I can't relax fast enough
February 10, 2009 7:55 PM   Subscribe

What is your best technique for calming down quickly?

There's a lot of good threads in AskMe's archives on long-term relief of stress and anxiety. Short term solutions are harder to come by. For me, dread, depression and anxiety come in waves that quickly grow too intense to function through. But it seems that, if I catch it before the point of hopeless constriction, I can break the paralysis and go back to acting and feeling like a regular person.

So, I's like to know what everyone's favorite and most effective methods are for calming down quickly. What do you do to settle down in a hurry when you feel your stress level exploding? I'm curious about any procedure that works, but I'm most interested in things that I can do inconspicuously, in case the freak-out I'm hoping to avert is happening in public or in mid-conversation.

Never mind about long-term fixes - there's plenty to read in the archives. I want to be an expert in anxiety triage.
posted by EatTheWeek to Health & Fitness (47 answers total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
i am now on medication for anxiety attacks (thankfully) but when i felt one coming, or had just suffered through one, i would take 10 deep breaths. as i breathed in and out, i would speak to myself (usually internally) and say things like, "you're safe. you're okay. be calm."

if i get overwhelmed at work or school, a few deep breaths will help.
posted by gursky at 7:58 PM on February 10, 2009

I force myself to name things of a certain color. This won't work in mid-conversation as easily as it does 'just in public', but it can if you don't need to keep talking, just pretending to listen. And yes, my list may include things like 'some pencils' or 'that car I saw around breakfast', which might be stupid, but that's okay.

I do try to avoid using 'red'; I usually pick the closest interesting color to me, like that stupid blue washcloth over there.
posted by cobaltnine at 8:08 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Here's an awesome technique that is not only a great anxiety cleanse, but a fantastic way to breathe as well:

When you feel fear, inhale wihle pushing your stomach out. Then exhale by drawing it back in.

The reason for the italics is that this is opposite of how most people breathe. BUT - it is fantastic for two reasons - one, it is the best way to get the most oxygen to your body, and two - it instantly calms you down.

No need to repeat mantras, or talk yourself down. Three big pushouts on the inhale, three soft tuck-ins on the exhale, and you will have grounded yourself.

Works every time and moreover, it feels damn good. Try it - you'll see.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 8:13 PM on February 10, 2009 [36 favorites]

If you're laying in bed at night freaking out, focus on different body parts/muscles and force yourself to avoid contracting them, moving up from the feet. This becomes more effective the more muscle names you know, as it will take longer to get to the end and thus increase the length of time for which you are lying intentionally still. It knocks your brain out of the "endless loop" type of stress thought pattern (particularly bad when you're half asleep), forces you to concentrate on slowing your breathing, and helps you become aware of involuntary stress-induced contortions of your limbs. Generally by the time I get to the top of my head I'm well on my way to sleeping.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:22 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

I take a shot of vodka.

(no, probably not the best solution)
posted by puckish at 8:25 PM on February 10, 2009 [6 favorites]

I stumbled upon this one recently, but it's really been working for me: visualize the scene taking place from a birds' eye view, high above you, as if you were not in your body but looking down on the scene. This seems to create a good deal of detachment from the situation for me, lending a new perspective on how important this all is.
posted by Miko at 8:27 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

I used to get really frustrated and angry to the point of throwing things and damaging stuff. I used to get so mad at people that I couldn't even stand to look in the same direction they were looking.

Eventually I learned to sort of compress my anger, impatience or stress. I picture my brain with the stress is taking over all parts of it. I then compress it into a small box the size of a cubic centimeter that sits in a specific part of my brain. It's like swaddling a screaming baby. This works for me because I'm not just calming down, I'm storing my stress away for later and protecting the rest of my brain from it for now. I make a point of not completely discounting whatever emotion's making me freak out--it's still there and it has a right to be, it's simply got to stay out of the way while I deal with the issue.
posted by jschu at 8:30 PM on February 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

If it's a situation where you feel yourself getting angry, one thing I have found is that it helps to write out the situation later that day. Like, "I said this and then Betty said this. It was so stupid!! Then I said this!!" Then I realize how silly it was (similar to the bird's eye view mentioned above). This doesn't help RIGHT away, but the next couple times I would start to picture myself writing it later and would think, I am going to think this is silly later, aren't I?

