Skill #3: Calm It Down
Telling someone to “calm down!” actually never works—even when you say it to yourself. In fact, it makes a bigger mess. This marvelous skill, Calm It Down, is an invitation to take charge of what happens in your body when you need to manage a fear. We all have times in which we feel unnecessarily anxious—maybe something as simple as making a proposal to a group at work. It’s great to have a skill that you know will help.
Remember in Skill #1 for Tame Your Fears that anxiety is as much physiological as it is psychological? I listed what happens to me when I get anxious: my heart rate shoots up, as does my blood pressure, my hands shake, knees feel weak, and my voice wavers. My mind races. For the most part, this is a universal response to fear. Calming this feeling can be as simple as what is known as “Breath Retraining.”
Breath retraining: Inhale for 4 counts; hold it for 4 counts; exhale for 8 counts.
I like to teach people what I call “3-Part Breathing” or “The 4-4-8 Method.” It’s easy and it’s hard. It works best when we practice it—especially at times when we already feel calm. It goes like this: Inhale for 4 counts; hold it for 4 counts; exhale for 8 counts. Sounds easy, right? Try it.
Practice, practice, practice.
If you found it a bit difficult, it’s because if we inhale for 4 counts, we are inclined to exhale for 4 counts. And if we exhale for 8 counts, we in turn naturally want to inhale for 8 counts as well. That’s why practice is especially useful—we can get skilled at it and then when we need it, our bodies respond automatically. One deep breath can signal your body to relax. Remember Pavlov’s dogs? Ringing the bell made them salivate even in the absence of the cue of the food. You have effectively trained your body to decrease your level of arousal by kicking in with the 4-4-8 breathing.
The physiology of breathing
But there’s actually even more to it. Slowing your respirations decreases your heart rate, sends a calming signal to your gut by way of your vagus nerve, which then overrides your sympathetic nervous system response of “fight or flight.” Your mind doesn’t begin the panicky search for danger rendering you more clear thinking. If you already found a fearful thought that you’re inclined to latch on to, counting can redirect your thoughts to something neutral. More good news? You can practice this anywhere—driving in your car, standing in line, in a meeting, watching TV, cooking, hanging out with friends—literally anywhere, anytime.
For my own anxiety hard-wired system, this strategy has been a life-saver. I now find myself automatically taking that first deep breath, holding it, and slowly exhaling whenever my system begins to amp up for some reason. Only then do I realize that I am having overly sensitive reaction to something that I need to realistically assess. Staying calm helps me think more clearly in the moment. It’s surprisingly easy.
So take charge, Calm It Down, and tame your messy fears.
Rhea Ann Merck, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist, persistent woman, mother of 2 amazing young women, writer, teacher, life-long learner, curious & creative human, lover of life, and passionate about making life better every day…