What's your favourite way of downregulating your nervous system?
May 18, 2023 12:30 PM   Subscribe

I'm prone to bouts of quite intense anxiety and once my nervous system gets hijacked, I find it hard to come down. Besides the obvious meditation, medication, exercise, deep breathing techniques, and sleep, what are your best methods for calming a buzzing nervous system? I'm interested in anecdata here.

For example, I find it quite effective to turn my focus to my feet, as that's an area of my body where I don't really feel any tension at all. Especially if I'm laying down, my feet always feel very relaxed and noticing this, in turn, makes me feel more relaxed overall.

I have a therapist and we work on these things, but I'd like to know the unique ways other people in the world use to calm themselves.
posted by figaro to Health & Fitness (42 answers total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
- ice pack to the back of the neck or the wrists
- singing along to music
- getting a long tight hug from someone
- getting under my weighted blanket
- alternate nostril breathing
posted by CMcG at 12:32 PM on May 18 [4 favorites]

I close my eyes, concentrate on a color, then open my eyes and count things in that particular color (usually blue or green.) Sometimes I just force myself to name as many things that are a color, and silly answers ('some cars') are allowed.
posted by cobaltnine at 12:34 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

Silly puzzle games on my phone. Scorpion solitaire is very effective because it's hard and I have to focus for a long time and restart it over and over before I get a solvable layout and a dopamine hit.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:43 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]

Short intense burst of physical movement, as much as is possible in the moment. Look, you stupid nervous system, you want fight or flight, here’s your lousy fight or flight.

I think I picked this one up from Unwinding Anxiety, but thinking about where in my body I’m feeling the anxiety and what it feels like, and—for some reason this part is crucial—decide whether I feel it more on the right side or the left. I think the idea is to put the anxiety in curiosity font but it works for me better than other thinking-based coping mechanisms.
posted by jameaterblues at 12:58 PM on May 18 [8 favorites]

Going on a purposefully casual and slow walk outside helps me.

But mostly I just have a fair idea of how long it will take my nervous system to calm down and wait it out.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:05 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

I find that sometimes it's helpful to do things very slowly, like at half the speed I normally would. Just walking thru my house, putting some dishes in the dishwasher, making myself a mug of tea, or whatever... but at 50% of normal speed. It anchors me in my body, in the present moment.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 1:06 PM on May 18 [7 favorites]

I like the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. You can also teach it to someone you trust so they can guide you through it.
posted by SamanthaK at 1:14 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

I keep a copy of Pet this Fucking Puppy on my desk for this. It's a board book with different textures, like one for babies (but obviously designed for adults) - taking a few seconds to pay attention to each page and texture does WONDERS for me.
posted by okayokayigive at 1:19 PM on May 18 [7 favorites]

- Listening to calming music (I maintain a few playlists for this purpose)
- Immersing myself in a mindless physical task like washing dishes
- Going for a walk outside and looking at the scenery
- Taking a leisurely shower
- Washing my face
posted by mekily at 1:20 PM on May 18

In my experience, Anxiety doesn't respond well to the traditional "relaxing" things people suggest, like calm music, sitting still, meditation, etc, as all of those tend to leave the mind easily able to focus on the things that provoked the anxiety. So I'd recommend something that distracts you from anxiety-producing thoughts and focuses your mind elsewhere. This could be reading, watching an engaging movie, writing, playing games, doing puzzles, anything that requires the focus of your thoughts to be elsewhere.
posted by Aleyn at 1:25 PM on May 18 [9 favorites]

I keep a bottle of orange essential oil and sniff it when anxiety hit. IT seems to break the cycle a bit.
posted by Ftsqg at 1:26 PM on May 18

Pacing. Music at the right tempo. Tapping a body part. Rubbing my head. A blanket. A crossword or sudoku puzzle. An absorbing game or book. A hot shower.
posted by plonkee at 1:31 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

Similar to Aleyn's comment, I have not had success with calming strategies. I find slightly intense physical activity to help- if I can't run, a brisk walk, some lunges, crunches etc.
(Nothing that requires too much coordination if feeling amped up.) In a sense, I tire my system out, and can then get more calm.
posted by fies at 1:36 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]

posted by DMelanogaster at 1:36 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]

going for a long walk (short is also good, though)
taking a bath or shower
reading a novel
spending time outside
petting/playing with a cat or dog
posted by bearette at 1:38 PM on May 18

I have a fidget app on my phone, and a couple favorite options that draw my focus enough that I’m calmed down by the time I’m bored.

