How to Calm Down: 8 Tips to Calm Your Nerves
One must connect with energy outside of themselves.
A challenging or stressful situation can raise your blood pressure, and often the bigger the challenge, the more intense the human stress response.
Think of pilots navigating storms, surgeons performing high-pressure operations, or even a James Bond-type mission performed by a secret agent…stressful situations can be anywhere. You can also find them in more mundane places, such as with a mother watching her child climb a tree, or a man approaching a woman to ask for a coffee.
The point is, the more intense the fear, the more essential it is to remain calm in order to think clearly, and make logical decisions, and to banish those negative feelings, replacing them with positive feelings instead. However, there’s a lot of counterintuitiveness when it comes to effectively calming down in certain situations. Sometimes, the more you fight to be calm, the more you cause unrest.
So what’s the answer?
This article will offer a few solutions, inspired by different fields of cognitive psychology, breathwork, and spirituality. From progressive muscle relaxation to breathing exercises and some quality professional medical advice, we’ve got the answers for you.
The truth is, the more you’re able to stay calm, the more you believe in yourself to confront bigger challenges. So, are you ready? Let’s begin!
The term “calm down” is a slang term, with roots in the Latin cauma “heat of the midday sun” and later the French calme “tranquility, quiet.” Its original use was to describe the ocean or the wind. You can imagine, back in the 17th century, how this applied to sailors at sea.
When faced with stressful situations, the body’s stress response is activated, and the nervous system enters fight-or-flight mode. In that state, everything becomes about survival. Cortisol floods the body. Adrenaline makes you alert. The amygdala is the centre of the brain that activates this response that leads to an elevated state.
When completely caught up in emotions, it’s difficult to think clearly. Some refer to this as an amygdala hijack, because the emotional, fight-or-flight response can overpower the brain’s logical, decision-making processes, which is located in the prefrontal cortex, responsible for judgement, rationality, and planning.
For those on literal ships, after hours of facing huge storms and fighting to stay afloat, once the winds fell and the water settled, everything calms down, to a sense of relief. As a metaphor, this poetically describes the inner process of calming down. When faced with storms of emotion, from sadness, to anger, to jealousy, calming down is the process of reaching a point of tranquility within.
Sometimes it all starts with a deep breath.
The benefits of staying calm under pressure
“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.”
— Rudyard Kipling, If.
When entering a state of fight-or-flight, or being at the mercy of chronic stress, it can be difficult to find a healthy perspective. That, in turn, creates a feedback loop or stress hormones and negative thoughts. From that place of unrest, poor decisions are more likely to arise. You’re more likely to be reactive, argue with others, or get angry.
From calmness comes composure. More composure means tackling problems with confidence, remaining connected to higher values, such as integrity or honesty, and confronting issues before they get out of hand. When struggling to stay calm, it’s easy to enter a state of avoidance and try to distract from the issue causing stress.
In spiritual traditions, calmness is best described by equanimity, the practice of remaining balanced. As traditions such as Buddhism and Stoicism teach, remaining calm is a practice of empowerment. It encourages you to feel in control of your mind, body, and emotions. Then you begin to develop a deep belief that anything is possible.
The golden ratio of calmness
Forgive me for the colorful metaphor, but before moving on to ways to calm down, I want to put the process in perspective. When my anxiety was at its peak, I was fascinated by people who remained calm in the most stressful situations — elite athletes performing on the world’s stage with millions watching, actors accepting prestigious awards with the ease of someone talking with close friends at Sunday brunch.
Part of my fascination came from the fact that, at that time, the most seemingly stress-free situations, such as going to the grocery store or having a phone call with a friend, triggered my anxiety, and I felt anything but calm. How was it that I struggled so much with simple things, yet there were those who seemed calm in situations most people would struggle with nerves?
“Some degree of anxiety is normal and even necessary,” says Dr. Ann Epstein, a psychiatrist at Harvard. “Anxiety signals us that something is awry or might need our attention. However, you don’t want the response to become exaggerated or to dominate your life.” This element of “exaggeration,” and the fact that some anxiety is normal, is related to what I call the golden ratio of calmness.
The human stress response is complex
When my mental health was poor, my level of fear and anxiety was way out of proportion to what would be a rational level of nerves. Yet the more I’ve been able to emotionally regulate, the more this ratio has reduced, and even inverted. The inversion is staying calm in situations where it would be rational to be nervous, the golden ratio, just like those I admired.
I want to mention this because the good news is, once you start applying techniques to help you calm down, you can continue to move along the scale. First, you’ll start to notice you feel okay when doing things that used to cause you lots of fear. Then, before you know it, this same calmness will reach further and further out.
8 steps to calm down
The perspective of mental health has changed a lot, even in my lifetime. Back in the day, the stigma of mental health meant that the approach of “snapping out of it,” or “just chilling out” was often applied to anxiety or extreme stress.
Clearly, it’s not that easy. Instead, the below steps will give you the foundation to build upon, in a way that works with the waves, to find tranquility after the storm.
1. Embrace the paradox
One of the biggest lessons from mindfulness is that acceptance is the first step in overcoming challenging emotions. Calmness is a paradox. If you resist its opposite, nervousness, stress, or anxiety, it’s more likely to create inner conflict that leads to more of those unpleasant feelings. Embracing the paradox means fully accepting the presence of difficult emotions.
