Life happens. And when it does, we’re not always prepared. A sudden conflict with someone, a piece of bad news, or even our own thoughts can trigger a rush of tension.
These distressing events may make our faces flush, our hearts race, and our brains fog up. Why does this happen? Acute stress alters our default brain processing: The influx of cortisol prompts immediate changes in connectivity to our brain networks.
That’s why before we even know it, we’re thinking less clearly and creatively about the situation before us. Basically when we’re stressed, it’s more difficult for us to deal with the emotional and physical consequences of stress.
The good news is that we do have the power to intervene and bring our brain back to default processing. It just requires a little focus and work on our part. Here are four ways that have been proven by science to calm your mind when life deals you a bad hand:
1. 4×4 or Box Breathing
Ever been stressed and someone told you to take some deep breaths? It’s not bad advice, but it’s also a little vague. What constitutes a deep breath? How many is ‘some’? Why don’t I feel better yet? A more prescriptive technique is 4×4 breathing—also known as box or square breathing. Researchers have shown this technique not only reduces cortisol levels, but also improves sustained attention.
How to do it: Find a comfortable place to sit with your feet on the floor. Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose while slowly counting to four. Hold that breath for four seconds. Finally, let the breath out and exhale for four seconds. Repeat steps an additional three times.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
Back in the 1930s, a smart guy named Edmund Jacobson posed that mental calmness is directly tied to physical relaxation. His hypothesis was that if we could make our bodies relax on command, then that process may have a similar effect on our minds, too. Turns out he was spot-on: Many studies have shown that the progressive muscle relaxation technique, which involves gradually tightening and releasing your muscles from head to toe, reduces symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.
How to do it: Find a comfortable spot where you can sit or lie down. Inhale and tense the muscles in your feet and legs. Exhale and release your muscle tension and feel your feet and legs relax. Repeat this process as you work up your body, eventually reaching your neck and head. Imagine the stress leaving your body as you release the tension in each muscle group. Repeat as necessary.
3. Low- or moderate-intensity exercise
While it seems to be general knowledge that exercise improves our mental well-being, it’s often not second nature to immediately start exercising when you need to calm your mind. And we don’t mean heading out for a quick sprint or taking out your aggression in the weight room. Those high-intensity exercises can increase cortisol. The effect is temporary, but may not be a good idea when you’re already experiencing high levels. What is beneficial during these times is a 15-20 minute walk, or similar light aerobic exercise, to clear your mind. Researchers have found that walking can quickly reduce acute stress and blood pressure.
How to do it: Lace up your shoes and go for a walk. Ideally outside for the added benefits of vitamin D from the sun, but inside works, too. Don’t set a timer, but just walk at a pace that is comfortable for you and keep going until you’re feeling a bit better and your head is clearer. Try to bring your focus back to your breath when your mind wanders, or take in the scenes around you as you stroll.
4. 1:1 time with nature
If you’re sitting at your desk or on your couch when an acutely stressful event occurs, it could help to head outside. Scientists have found that our environment influences our mental health, and that spending time outdoors—especially in green spaces—can reduce the experience of stress. Honestly, researchers aren’t even sure why this “ecotherapy” happens; they just know that it does. Spending time with nature can even stop a loop of negative thoughts—sign us up.
How to do it: We don’t think you need instructions for this one. Head outside for some fresh air. Just remember to dress appropriately for the weather, and seek out green spaces if you can.
By Paul Deger, MA, LPC, PT
Mindfulness Facilitator and Product Manager, Moment Health
Paul Deger has over 30 years’ experience in healthcare. He earned his undergraduate degree in physical therapy at Marquette University. As a physical therapist, Paul has practiced in both inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation settings, specializing in neurological disorders. He furthered his studies in motor learning and control in the graduate physical therapy program at the University of Pittsburgh.
Paul then shifted focus from physical to psychological health and completed his graduate studies at Naropa University, Boulder, earning a Master’s in Mindfulness-Based Counseling Psychology. On retreat, he has also trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction with Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli of the Center for Mindfulness at University of Massachusetts Medical School and studied in sangha with Lloyd Burton, Dharma teacher from Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Recognizing the impact of spirituality on health, Paul more recently studied pastoral care at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.