Another technique is to say slowly to yourself a mantra, but more about the other person, such as "Practice kindness" rather than "calm down" and really think about those words. Think about practicing kindness despite your anxiety.
posted by sweetkid at 8:40 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think of Sagan's pale blue dot. I think of Hubbles deep field. I compare the size of what I'm going through to the magnitude and history of space.

Meekness washes away anxiety.
posted by pwally at 9:01 PM on February 10, 2009 [13 favorites]

I figure out what is bothering me, and I figure out where the sensations are in my body where the stress/anxiety is being expressed. I focus all my attention on that area of the body and try to experience as much of the discomfort as I can. I also focus on thinking about the stuff that's bothering me. I work to accept what these feelings are. For me the pain comes when I try to avoid things I am stressing out about. The pain follows you around until you allow yourself to feel it.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:04 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

1. Yoga
2. Yoga
3. Yoga
posted by miss lynnster at 9:15 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Pwally - "Meekness washes away anxiety."

We SO need to hang out. Humility is the best answer to anything.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 9:15 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

Also, read Eckhardt Tolle.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:15 PM on February 10, 2009

One thing that I do if I suddenly become overwhelmed is that I find a chair or a wall. Something solid, something wood usually. I put my hand on it. I breathe in, drawing strength (or imagining to, same thing) from the solid thing. When I exhale, I send all the stress and negative stuff into the wall through my hand. Repeat for a few breaths or until you feel like you are more in control again.

The other thing that I have done, is simply pretend to be someone else. Someone specific, someone you know, someone with that outward confidence. Then, I pretend that I am imitating her. Or if the situation is dire, that I am playing her in a film, and the cameras are rolling right now! That snaps me out of it fast. (I know that sounds more stressful, but it isn't because there is no film!) It don't know why it works but I can trick my brain into thinking more positively even when I am just pretending. This one works when you are forced to be interactive, and leaning on a chair is not an option.
posted by typewriter at 9:15 PM on February 10, 2009 [6 favorites]

This is what I do, which I got from a book called "The Little Book of Calm" ... I think.

I firstly adopt good posture... then breath in slowly ... all the way... until I feel like I can't breath in any more, and then I do a little bit more. Then slowly exhale ... all the way ... until I feel like I can't exhale any more ... then do a little bit more.

Rinse and repeat as necessary. The trick is to do it slowly and to push yourself to push all the air out when you breath out, and to pull as much air as you can when you breath in.

I hope that helps someone.
posted by Admira at 9:16 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

For the short term: take a confrontational attitude internally. Decide that you just don't give a shit about whatever or whoever is stressing you. In fact, you're actually kinda pissed off about it. Stress and anxiety is basically an attack on your self-confidence. You've got to decide to either let it hurt you, or fight. It might sound corny, but watch that scene from the movie Network. Don't go screaming at someone, of course, but take this attitude internally.

This is a short term response, and isn't going to solve whatever issue you are facing. Then again, neither will stressing about it. But it might get you back to a mental state where you can attack the problem from a position of strength.

* This is a method for fighting stress and anxiety. Some people in the thread are talking about calming down after being angry. My approach is obviously not a solution to the that.
posted by jsonic at 9:38 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

I usually listen to some Mastodon. Metal always makes me feel better.
posted by Mach5 at 9:39 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

1. Yoga
2. Yoga
3. Yoga

Is not bad advice.

Also: Ten. Deep. Breaths.
posted by telstar at 9:56 PM on February 10, 2009

Cigarette and a shot.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:57 PM on February 10, 2009

I think you need to train yourself that one thing, when used is supposed to calm you just like my kids used to grab their blankets. I use the old Honeymooner's line, "Pins and needles, needles and pins, a happy man is a man that grins." Since it is not something I would think of otherwise, repeating this phrase internally works for me.

If that fails, I put on music that is calming like a slow version of Black Peter (Grateful Dead) or something. Or, a glass of beer.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:59 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm currently seeing a psychologist who is training me in the techniques of mindfulness, which is to my limited experience, very similar to meditation. You can purchase a CD from this site: Happiness Trap which will give you exercises in mindfulness, but I think the simplest way to think of it is to focus on what you can observe (your breath is excellent, the feel of your skin, your awareness of gravity), and learn that a part of you which is always there can observe without emotion, can notice feelings and thoughts and sensations without acting.

