It can be difficult to calm down: we worry about work, money, our health, our partners, children…the list goes on.
And let’s face it, there are plenty of things to worry about, and that’s even before you’ve turned on the news.
This means that when the mind is given an idle moment, often what it seems to fill it with is worrying rather than calming down.
Worry can be useful if it’s aimed at solving problems but less useful when it’s just making us unhappy or interfering with our daily lives and making it difficult to calm down.
The standard psychological methods for calming down pretty simple.
But, just because they’re simple and relatively well-known doesn’t mean we don’t need reminding to use them from time-to-time.
So here is a five-step plan to calm down called “The Peaceful Mind” that was developed by psychologists specifically for people with dementia (Paukert et al., 2013).
Because of this it has a strong focus on the behavioural aspects of relaxation and less on the cognitive.
That suits our purposes here as the cognitive stuff (what you are worrying about) can be quite individual, whereas the behavioural things, everyone can do.
1. The first step to calming down is awareness
When trying to calm down, this is the step most people skip.
Because it feels like we already know the answer.
You probably already think you know what makes you anxious.
But sometimes the situations, physical signs and emotions that accompany anxiety aren’t as obvious as you might think.
So try keeping a kind of ‘anxiety journal’, whether real or virtual.
When do you feel anxious and what are the physical signs of anxiety?
Sometimes this stage on its own is enough to help people with their anxiety.
As I never tire of saying, especially in the area of habits, self-awareness is the first step to change.
2. Calm down your breathing
The mind and body naturally each feed back to the other.
For example, standing confidently makes people feel more confident.
Mind doesn’t just affect body, body also affects mind.
It’s the same with anxiety: taking conscious control of breathing sends a message back to the mind to calm down.
So, when you’re anxious, which is often accompanied by shallow, quick breathing, try changing it to relaxed breathing, which is usually slower and deeper.
You can count slowly while breathing in and out and try putting your hand on your stomach and feeling the breath moving in and out.
In addition, adopt whatever bodily positions you associate with being relaxed.
Typically these are things like relaxing muscles, adopting an open stance to the world (unfold arms, hint of a smile).
It will do wonders to help you calm down from anxiety or anger.
3. Prepare calming thoughts to fight anxiety
The injunction to ‘think calming thoughts’ is very trite, but no less true for that.
Here’s the problem: it’s all very well saying: “Think calming thoughts”, but who can think of any calming thoughts when stressful situations are approaching and the heart is pumping?
The key is to get your calming thoughts ready in advance.
They could be as simple as “calm down!” but they need to be things that you personally believe in for them to be most effective.
It’s about finding what form of words or thoughts is right for you to calm down from anxiety or anger.
4. Increase activity to calm down
It might seem strange to say that the answer to calming down from anxiety or anger is more activities, as we tend to think the answer is relaxation and that involves doing less.
But, when unoccupied, the mind wanders, often to anxieties; whereas when engaged with an activity we enjoy, we feel better, so it is easier to calm down.
Even neutral or somewhat wearing activities, like household admin, can be better than sitting around worrying.
The problem with feeling anxious is that it makes you less likely to want to engage with distracting activities.
You see the problem.
One answer is to have a list of activities that you find enjoyable ready in advance.
When anxiety hits at an inactive moment, you can go off and do something to occupy your mind.
Try to have things on your list that you know you will enjoy and are easy to get started on.
For example, ‘invent a time machine’ may be biting off a tiny bit more than you can chew, but ‘a walk around the block’ is do-able.
5. Self-compassion can calm you down
Most people can benefit from a little more self-acceptance — especially the anxious and angry.
Being more accepting of the self helps lower the heart-rate and turns off the body’s threat response — both keys to calming down.
One exercise entails thinking about yourself and a loved one with kindness and soothing thoughts.
Another exercise is a “compassionate body scan”, which involves paying attention to different parts of the body with an attitude of loving kindness.
First author of the study, Dr Hans Kirschner, said:
“These findings suggest that being kind to oneself switches off the threat response and puts the body in a state of safety and relaxation that is important for regeneration and healing.”
6. Learn calming sleep skills
Often when people are anxious and find it difficult to calm down they have problems sleeping.
Sometimes when you feel anxious there’s nothing worse than lying in bed, in the dark, with only your own thoughts to occupy your attention.
And lack of sleep leads to anxiety about sleeping which can lead, paradoxically, to worse sleep.
Breaking out of this loop can be hard, but practising ‘sleep hygiene’ can help — it is all about getting into good sleeping habits.
This is covered in How To Fall Asleep Fast: 6 Science-Backed Steps, so check out that article for the details.