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Stress is part of life — but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. Fortunately, we can build resilience by learning how to calm ourselves down when upset. Here are 23 ways to calm yourself down in stressful situations.
Part of life is learning to manage difficult emotions. As we go through our day to-day lives and interact with other people, we may feel anxious, uneasy, or even angry. That's normal. Our emotions are simply our reactions to the world around us.
Circumstances outside of our control, however, can take a normal situation to a stressful one. We can feel pressure from our work, our relationships, from parenting, and from thwarted expectations.
As stress piles up, our fuses get shorter and shorter. That’s when we find ourselves anxious or angry more often than we'd like.
If you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), you may find that this happens often. That's because HSPs’ sensitivity to input and stimulation can leave them feeling overwhelmed if it’s not managed well. HSPs, introverts, and anyone easily triggered by external stimuli needs a lot of downtime to recharge.
Of course, there isn't one of us that doesn't need a break now and then. Not giving yourself adequate time for self-care can wear you out quickly.
Developing wellness habits, like practicing relaxation techniques and progressive muscle relaxation, can help boost your resilience to stress.
Mental health and wellbeing add another level of sensitivity to stress. Managing underlying mental health issues can take up a lot of emotional energy. Depression and anxiety often distort our thoughts, making it difficult to stay calm when under stress.
If we haven’t developed ways to calm ourselves down, we try to push away the negative thoughts — which usually makes them more persistent.
We often think of stress as a negative, external factor. But sometimes it’s our own successes or an exciting new challenge that contributes to stress. Calm is the opposite of stress. Learning how to channel your stress effectively can transform bad stress into good stress.
Here are ways to calm yourself down in the face of some common stressful scenarios:
Anger is probably the most difficult emotion to overcome because it feels the most justified. Our anger is often a reaction to a violation of our values or boundaries. But anger is really a secondary emotion. It is the default emotion we express when we’re trying to actualize another, primary feeling like fear or sadness. Learning how to calm yourself down when angry can help you access the underlying emotion and resolve it.
Find a loved one that is unconnected to the situation and share how you're feeling. If that's not possible or you don't have the time to talk, try writing your feelings out in a journal or an email (don't hit send!).
Anger often stems from feeling misunderstood. There's a saying that people yell when they don't feel heard. Even if no one else agrees with you, take the time to validate your own feelings and ideas.
Write down: “I feel angry because I don't feel _______.” (empowered, confident, listened to, valued, appreciated, etc.)
If someone upset you, try talking the situation out from their point of view. You don't have to agree with them, but doing this as a thought exercise (remember debate club?) can help you depersonalize the exchange.
Meditation is a great way to learn to depersonalize your thoughts and separate from the initial angry trigger. Mindfulness allows us to watch the thoughts without attachment and learn what they're really trying to tell us. You may be able to identify the underlying feeling.
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When you're feeling depressed, it can be overwhelming. Depression has a habit of compounding. It steals your energy, making it harder to do the things that you know would make you feel better — which makes you feel more depressed. Having a go-to list of ways to feel better when you’re down can stop depression from gaining momentum.
Exercise and physical well-being have a well-documented effect on mood. Increasing your heart rate releases endorphins, the feel-good hormones in the body, and lowers your blood pressure. If you're feeling depressed, try any physical activity you enjoy. You could take a quick walk, book a fitness class, or even dance to a fun song.
When we're down, it's easy to forget to handle the basic necessities. We may not have the energy to tackle these things or might not see the point. Take a shower and eat something small. Even if you don't feel 100% better, you will feel more accomplished.
Ever had a moment where something silly made you laugh, even when you were in a really bad mood? It can be a turning point in your mood. Keep a go-to list of TV shows, comedy specials, or other resources for when you need a good laugh to get out of a bad mood.
If you’ve been diagnosed with depression (or any other mood disorder) and you’re feeling off, reach out to your therapist. An LCSW or counselor can teach you how to manage your emotional health. Having someone in your corner can make a world of difference.
Work can be a major source of stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, when we're at work, it's not always possible to just leave and get a massage or go for a run. Developing skills to help you calm yourself at work can improve your communication with your colleagues. It can boost your productivity and your satisfaction with your career.
If you work in an office — even if it’s a home office — a change of scenery can do you good. Take a quick walk or run some errands. Breaking from your routine will naturally give you some emotional and physical distance to process why you're upset.
If you find yourself triggered or upset during a meeting (or some other time where you can’t just leave), try doing something else. In virtual meetings, go off-camera, color, draw, or squeeze a stress relief ball. For in-person meetings try massaging the palm of your hands or flexing your toes one by one. You can also practice mindful, deep breathing without anyone noticing.