I find that this technique allows me to (some of the time) quiet my speedy brain, and the unpleasant thoughts that sometimes run through it. It is not a relaxation technique, but it is relaxing. It's about removing your focus from your emotions.
posted by b33j at 10:10 PM on February 10, 2009

I've got killer anxiety issues, and when I'm feeling a wave coming on, I use a specific sort of mindfulness meditation that I learned from an otherwise rather ditzy self help cd. It goes as follows:

I close my eyes and do the deep, diaphragmatic breathing. I use a three stage yoga breathing where you fill your upper chest, then your ribs, and then your belly with the diaphragm floating out. Then you exhale belly first, then ribs, and the chest last. After a few breaths, I say (either out loud or in my mind) "How do I know I have a right hand." I say it over and over again and try to push all my awareness out of my busy, panicking mind and racing heart and down into my body, specifically my right hand. Once I start to feel my awareness in my hand, I'll sometimes move into other body parts (left hand, feet, whatever).

It helps to remind me that I am not my anxiety. It separates me from my panic, out of my head and into my body. It really helps me feel more calm and grounded. A friend of mine who I'd told about it recently mentioned that she'd used it while visiting her dying mother and found it really helpful, so it's worth a shot.
posted by mostlymartha at 10:30 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Something a little different. Had occasion to talk to a professional golfer--he's won top-level tournaments--and he spoke of how he quickly calmed down after a bad shot. Without getting into too much detail, it involved putting the club-head cover back on the club in a way that was tricky, delicate, took concentration. Focusing on that for even, I dunno, 30 seconds, cleared his mind of being upset about a bad shot.

Sho nuff that wouldn't work as a direct example, but maybe a prospect from that broader concept, not that it would work in mid-conversation.

Is there something you can generally have on hand, be it electronic, a notepad and pencil, etc., that would give you something to focus on (hearing a song, playing PSP, sketching, writing out something) even for a very short period of time, that would help clear your mind?

Also, Nthing the breathing techniques.

If people are in the middle of a conversation and feel like they're going to blow a gasket, best advice I've heard is to relate a need to use the restroom and step away for a few minutes (assuming you're in a situation where it's viable to say as much).
posted by ambient2 at 10:35 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Definitely YOGA. Not only does it teach you to be mindful (as mentioned above) and to breathe properly and in a calming way (as mentioned above), but for me, it gives me those few hours a week where I know I will have some down time and time for myself.

personally, a lot of my anxiety and panic issues arose when I was not taking care to give myself that time, and allow some deliberate distance between me and the rest of the world. This being said, yoga is not for everyone and is a medium to long term commitment.

In the short term, basic deep breathing (counting the breaths, breathing slowly and focusing on just the breathing motion) always, always helped me. If my anxiety caused me to suffer from insomnia, sometimes I found that laying down, closing my eyes and humming on the out breath helped lull me to calm and eventually, sleep.

something physical and external might be helpful also, such as a beaded bracelet. When you start to feel anxious, count the beads around your wrist or in your pocket. I have a friend who carried a smooth stone ('worry' stone) in his pocket all through his Phd, and would hold it in his hand, flipping it around whenever he felt panicky.

situational anxiety in particular is no fun - hope you find this all helpful!
posted by miss_scarlett at 10:39 PM on February 10, 2009

Mammalian Diving Reflex.
posted by OrangeDrink at 10:52 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Deep breathing works for me too when I'm shaking beyond control or feeling a panic attack coming on: focus on a single point, or close your eyes. Breathe in deeply through your nose for a sloooow count of four, hold it in for a slow count of four, then let it out for a slow count of four. It's totally inconspicuous.
posted by grippycat at 2:55 AM on February 11, 2009

posted by hellboundforcheddar at 3:36 AM on February 11, 2009

Xanax is great if you have a prescription but whiskey otherwise.
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 4:17 AM on February 11, 2009

I agree that Yoga can relieve much stress and worry. Perhaps many would think you odd for dropping into a back bend mid-conversation. Although doing so may very well help, in a dedicated yoga practice you can learn to tune into your body. Somewhat like biofeedback, you can gain insight into how your mind and emotions physically manifest themselves in your body.

