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How to Instantly Calm Yourself in Stressful Situations

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~Victor Frankl

There’s a big lie we tell ourselves during stressful times.

It keeps us feeling lost, afraid, and unloved, like we’re being picked up and carried away helplessly by a storm.

Our heads can fill with scary images, words, and stories about the cause and who is to blame for our unwanted pain.

Sound familiar? If it does, you’re not alone. You’re normal. This is how humans biologically respond to stress.

So what’s the big lie?

The big lie is that we have no control over our stress response. Actually, we do. A lot of control.

I’ve struggled the hard way through my fair share of troubling times. I’ve experienced money and job issues, battled with health, and been pushed in challenging relationships.

But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is I grew up a highly sensitive person, who would internally react to almost anything that could be interpreted as negative.

Of the feelings above, I hopelessly sat at the “feel all of them” end of the scale.

That was until a particularly trying relationship caused me so much stress and anxiety that I became sick of my unconscious reactions, and vowed to do everything possible to stop it (or make it easier).

Through research and a lot of experimenting I created a practical way to calm myself down instantly anywhere, anytime, when a meditation cushion or reassuring book was out of reach.

The technique was so simple and powerful that it pulled me through a harrowing experience in that relationship, and has held me together in plenty of experiences since.

It’s easy to remember, has an instant effect on your mind body, and most importantly, is simple enough to be remembered and used when you’re going through the eye of your own stress storms.

How to Calm Yourself In Two Minutes

Take a moment right now to make yourself comfortable and try these four steps yourself:

1. Freeze yourself.

Remember the game you played as a child when you suddenly stopped mid-motion, like you were frozen in ice? Do that now. Halt your body parts, emotions, and thought processes. Think of yourself as a cartoon character that’s been hit with a stun gun. You can even make it a little dramatic if it helps.

2. Focus on your index finger.

(Skip to this if you find the first step difficult). For twenty to sixty seconds, concentrate solely on the back of your index finger. Let your mind and body be consumed by it.

Bring it closer to you. Study the rivets, creases, and those tiny little fingerprint lines. If your situation is noisy, let the sounds around you merge into a single background buzz, and let it fade out of your attention.

3. Take a conscious breath.

Let go of your focus and check back in with your body. Take a deep, conscious breath in, then let it go through your mouth, slowly and calmly, creating a wave of relaxation that starts in your chest and floats out through your being to the surface of your skin.

4. Look around consciously.

As you re-integrate with your surroundings, scan the scene in front of you. Remain as indiscriminate as possible with what you focus on the way you would when waking up in the morning.

Take conscious note of the thoughts that are trying to push back into your head and observe them with an attitude of curiosity.

How do you feel?

You might now feel a little more in touch with your senses, distanced from previous thoughts, and connected with the present moment.

Most importantly, you’ll recognize that the root of your discomfort is your thoughts. Everything else, like emotions, and physical discomfort, and pain, start there.

If you’re having difficulty slowing down the mind at the beginning, try this: If you meditate regularly, spend the last minute of your session focused on the same finger, in the same way. Doing this will associate (or anchor) the feelings of clarity, relaxation, and attachment with the action.

And if you don’t meditate, it’s a great time to start! It will help with your ability to cope with stressful situations generally, and dramatically improve the effects of this technique.

Why This Technique Works

Stress is a mental or physical tension, and both manifest from your relationship to the procession of thoughts in your head.

Mindfulness allows you to step out of the procession and watch it go past, without being carried down the fast-flowing river.

When we get pulled down a heavy stream, our emotions and bodies react as if the danger or pain contained in the thought is real, immediate, and must be dealt with now. That’s why we feel discomfort even when someone reminds us of a stressful situation we were trying to forget.

Reconnecting with the present reminds us that here is the only time there really is.

Focusing on your hands is an ancient Ayurvedic practice that helps to ground the soul and provide stability in the physical body.

Try It for Yourself

The most important reason this technique works is it gives you something back—control.

We may not be able to choose what happens to us in our lives, but as Viktor Frankl says, we can always choose our response.

Give it a go next time you feel yourself panicking (and be sure to let us know how you go in the comments below).

About Jonathan Allen

Jonathan Allen is an Australian writer who loves turning big ideas into practical wisdom. You can read his blog at The Galilei, where he road-tests spiritual wisdom, makes fun of himself, and shares real techniques to help people live healthier, happier, and more connected lives.