If work is a source of chronic stress, set it up to be anxiety optimized. Declutter your desk, keeping only what makes you feel good or inspires you. Try adding a supportive mantra, an essential oil diffuser, or a small plant to your workspace. Move close to a window if possible.
Panic attacks can be debilitating. You may feel like you're having a heart attack or even dying. Calming yourself during a panic attack can seem impossible. If you experience feelings of anxiety frequently, it can help to have an anxiety relief game plan in place.
The faster you can identify the stress response as a panic attack, the faster you can regain control and manage your symptoms.
The act of labeling and describing our thoughts in detail pulls us out of the emotion center of the brain and into the prefrontal cortex. This will help make it easier to reframe your emotions so they’re not so overwhelming.
If you’re expending a lot of emotional energy trying to appear okay, leave for a place where you feel safe. Whether that's the bathroom, an office, your bedroom, or just outside, you'll feel better if you're trying if you're not trying to “look” fine.
Particularly for highly sensitive people, excess stimulation can result in panic attacks. Take steps to reduce the input in your environment. Turn off the radio and the ringer on your cell phone. Put your fan on silent, close the window, and turn off the lights. Take a few moments to bring your attention to your body and a few deep breaths.
Making decisions in the midst of a panic attack can be hard, to say the least. Try having a go-to meditation video, breathing exercises, or a recording that you can use to calm down when you're upset. Giving yourself a set of directions to follow in case of an anxiety attack will let you postpone any decisions until you're in a better frame of mind.
Many feelings can result in tears. There are happy tears, angry tears, tears of frustration, grief, or embarrassment. Even though it’s a universal experience, most people don’t want to cry in front of others. Berating yourself doesn’t make it any better. Here are some self-compassionate ways to manage tears.
Ever try not to cry? It doesn't feel great. If you can, let yourself cry. It's often over much more quickly than it would be if you tried to fight it. Sometimes, you just need to feel whatever the feeling is.
Yes, it helps cover up the fact that you've been crying. However, it feels really good to wash your face with some cool water when you cry.
You know that swollen feeling in the throat of trying to “choke back tears?” Drinking something warm can help you relax. It also helps you to slow down. Nothing inspires mindful breathing more than blowing on a hot beverage.
If you're feeling irritated, frustrated, or frantic, being overwhelmed might be at the root of it. Recognizing the experience as overload can help you be proactive in managing it.
Take a brief break from the environment that's overwhelming you. Whether it’s tangible (like a noisy, crowded space) or intangible (like work stress) a break can help. Stepping away from the environment allows you to recenter yourself and prepare to re-enter it.
If you can control the environment, reduce sensory input. Dim the lights, turn off the radio or even shut off the air conditioner. An environment that is physically overwhelming can contribute to a sense of emotional or mental overload.
Take a few minutes and do some journaling. Don't edit — just dump out everything you’re thinking on paper. Write down everything that's troubling you and everything you feel you have to accomplish. This will free up mental space and allows you to begin prioritizing, delegating, and scheduling any must-dos on your to-do list.
Find a way to hand off at least one obligation on your plate. Whether you ask a friend or colleague for help or outsource it to a professional, this can help you feel like you're not alone. Getting help often makes the rest of your to-do list look significantly more manageable.
It can be hard to know how to help your friends and colleagues when they’re upset. And you likely know (from experience) how frustrating “Just calm down” can be. Here are some ways you can help calm other people down when they’re upset:Just listen
A listening ear is surprisingly hard to find. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for someone who’s upset is providing a safe, non-judgemental space. Avoid giving them advice or interjecting with your experience. Just let them get it out.
Instead of telling them what they should do, ask questions about their experience. Aim to understand where they’re coming from. Validate them and their feelings. Statements like “I can’t imagine how frustrated you must be” can help them feel heard without adding fuel to the fire.
When dealing with emotions, the physical sensations can be just as overwhelming as the emotional ones. Utilize the brain-body connection and do something physical. Depending on what they’re feeling, you can have them push against a wall, stretch, do jumping jacks, or just exhale slowly.
If it’s possible, take them on a walk or get them into a different space. This can be especially helpful when the location they’re in (for example, an office) is contributing to their stress. Grab a cup of coffee or visit a nearby park. If that’s not possible, see if you can grab an open conference room or other, neutral space.
Before you let them go, try to leave the person in a more empowered space. Ask them how they’re feeling or to brainstorm a constructive way to move forward. Thank them for sharing with you, and offer them a reassuring smile. You’ll help them feel more connected and at ease.
When you notice yourself stressing out, it’s tempting to avoid dealing with situations that look like they’re going south. But you’ll get better results by tackling them earlier instead of later. Learning how to calm yourself down helps build mental fitness, and you’ll feel more confident and in control.
BetterUp Staff Writer