulders. Relax on the exhale. Do this twice more while breathing deeply and slowly. On the next inhale, lift your shoulders toward your ears and release them on the exhale. Do this a few more times and then begin moving through all the muscle groups in your body, tightening and releasing with each breath. When you have reached your feet, you can do a few rounds where you tighten and flex all the muscles in your body and then relax your entire body on the exhale.
When you are finished, take a moment to reflect on how your body feels now versus how it felt when you started. If you still have places of tension, you can lightly stretch these areas or practice self-massage to help further release tightness.
Write it Down
Getting your thoughts out of your head can help calm your worries and bring clarity to what you are feeling. Are you anxious, angry, sad, or just really tired? Expressing your thoughts in a way that gives you the chance to fully describe your emotions and where there is no judgment, opinions, or expectations can be such a relief. Feeling heard by a good friend is great too, but journaling is an opportunity to get it all out without having to censor yourself or protect someone else's feelings. It’s a chance to fully and completely focus on yourself and sort through all the feels in your own time.
Journaling can help sort out priorities and maybe even see where you may need to make changes. A really interesting practice is to go back and read through old writings to see how your perspective has changed or think about how things ended up working out.
There are so many ways to journal, and there is no one right way to do it, but here are a few tips to get you started.
♦ Practice train of thought writing. Don’t think, don’t edit, just write!
♦ Use prompts to get started.
♦ List all of your fears, whether they are rational or irrational.
♦ Write your younger self a letter, be kind!
♦ Write about how you feel throughout the day.
♦ Write what you are going through.
Write down the good things too! Make lists of what you are grateful for in your life, who in your life supports you, and what you’ve accomplished.
♦ Try to brainstorm solutions, no matter how silly or unrealistic they may seem.
Get Fresh Air
A change of scenery can help get you out of your head and back into the moment. Most people’s homes are riddled with stagnant air, and getting outdoors where the air is fresh and the sun may be shining can open up your state of mind. Even better, if you can get into nature somehow and be close to running water, a beautiful tree, or catch a glimpse of a sunset, it can sometimes be enough to take your mind off stressful situations.
Fresh air and being outdoors in nature can release endorphins, oxygenate the blood and brain, and provide a sense of connection with the world around us. Forest bathing, gardening, getting sunshine, and taking walks can relieve stress and increase feelings of happiness. Sometimes just looking up at the stars or some pretty clouds is enough to ease apprehension and is a beautiful break from the stresses of daily life.
Have a Centering Object
It can be hard to meditate. Really hard. Many people don’t succeed at first and feel like they are doing it wrong and then give up. It’s called a practice for a reason, and it takes time (even a lifetime!) to master. Something that helps is to have a centering object to focus your attention on. This can be something visual, such as a candle, a statue, a beautiful picture, or something that you don’t see but feel. Worry stones or centering stones and crystals can be carried in your pocket or kept in a special place to hold, squeeze, or rub when you need to find a moment of calm.
To find a centering object, you don’t necessarily need to go out and buy something. Look around at what you already have and find an object that inspires you or makes you feel calm. It could be something you have had for a long time with heartwarming memories attached to it, or maybe simply a seashell you got on your trip to the beach last week. A photo, a book cover, or a painting — it can be anything that brings you joy or helps you feel a moment of peace. A special crystal or stone can be used, such as smoky quartz, but even just a simple river rock found near your home can have centering qualities.
The more you use your centering object, the easier it will be to find that place of peace, and it can happen quicker with practice. You can even put something on your desk at work as a reminder, to lock your eyes onto, or hold when you need your energy to be grounded and centered.
Waking Up to Wellness
If you think you’re just high-strung, and that is how you will always be, take a step back and try incorporating some techniques into your life that can change how you respond to everyday stress. We all get carried away sometimes, and stress is a normal part of the world we live in, but it doesn’t have to dominate our lives. By having a little awareness and learning different approaches, we can ease our distress, uplift our thinking and let go of our worries to move forward from a place of clarity and calm.