The mind can manifest stress, depression, and anxiety though the breath, heart rate, and muscle tension. Consciously gaining control of these manifestations (whether through yoga poses in class or otherwise) can provide feedback to the mind to quell those feelings.
posted by GPF at 4:50 AM on February 11, 2009

I focus on something else. What I found works for me (which I got, funnily enough, from Ender's Game) was counting doubles. Start at 2 and keep going: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128 ... I can usually get to 65536 before my brain loses track of the arithmetic, and if I'm still not calm I go backwards - keep dividing until I get back down to 2. And back up, and so on.

Yes, it's incredibly mathgeeky, I know... and after a while you memorise the numbers. But it sorta works.
posted by Xany at 4:52 AM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't speak for anyone but me, but I can be quick to stress or anger out. Like:

Me: [to a clerk] Oh mister, mister?
Clerk: Yeeeeeessssss??
Me: The gas pump isn't working right. I put in my card, and then it didn't do anything.
Clerk: Didn't you see the sign?
Me: No, there's no sign on the pump.
Clerk: No, the sign is right here.
Me: What good does that do?
Clerk: I'm too busy to put them on ALL the pumps...
Me: Alright. Did it charge me?
Clerk: I said it was broken.
Me: [angry tirade]!

When that would happen to me, there was literally NO time to stop and count to 10 or anything like that. The only thing that helped me was Zoloft. It slows down my emotional reaction time just enough to be able to gather my rational thoughts before getting angry.
posted by gjc at 5:24 AM on February 11, 2009

Breathe in for a 4 count, out for an 8 count. Repeat, repeat, repeat. If you've got the inclination and all, you can also do 8 & 8, then 8 & 16.
posted by knile at 5:55 AM on February 11, 2009

I go for a run.
posted by rongorongo at 6:41 AM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I momentarily complete focus on my breathing and the way my body feels, stopping any mental chatter (eyes closed or open). And some things I often do in this state of mental quiet:

I relax my shoulders, pulling them down, straightening my back. I've noticed that every single time I catch myself in a rising tide of anxiety (or anger), my upper back is also clenched. But it works the other way around, too: my mental state responds to relaxing my body, and I feel slightly better. Your muscles may reflect stress differently - curling toes, clenching fists, jaw tightening - whatever it is you do when experiencing a negative emotion, stop doing it and take a moment to relax your body.

I smile with my eyes. At nothing in particular, or any little thing I happen to be looking at (the pens and pencils on my desk get a lot of loving attention!). You know the claim that you not only smile when you're happy, but feel happier when you smile? In my case, I don't need to have a manic grin on my face. Activating the genuine-smile muscles around the eyes is enough for me to feel a little wave of relief.

I drink a glass of water. I have no idea why it helps me, but it does.

I avoid caffeine and sugar. I keep myself vitaminated and hydrated. (You might want to try if a magnesium-calcium supplement and some vitamin B could help you, too.)

Repeating comforting words to myself is out of the question for me, because it actually is a mild anxiety-related compulsion of mine, one I have to keep in check every day during stressful periods of time.
posted by sively at 7:10 AM on February 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

remind myself that i control how i feel
how do i want to feel right now?
what is the next actionable step?
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:23 AM on February 11, 2009

Go outside.
posted by FuzzyVerde at 8:44 AM on February 11, 2009

Take a betablocker.
posted by Tapioca at 9:11 AM on February 11, 2009

I tell myself: "I am angry/having an anxiety attack. I have been angry/had a panic attack before, and the feeling has passed. This feeling will also pass." Basically, acknowlege what you are feeling, acknowledge the inherent impermanency of it, and it will fade.