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  • Sashi Kanth

    I am aware that it`s not healthy to pre-judge but I did that mistake this time only to be proven wrong by your impressive article. At first when I read the title of the article it came to be that it is going to be one of many lame ways to get out of stress like counting from 1 to 10 but I find your 4 ways very helpful.
    You are a good author and wish to see more content on your website. Good luck

  • Lucy

    Thank you for writing this article. I found it very helpful with calming my stress.

  • Recently, something happened to me at work. Thank goodness I meditate for at least 20 minutes every day as soon as I wake up in the mornings. The meditation saved me from stewing mad for the next 6 hours, as surely would have happened in the past. Instead, an hour later, I rate my frustration level at the offending person as a 3 (out of 10 with 10 being very angry).

  • I’ve done the same thing when I’ve been frustrated with someone at work and it’s been tremendously effective, so I totally agree! Good job – meditation definitely raises your general awareness and allows you to ‘step back’ enough from your daily experiences to observe them and act objectively.

  • Thanks Lucy, glad you’ve found it useful!

  • Hi Tanka, definitely reply once you’ve give it a go – I’d love to hear your results!

  • Thank you for the kind words Sashi – the counting techniques do work sometimes I find, but often it’s best to have a few tools in your shed depending on the job required.

  • Brilliant, yes, we do have control xxx

  • Let me know how you go Marie! If you have time in a meditation session before the event, remember to focus on your index finger to anchor the state into your body. It will be much more powerful. Good luck!

  • Thanks Chloe!

  • Sandra Louise walsh

    Hi Jonathan. Thanks so much for writing this, what a simple yet effective way of coping with everyday stress so it doesn’t overwhelm you. I’ll give it a go – and have shared with people to spread the message 🙂

  • Thanks Sandra, much appreciated 🙂

  • Tap N2 Wellness

    This post reminds me of axiom I keep in mind in stressful situations…”Stillness is a prerequisite.” You always want your brain making your decisions instead of your raw emotion.
    Great post!

  • Jon

    It’s definitely a balance, but I think sometimes you just need to remind yourself which one to use when 🙂

  • Ari Maayan

    I don’t know about this, “being in control and having the power to re-think the thought that creates the emotion”. I have tried this for a lot of years, ever since coming home from 3 tours of duty in Vietnam in a Marine Force Recon company. I have been diagnosed with severe PTSD for many years and I don’t know if I have the ability to find that “space” between the event and the response. I’ve been through all of the VA’s PTSD programs and anger management programs and I don’t feel that I have made any headway. Severe PTSD isn’t something you can put into a garbage bag and leave it at the curb for someone to take to the dump.

    I had the benefit of seeing an outstanding psychologist for a number of years. At least I was blessed to have a therapist who understood me. I once said to him, “Do you know how much of a time gap exists between a stressful event that hits me and my response to the event”? We both shouted in unison, “A NANO_SECOND!!!!”. I will read and re-read this article and meditate on it…….and any other helpful directions I am given.

  • Jon

    Hi Ari, the mind receives information, then assesses, processes, and acts. You can re-train neural pathways your brain takes during the first 2. Same with phobias – a snake to both of us brings up different feelings and reactions which creates different actions. Once you understand it’s POSSIBLE to re-wire them, you’re 90% of the way there. So you’ve done the hard yards already. The rest is just training to see things differently – e.g that something you previously considered a threat, actually isn’t.

  • Ari Maayan

    Thanks Jon. You wrote a short paragraph but there is a lot to think about in it. I need to give it some thought and meditation and REALLY try. I need to put this garbage down and get it off my back. I’m tired. Thanks again!!!!

  • Hi Ari, Have you ever tried EMDR? Psychologists perform the technique. It is proven effective for PTSD, and it helps to build the new neural pathways Jon mentioned.

  • Ari Maayan

    I have tried EMDR and although I started out with the best of intentions and got the CD’s etc. I didn’t follow through or practice enough. Story of my life…..poor follow through. I’m deigning a major facility right now and getting ready to move to India. When I am settled there I will start on a path of meditation and Tai Chi and Yoga and see how I can integrate all of this.

  • Ari, this sounds like a do-it-yourself kit of some kind? I haven’t heard of that. Why not go to someone who can do this with you? Takes less effort and it really works.

  • Ari Maayan

    Thanks Jan. I’m leaving for India shortly.