+1 weighted blanket, although that often winds up leading to a nap
posted by momus_window at 1:45 PM on May 18

Weirdly, having a loved one press gently but firmly on my breastbone is very calming for me. I think there's some dubious science about this stimulating the vagus nerve, but regardless it seems to help.

Cold water is also good - cold shower, splashing my face, or just running it over my wrists.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 1:51 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

For me, only two things help: The passage of time, and a dose of a beta blocker (I use propranolol). I try not to take the propranolol more than a few times a year, though it's not really addictive like Xanax, Valium, and other benzodiazepines can be.
posted by akk2014 at 1:59 PM on May 18

Mammalian dive reflex. When I'm having an actual panic attack, I don't always have the dexterity to do the sink and ice and stuff, but I have had success with holding a large ice pack to my face and doing breath-hold rounds of 10 seconds at a time, working up to 30. For situations where I'm just jangly in my nervous system, cold face-splashes or cold packs on the back of my neck or chest, taking a shower that I turn tepid at the end, or if the weather is right just having a nice huff of cool night air will chill me out.

I use an old antihistamine called Hydroxyzine prescribed for anxiety and anxiety insomnia. It does have a drowsy hit, but I'd rate it as half that of Benadryl.

I use youtube physical therapy videos for stretches that loosen/resolve tension, especially in neck and shoulders.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:10 PM on May 18 [5 favorites]

Many years ago, when I was having panic attacks, a psychologist recommended that if I am having one in public, I go to a bathroom and look at myself in the mirror.

I have forgotten why he claimed this would calm me down, but the few times I tried it, it seemed to work.
posted by wittgenstein at 2:46 PM on May 18

2nd’ing mamallian diving reflex. There isn’t much that a head dunk in ice water won’t fix in my experience.
posted by not just everyday big moggies at 2:56 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

I just remembered something I've taken up lately when I'm overstimulated: I go do some very satisfying task, like sort or arrange things. Even just going and straightening cans in the pantry will do it, or tidying up my big container of pens.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:11 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

Silencing the Alarm:

"Brush the fingers from the inside point of the eyebrow to your ears, behind your ears, to the point of the shoulder, the point of the elbow, and off the back of your hand. At least 3 times on each side."
posted by interbeing at 3:11 PM on May 18 [6 favorites]

Going for a long walk or doing some kind of physical activity has helped me. Another idea is stream-of-consciousness journaling.
posted by starpoint at 3:27 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

I have an acupressure mat (Shakti mat) to help with this. Thousands of tiny blunt spikes poking into my back is strangely relaxing, the physical sensation takes over and releases my anxiety.
posted by third word on a random page at 3:48 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]

I find reading about history and disasters that happened a long time ago very calming. I know I can't do the slightest thing about what happened - the books are long since written and printed about it - so it is abstract from me like nothing in present-day life or the news can be.

Whatever happened to them just happened, has nothing to do with me, and can never be changed. Feeling that way helps me downplay concerns about what the future holds for me personally or how frightening trends will develop, worsen, or resolve.
posted by sindark at 4:09 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

Putting on a song and shaking it out. Like, wrists, arms, legs, feet, ankles, torso, shaking each body part and then all together shaking. Sometimes I watch this tiktok video and follow along.
posted by MadMadam at 6:39 PM on May 18

1- Intense physical stimulation, I take out my car key and run the pointy bits over my thumb. Not enough to break the skin, but hard! Learned this one from a friend who was trying to pull me out of a sudden crying jag. His theory was that intense physical stimulation is needed to distract the brain from the intense unwanted emotions. Lots of previous answers are along these lines.
2- CBD gummies. They take about an hour but reliably take me from a 10 (mad freak out) down to a 7 (still upset but manageable )
posted by Vatnesine at 8:34 PM on May 18

Apologies for the Huberman link, but the "double inhale," which my physio introduced to me as a "hiccup breath," may be a helpful addition to your toolkit. I am rarely able to breathe through my nose, and I find it's still effective when I can only breath using my mouth.

