Feelings of overwhelm can happen suddenly – like when you receive bad news, or encounter an unexpected obstacle. Or they can happen gradually, as in a build-up of sleep debt that’s left you feeling off your game. No matter its origin or onset, when overwhelm takes over, it sometimes feels impossible to shake.
Even in such moments, there are ways to calm yourself down when you're feeling overwhelmed – especially if you’re already prepared with techniques that work for you.
Here are five tools for calming down:
1. Practice deep breathing exercises
Three deep-breathing techniques that Khanna recommends are alternating nostrils, implementing a seed mantra, and using bumblebee breath.
Another calming exercise is square breathing (also known as the 4×4), a simple, yet powerful exercise for reducing overwhelm. Inhale two, three, four. Hold two, three, four. Exhale two, three, four. Hold two, three, four. The focus on the sensation of your breath and your concentration on counting should help you calm down.
Growing research reveals that deep-breathing exercises like these can actually trigger neurons in your brain that tell your body to relax. Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine and the University of California have identified 175 brain cells that work with your breath and – as such – have the power to calm your mind.
2. Use the ‘Reframing’ CBT technique
Dr. Taylor Chesney, a CBT psychologist in New York City and the director of the Feeling Good Institute explains, “Most people think an upsetting event is what causes your stress or anxiety... In fact, what we know is that it's how you think about it that impacts how you feel.”
Every time you’re experiencing negative thoughts, point them out. Then, note all the evidence that disproves that notion, or reasons why the situation could actually be a positive one. If possible, write these observations down, and reflect on them with self-compassion. You don’t have to believe the positive thoughts right away, but identifying them can begin to help alleviate your anxiety and overwhelm.
Perhaps, for example, you’ve just been laid off from work. Learning that you’re out of work can be overwhelming. But maybe you also feel a pang of relief – because you’ve been feeling unfulfilled in that job anyway, and now you have the push you needed to explore opportunities elsewhere.
In this case, you are reframing the inundation of negativity by viewing the situation in a better light.
Can't think of a good thought? Khanna, who also utilizes CBT in her practice, adds that “we don’t need to look for the best thought, just a better feeling one."
3. Do some low-impact exercise
One way to kick bad vibes is by exercising. Taking a step away from your stress to focus on a low-impact exercise can actually pacify your stress and boost endorphins simultaneously.
Whatever you choose, physical activity can release stress, boost your mood, and help you think more clearly. All of these effects are especially helpful when stress has depleted your mental energy.
4. Get your meditation on!
Meditation strengthens our ability to root the mind in the present and approach life’s challenges with more clarity, calm, and intention. As such, it can be a real game changer when it comes to overwhelm.
“Meditation doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult; it just has to be,” says Hannah Goodman, a therapist in Rhode Island. “It’s about awareness of when you wander away from the breath, and it’s about gently—and without judgment—bringing yourself back.”
Meditation can be as simple as picking a few select words as your personal mantras to repeat every morning. Keeping this simple approach in mind can empower you to try meditating the next time you’re overwhelmed.
5. Journal about your stress
Journaling is a proven way of assuaging feelings of overwhelm because it helps you clear your thoughts and curate a tangible plan.
Research published by the American Psychological Association indicates that expressive writing can reduce intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative situations, all while improving the working memory and helping us simplify and organize fragmented memories.
As such, the researchers believe that writing can free up cognitive resources for other mental activities, such as the ability to cope more effectively with stress.
So write down your worries. You may even want to ask yourself questions regarding what you can do in that moment to help yourself find balance or overcome the struggles you’re facing. Seeing it written right there in front of you may help you understand your best solutions more clearly.
Having a few tricks up your sleeve for "instant calm" can expedite your path to calm the next time you're feeling overwhelmed. And if you want some help identifying triggers behind your overwhelm – as well as learn tools to cope with it as it arises – you might consider working with a therapist who specializes in stress and/or anxiety.
You can start your search on Zencare, below – browse by therapists who accept your insurance or who have a rate within your budget, watch intro videos, and book free assessment calls to find the right therapist for you!