Imagine you’re giving a presentation to a large group of colleagues and you suddenly draw a blank and forget what to say next. Or you’ve accidentally just hit ‘reply all’ and sent an embarrassing email to everyone. Your heart begins racing, your palms start sweating, and panic sets in. While these moments can feel overwhelming, a basic understanding of neuroscience can help you learn how to calm down and quickly get back to a place of calm.
What Happens in the Body When We’re Stressed?
It all starts in a tiny almond-shaped part of the brain called the amygdala. It’s small but mighty and responsible for memory, decision-making, and your emotional responses (including fear, anxiety, and anger).
When you feel threatened, your amygdala acts as a General. It receives the signal and alerts the rest of your body on what to do by flooding it with hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) that tell it to prepare to take action (2).
And that’s when the physical discomfort of the threat comes: your breath gets short, your palms feel sweaty, you lose your peripheral vision, and so on. Our brain and body get stuck in a feedback loop of stress that either causes us to freeze up like a deer in headlights or to blurt out something nonsensical or foolish (2).
It’s important to note that this response was key to our survival back in the day and what helped us flee hungry predators. But when we experience these same symptoms now in the middle of a presentation in a conference room with nowhere to run, a different approach is necessary.
Fortunately, there are a few simple steps we can take to work through these feelings quickly at the moment to help us feel calmer and in control.
3 Steps to Help You Find Calm
Next time you find yourself in a moment of panic, there are three simple steps you can take to keep your cool (2). Since we often need to be able to shift out of stress quickly, these steps don’t have to take minutes but can be done in seconds. And the more you practice going through them in high-pressure situations, the easier they’ll be to implement when you need them most.
1. Label the Emotion
To be able to calm yourself down (and remain calm), you need to interrupt the feedback loop of stress that’s running between your brain and your body (1). You can interrupt this loop by simply naming or labeling the emotion when you’re feeling it (i.e., “anxiety,” “fear,” etc.). Studies suggest that when we’re able to articulate what we’re feeling, we help minimize the physiological response in the body (4).
2. Slow Your Breathing
Now that you’ve interrupted the brain side of the loop, it’s time to shift the physical response. Begin to slow your breathing by gently making your exhales longer than your inhales. From there, you can work your way up to double the length of your exhale. For example, if your inhale lasts for a count of two, see if you can make your exhale last for a count of four. Longer exhales send a signal to our vagus nerve which tells our parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) to turn up and our sympathetic (“fight or flight”) to turn down.
3. Re-label the Emotion
After stopping the feedback loop, it’s important to reframe the situation in your mind. This keeps you from falling back into the same anxious spiral. Revisit the original emotion and give it a new label that’s neutral or positive. For example, if you felt “anxiety” you might re-label that as “excitement.” And “fear” might become “anticipation”. In doing so, you can shift your feeling from being bad and disruptive to being helpful and supportive. If interrupting the feedback loop is like putting on a bandaid, re-labeling is like treating the original wound.
To recap the above steps: Label, Slow, Re-Label. This 3-step process can show us not only how to calm down but also serve as a reminder that a lot of what we fear is created in our minds and that our job is to re-frame and re-wire.
Other Ways to Feel Calm Now
The 3-step approach can be most effective for those urgent moments when you have to react quickly. For the other times when you’re looking to do the more proactive work of tapping into your calm, there are a number of actions and mindsets you can try, including:
- Think of something you’re grateful for. Numerous studies show gratitude boosts positive emotion, lowers cortisol, and boosts mood (5).
- Think positively. How can you put a positive spin on your current situation?
- Meditate. Studies show that by slowing your breath and quieting the mind, you lower your heart rate, stress levels, and anxiety (6).
- Get perspective. When you can stand back and take a wider view of something, you might realize that your current feelings aren’t so bad or aren’t a big deal in the larger scheme of life.
Through a basic understanding of neuroscience, we can begin to see that how we react to stressful events is more within our control than we might have thought. Simple actions like slowing our breath and relabeling our thoughts can have a profound effect on our physiology and wellbeing. By practicing these actions and mindsets regularly, you can build your reserves of calm for when you need them most. Try it out for yourself with Muse’s free SOS Calm Collection. Available in the Muse app now.
1. Tatera, Kelly. (2015, September 9) Neuroscience Tips to Remain Calm Under Pressure [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://thescienceexplorer.com/brain-and-body/neuroscience-tips-remain-calm-under-pressure
2. James, Geoffrey. (2014, August 13) Use Neuroscience to Remain Calm Under Pressure [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/use-neuroscience-to-remain-calm-under-pressure.html
3. Tublin, Dr. Patty Ann. (2017, December 6). Top 10 Strategies to Help You Stay Calm Under Pressure [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/top-10-strategies-to-help_b_8257212
4. Aldao, Amelia Ph.D. (2014, Augsut 4). Why Labeling Emotions Matters [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sweet-emotion/201408/why-labeling-emotions-matters
5. Emmons, Robert. (2010, November 16). Why Gratitude Is Good. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good
6. Smith, Jeremy Adam; Suttie, Jill; Jazaireri, Hooria, MFT; Newman, Kira M. (2018, November 12). 10 Things We Know About the Science of Meditation [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/10-things-we-know-about-the-science-of-meditation/