Never, in the history of being told to calm down, has anyone calmed down! When a person truly goes in to fight-or-flight response, their sympathetic nervous system is activated, and management of bodily functions change due to a perceived threat. This sympathetic nervous system is important because it allows the body to speed up, tense up, and parts of our functioning that aren’t required for survival are put on hold. In our ancient history, this helped humans survive and still does when true threats exist.
Unfortunately, our sympathetic nervous systems are often put into overdrive as we develop perceptions of threats that aren’t truly life or death. Let’s be real, brains can be jerks, and while it may seem major, public speaking or an unexpected call from your boss isn’t truly life or death and doesn’t require adrenaline for survival. This is where learning to engage the parasympathetic nervous system can help.
The parasympathetic nervous system creates the balance in our bodies and should be in control most of the time. It allows for rest, relaxation, and slows our internal systems. Ideally, if someone tells you to calm down, they’re really telling you “Hey! Use your parasympathetic nervous system!” The good news is that you can train yourself to practice using it so when experiencing unexpected fight-or-flight responses you can help engage that parasympathetic nervous system and calm down.
A major player in both systems is breathing. A great way to practice calming is through controlled breathing which can increase oxygen intake and lower heart rate. Try using the 4-7-8 technique. Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, then exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. Try this in cycles of 4, and if it is difficult or you get lightheaded at first, that’s okay – practice!
A second activity to try is bilateral stimulation. Bilateral stimulation can be engagement in right-left movements through visual, auditory, or tactile means. Examples can be watching repetitive movement of something from left to right and back, listening to tones alternating between your ears through headphones, or physical motion like walking or rocking from side to side. Bilateral stimulation works because it distracts the brain from a perceived threat and allows for the body to begin relaxing.
Keep in mind, if you find yourself experiencing increases in stress, anxiety, or panic, this may be your body reading miscues and reacting without thinking.