+1 on the cold water suggestions above, and also the short/intense energy bursts. These can be hard to do outside of controlled environments or, if you're like me, you don't really want to do a bunch of jumping jacks or burpees while wearing your suit and about to give a talk in front of an audience because you'll turn red and sweat for half an hour. I'm often sneaking off to a bathroom stall to do breathing tricks, though.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:14 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]

Freezing cold shower. I feel like I’m going to die for a minute and once I get through that part, I get very relaxed.
posted by wheatlets at 5:55 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]

If you're physically able to, high intensity exercise (e.g. running or hitting/kicking a heavy bag) is a good way to burn off all the chemicals making you feel that way. Anxiety is like a low-level fight-or-flight response, and in my experience if you engage in intense physical activity then your body is like "okay we did it, we ran away" and stops flooding you with adrenaline, cortisol, etc.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:17 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]

I've been working with a somatic therapist who taught me this technique... Deep breath. Locate the sensation in your body. Say hi to that sensation. Let it know you see it there and that it's okay that it's there. Ask it what it needs, what kind of physical touch it might want. To me, it feels like a conversation, the kind of thing you might do for a kid whose struggling. Doing this has helped me build a kind of resilience in my nervous system.
posted by kokaku at 6:58 AM on May 19 [7 favorites]

If you're physically able to, high intensity exercise (e.g. running or hitting/kicking a heavy bag) is a good way to burn off all the chemicals making you feel that way. Anxiety is like a low-level fight-or-flight response, and in my experience if you engage in intense physical activity then your body is like "okay we did it, we ran away" and stops flooding you with adrenaline, cortisol, etc.

I've seen this referred to as completing the stress cycle.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:08 AM on May 19 [7 favorites]

Warheads candy can shock my body out of the anxiety loop. Smelling salts do the same sort of thing.
posted by whitetigereyes at 11:56 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]

Luckily, I never have to wear a suit. Doing 50 jumping jacks, or even 25 can be helpful to me when I don’t have other options. The ice pack thing on the back of my neck, or on a thigh is also useful for me.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:51 PM on May 19

Best answer: Just an FYI:
Adrenaline and cortisol are released during the stress event, and those hormones float around the body for an hour and a few hours, respectively. So, depending on the nature of what stressed you, some exercise or stimulating activity will help 'use' the adrenaline, and the cortisol can be reduced by self-awareness, which will take control from the amygdala part of the brain. That takes about 20 minutes.
But, it's important to note that if the stressor is still active (be that external or internal), then the body will continue to 'fight or flight or freeze or fawn'. Ultimately, learning to not get triggered into a stress state should be the long-term goal.
posted by FranzKanner at 3:51 PM on May 19 [9 favorites]

* Hard sour candy: https://www.businessinsider.in/science/health/news/a-therapist-explains-why-sucking-on-sour-candy-may-help-calm-your-next-panic-attack/articleshow/86590417.cms

(However I personally feel like sucking on any kind of hard candy helps)

* CBD oil for long term regulation. CBD flower can apparently be used to resolve more acute symptoms, whereas the CBD oil is something which can take several weeks to reach full effect.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 4:29 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]

I put on very soft fuzzy clothing and earplugs and lie down in a dim room under some blankets and just try to relax, or scroll instagram photos (avoiding video content as it’s more stimulating). Drink some water. Eat something sweet. Set an alarm and try to snooze.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 9:50 PM on May 19

I take a really hot shower.
posted by gt2 at 10:31 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

+1 to completing the stress cycle. I find myself using one of two options:

1) If the thing I'm anxious about is still happening: longhand journaling. I give myself a goal (usually 3 full pages) and write everything that comes to my mind, stream-of-consciousness style. I've found I will usually end up writing the "story" of whatever I'm anxious about - and the good thing about that is I will usually come up with some endings to that story. Even if I don't fully believe those exact endings will come to pass, the fact that I've articulated them calms me.

Also, I think there's something really soothing about writing. My handwriting is AWFUL but the physicality of making marks on a page is so satisfying.

2) If the thing I'm anxious about is over: distraction. Once I know that I'm just enduring the physical effects of anxiety, I treat it like being in a waiting room at the ER once you know the person you're visiting will be okay. I play absorbing phone games, scroll TikTok, call a friend...basically let myself off the hook.
posted by abry0 at 6:09 PM on May 20 [2 favorites]

I have some ginger every day - in cooking, as tea, ginger candy, etc.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 7:36 AM on May 21 [1 favorite]

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