A lot of the other things I do have already been covered - breathing, cold water on face, paying attention to muscle tension, etc. Remember that the same thing won't always work every time, so have a few different responses in your repertoire.
posted by desjardins at 9:32 AM on February 11, 2009

Purposefully tense every muscle in your body for 10 seconds, the exhale and breath deeply. works for me
posted by kanemano at 11:01 AM on February 11, 2009

nthing yoga. More specifically, downward-facing dog with some good, steady breathing.
posted by penchant at 12:09 PM on February 11, 2009

I don't know when exactly, but there was a yage/breathing class that I went to that specifically talked about emphasizing the exhale, on breathing for relaxation. So in that class, the excercise was (in addition to general mindfulness meditation) to breathe in for a 5-count, hold for a 6 count, and breathe out for a 7-count. If that seems to complicated for you, then a lot of the deep breathing/belly breathing other people mentioned, especially really focusing on the sensation of the breath into and out of your lungs.

that and "this too, shall pass."
posted by mercredi at 12:48 PM on February 11, 2009

Most of these techniques have to do with distracting yourself from the anxiety or else clearing your mind. One suggestion I saw somewhere (don't remember where - maybe a book about CBT / anxiety) was to let yourself feel the anxiety fully (just let it flood over you completely) for a defined period of time (maybe a minute), and then try to let go of it. I have only had limited success with this method personally, but I really like the idea of it.

A more meditative approach might be to try and observe the anxiety, especially the physical manifestations of it (knots in the stomach or whatever) without identifying with it so strongly or labeling it.

Sometimes, though, you have to just sit it out. Your body can't maintain a constant level of anxiety forever (at least in my experience), at least under normal circumstances. Do the things you know you have to do to take good care of yourself (eat, sleep, etc.) as much as you can while you're feeling anxious, and in the meantime, just keep in mind that it will pass.
posted by PandaMcBoof at 1:28 PM on February 11, 2009

"Most of these techniques have to do with distracting yourself from the anxiety or else clearing your mind" - Hey hey hey, lot of these techniques have a calming affect, in the same way that suddenly hearing a loud noise or almost hit by another car on the freeway is stimulating. And you can learn to have some control over your emotions - as many of these posts indicate, having a reliable technique for steadying yourself gives you a great deal of comfort and control.

You don't want to be an adrenaline junkie - and a good first step would be to stop thinking terms like "fast enough." Why not think about "I can't relax as easily as I'd like to."

I'm not the excitable type (usually), but I've taught dogs and horses to relax.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:51 PM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I want to second Lipstick Thespian's advice. Deep breaths from the belly, pushing the belly out on inhale, pulling in on exhale. I would add that you should breath in through the nose and, if convenient, out through the mouth. You will find that you exhale much faster then you inhale, but you should try to make them more equal. If you are alone you can use your hands too. Hold you hands so they are flat with the fingers just overlapping, and push slowly down when you inhale and up when you exhale, with the palms in the direction of the hand motion. Kinda hard to explain but you should feel it when you do it right.
posted by d4nj450n at 10:30 AM on February 12, 2009

You don't want to be an adrenaline junkie - and a good first step would be to stop thinking terms like "fast enough." Why not think about "I can't relax as easily as I'd like to."

Agreed. From a cognitive perspective, you need to think in other terms, because quite likely one of the reasons you're becoming anxious is from rushing everything. Peace of mind is not something that can be rushed.
posted by tybeet at 12:03 PM on February 12, 2009

I mentally "cartoon" the situation.

For example, if a store clerk is intentionally and relentlessly antagonistic, and I find my sympathetic nervous system zooming into "fight or flight" mode, I'll visualize the clerk in ridiculous ways: a bucket of slime-vomit slathering him; a rotating boxing-glove machine roundhousing him to clown-music; an alien hovercraft sucking him upward toward The Light. All the while, I'll keep a slight smile on my face and continue to respond respectfully. But inwardly, I'll feel quite calm, even happy.
posted by terranova at 4:00 PM on February 12, 2009

Seconding ambient2's suggestion to do something complicated.

I read a book once about how we learn the physical geography of new places (making maps in our heads) and what happens to people when they get lost and start to panic. The author described two folk remedies for getting lost in the woods: one was reciting the Lord's Prayer backwards (ooh! Satanic!) and the other was taking off your clothes and putting them on inside out.

The reason these things tended to work is they were difficult enough and consumed enough attention that they drew people out of panic mode. Once you finished your backwards prayer or clothing adjustment, you came back to the problem of being lost with an expectation that you'd find a solution, and presto: with a fresh mind and with the panic gone, people could think more clearly.
posted by kristi at 12:23 PM on February 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

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