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4 Ways to Calm Your Mind When You’re Stressed

woman doing meditation or yoga or deep breathing

Everyone has experienced stress at some point in their lives, and it can sometimes be overwhelming.
Distressing events may make our faces flush, our hearts race, and our brains fog up. Why does this happen? Acute stress alters our default brain processing: The influx of cortisol prompts immediate changes in connectivity to our brain networks.
That’s why before we even know it, we’re thinking less clearly about the situation before us. Basically, when we’re stressed, it’s more difficult for us to deal with the emotional and physical consequences of stress.
‍The good news is that we do have the power to intervene and bring our brain back to default processing. It just requires a little focus.

Here are 4 ways to calm your mind when you’re feeling stressed:

1. 4×4 or Box Breathing

Ever been stressed and someone told you to take some deep breaths? It’s not bad advice, but it’s also a little vague. What constitutes a deep breath? How many is ‘some’? Why don’t I feel better yet? A more prescriptive technique is 4×4 breathing—also known as box or square breathing. Researchers have shown this technique not only reduces cortisol levels, but also improves sustained attention.
How to do it: Find a comfortable place to sit with your feet on the floor. Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose while slowly counting to four. Hold that breath for four seconds. Finally, let the breath out and exhale for four seconds. Repeat steps an additional three times. (You can print this Level2 Guide to Box Breathing and keep it somewhere handy for when you need it.)

2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

Back in the 1930s, Edmund Jacobson posed that mental calmness is directly tied to physical relaxation. His hypothesis was that if we could make our bodies relax on command, then that process may have a similar effect on our minds, too. Turns out he was spot-on: Many studies have shown that the progressive muscle relaxation technique, which involves gradually tightening and releasing your muscles from head to toe, reduces symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.
How to do it: Find a comfortable spot where you can sit or lie down. Inhale and tense the muscles in your feet and legs. Exhale and release your muscle tension and feel your feet and legs relax. Repeat this process as you work up your body, eventually reaching your neck and head. Imagine the stress leaving your body as you release the tension in each muscle group. Repeat as necessary. (You can print this Level2 Guide to PMR and keep it handy whenever you need it.)

3. Low- or moderate-intensity exercise

While it seems to be general knowledge that exercise improves our mental well-being, it’s often not second nature to immediately start exercising when you need to calm your mind. And we don’t mean heading out for a quick sprint or taking out your aggression in the weight room. Those high-intensity exercises can increase cortisol. The effect is temporary, but may not be a good idea when you’re already experiencing high levels of stress. What is beneficial during these times is a 15-20 minute walk, or similar light aerobic exercise, to clear your mind. Researchers have found that walking can quickly reduce acute stress and temporarily lower blood pressure.
How to do it: Lace up your shoes and go for a walk. Ideally outside for the added benefits of vitamin D from the sun, but inside works, too. Don’t set a timer,  but just walk at a pace that is comfortable for you and keep going until you’re feeling a bit better and your head is clearer. Try to bring your focus back to your breath when your mind wanders, or take in the scenes around you as you stroll.

4. 1:1 time with nature

If you’re sitting at your desk or on your couch when an acutely stressful event occurs, it could help to head outside. Scientists have found that our environment influences our mental health, and that spending time outdoors—especially in green spaces—can reduce the experience of stress. Spending time with nature can even stop a loop of negative thoughts.
How to do it: We don’t think you need instructions for this one. Head outside for some fresh air. Just remember to dress appropriately for the weather, and seek out green spaces if you can.

Finally, if you are feeling truly upset and unable to find your way out of a distressing situation, make an appointment with a therapist or health provider to help you through it.