When you don’t feel calm, how do you act, how do you think? Do you reach for your crystals that help with anxiety? Do you judge yourself for your nervousness? Do you feel you shouldn’t be a certain way? Are there other emotions, such a shame, that come on board when you perceive yourself as failing or messing up?
Ask yourself: if I had zero problems with nervousness, if I invited it, embraced it, welcomed it… would it stick around? Can I be loving towards myself if I have an anxiety attack, or feel easily overwhelmed? This approach activates a self-soothing mechanism, which is a powerful foundation for learning to calm down.
2. Unpack your shoulds
The golden ratio of calmness explains the proportion of nerves, or anxiety, or stress. But what if you are the person responsible for deciding what is or what isn’t proportionate?
Many people who struggle with their mental health, and anxiety, feel overwhelmed with day-to-day activities. Without self-compassion, this can quickly become a judgment: I shouldn’t feel this way.
To start unraveling the mind’s role, explore your shoulds. Shoulds are expectations of what is or isn’t acceptable behavior. Related to the step above, they act as an opposite of acceptance because they deny “what is” in favor of a comparison to “what should be.”
The more you unpack your shoulds, the more you return to ground zero — the place you’re at, right here, right now. I want to be clear, acceptance isn’t resignation. It’s not saying, okay, I’m here and I give up. It’s just getting clear on your starting point, just like someone starting to lift weights has to slowly build strength over time.
3. Explore cognitive distortions
Certain negative thoughts can trigger unpleasant feelings, or heighten anxiety. The best example of this comes from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and cognitive distortions. These are irrational ways of thinking that keep you stuck in unskillful “loops” — common examples include black-or-white thinking, jumping to conclusions, all-or-nothing thinking, and catastrophizing.
For example, let’s say that you’re running late for an important meeting. You might catastrophize with thoughts such as “I’ve ruined everything,” or jump to conclusions, such as “they’re going to be angry at me for being late.”
The process of CBT challenges such thoughts, to find more balanced alternatives. Over time, these “rational” replacements become habitual, and your default mode is one of positive thinking and balance.
4. Consider the way you subconsciously value stress
Many maladaptive behaviors, including excessive worry or anxiety, are based on an underlying motivation. For example, some people have internalized the belief that worrying is effective, and that worry is worthwhile preparation for worst-case scenarios. Others might feel that, without stress, they don’t feel alert enough to tackle problems as they arise.
I’ve witnessed both of these mechanisms. It’s taken time to remind myself that remaining calm is the most skillful thing I can do. My natural tendency is to worry or try to obsessively plan or analyze, rather than connect fully to what I’m feeling. Consider what mechanisms arise when you feel challenged, and the way you’ve assigned them value.
5. Practice deep breathing techniques
Of course, the mind is only one aspect to get under control. When the fight-or-flight response is triggered, it’s vital to be able to calm the body and your nervous system. Fortunately, there is a way. Breathwork is by far the most effective approach. Studies have shown that deep breathing activates the relaxation response, the opposite of fight-or-flight.
Getting the breath under control is always the first step. Start with taking a few deep breaths whenever you feel under stress. And consider beginning a fuller breathwork practice, which will familiarize you with techniques to stay more grounded.
6. Let the waves wash over you
One aspect of emotional regulation is the ability to fully feel all emotions, to allow them to move through the body, without attempting to suppress them or run away from them. Learning how to calm down involves an element of surrender, accepting the presence of emotions, to stop fighting, and letting the waves wash over you.
Part of that means being present, through the practice of meditation of mindfulness. When the storm arises, can you witness the storm, rather than be caught in the chaos? Can you view the waves from a safe harbor within? This means observing the different sensations, and the subsequent thoughts, and accepting them, as fully as you can.
7. Get plenty of physical activity
Physical exercise is a huge antidote to stress. Our bodies are designed to move, and the way to handle feeling overwhelmed is to get moving.
Go on a run, lift weights, do yoga. Essentially, it’s part of learning to release and move the energy of emotions, allowing them to pass through the body. Exercise releases stress-busting endorphins, too, that lead to relaxation.
8. Trust that you’ll be okay
Lastly, I want you to consider what your life would be like if you had full faith that everything would be okay. When it feels like the walls are closing in, that things are out of control, that you don’t know what to do, and everything feels uncertain… what if, in these moments, you could connect to a deeper feeling of reassurance and support?
I realized that a big part of my suffering with anxiety was down to the belief I wouldn’t cope. But humans have coped with all sorts of challenges throughout history, we’re designed to be resilient and to adapt. In the midst of feeling stressed, there’s usually an element of being focused on the future — the upcoming talk, the unknown facing us around the corner.
What if you knew that everything would ultimately work out, that one day you’ll look back and see how you have grown? Admittedly, this is a leap of faith, because it requires connecting to a source greater than yourself, during times of hardship.
But what if, finding this article, and reading these words right now, are a reminder that you are supported by a source greater than yourself? Not sure what you should feel? Perhaps taking a gander at our anxiety quotes will help sooth your mind and inspire you to a greater degree of chill.