Why do we want to calm down in the first place?
Staying calm, composed, patient, at peace with yourself – everyone finds these qualities and states worth striving for. No one wants to fly off the handle and be a bag of nerves. On the one hand, it usually feels more pleasant when we are balanced and emotionally stable. On the other hand, it often benefits those around us as well. Our social relationships can be more harmonious if we are calm inside and don’t take everything personally or often “freak out”.
Life can also feel a little easier when we don’t necessarily need someone else to make us feel safe, for example through their presence, words or gestures. Have you heard people say that someone is their “rock”? Well, you can also be that for yourself.
Find your motivation
The previous paragraph offers many good reasons why it the ability to calm yourself down is so valuable. However, if you have decided to embark on this project, it’s important to be clear about your own motivation. Self-soothing should have nothing to do with skilfully ignoring your feelings, being inconspicuous, becoming low-maintenance for others or conforming to their expectations. In the long run, this would most likely diminish your wellbeing instead of improving it, because you would be suppressing your own needs.
Conversely, the desire to be able to self-soothe can be more valuable for you if it’s connected to the idea of your personal growth. In this sense, it’s not about keeping fear, anger or stress “in check” because they are unpleasant for you and other people; it’s about getting in touch with the needs that lie behind these feelings (more on this below). If we succeed in finding this out, we can meet these needs in a more pleasant and straightforward way, or we can communicate them more clearly to others so that we feel better in the long term.
Ask yourself: What do I get from being agitated?
When you feel agitated, anxious, stressed or angry, you can try to think about what you’re getting out of this inner turbulence. Of course, we’re all too aware that the feelings are unpleasant, but think about it: What are they good for? Do they cause you to do something – or not do something? Do they also bring you benefits?
For example, anger often makes it easier for us to make ourselves heard and to assert ourselves. Getting stressed may be a way for us to recognise that our workload is too heavy, for example, or that it’s time to ask for support. Fear can also serve a variety of purposes, such as to gain the attention of others or to avoid potential dangers.
Self-care: the key to calming down
Even just by asking yourself, “Hey, what is this feeling useful for right now? What message does it hold for me?” you can actually feel calmer. You are signalling to your mind: I want to make sure that I get what I need to feel good.
This means we’re not dependent on someone or something to reassure us or ask us what’s going on. We’re paying attention to ourselves and attending to our own needs. What’s really important is that we follow through with this intention by taking care of ourselves. Unpleasant feelings and inner turmoil can thus become momentary signals that hold value for us, rather than perceived enemies that we need to get rid of as quickly as possible. As a result, we may also become less anxious about these emotions overall.
How to calm down when under stress
There are those times when we’re sitting at home on the couch and suddenly we tense up, realising all the things we have to do tomorrow and how little time we have to get through them all. If we question this tension, we may conclude that it would be better to postpone one of our appointments or ask a friend for support.
However, there are also situations where we lose our composure, perhaps because our partner says something hurtful in an argument and we feel like lashing out in anger. Afterwards, we often talk about having “seen red” or having said or done something “in the heat of the moment”. The problem is that in highly emotional situations it is more difficult to keep a cool head – or more precisely, a cool prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for what is called “cognitive control”, i.e. thinking about long-term consequences and consistently pursuing goals.
Cognitive control is an ability we can train. To this end, we have 3 tips that can help you to calm yourself down in times of acute stress:
1Know your values
If you are clear about the personal core values you want to act upon, you can do so more effectively. In other words, if you hold values such as kindness, patience or compassion and you remind yourself of them regularly, you will be more likely to stay true to these values and less likely to act impulsively. Figuratively speaking, your prefrontal cortex steps in and says, “Hang on a minute, this doesn’t match up with your stated intentions.”
2Take a break and cool off
It may sound like you’re between rounds in a boxing match, but it’s certainly not combative: taking a break, whether in the middle of an argument or a stressful day, can help your body and mind to settle down. You could take as little as a few minutes and try breathing deeply from your belly. Once the initial stress hormones have subsided, you can think about what you actually want to say or do in this situation.
3Look to the future
Whether it’s a matter of self-soothing without reaching for a cigarette or a glass of wine, or calming yourself down to prevent a row with your partner from escalating: try, as hard as it may be, to think about the longer-term consequences. How will you feel about this in fifteen minutes, or tomorrow? Now you have the opportunity to do things differently – every decision counts.
Take your time and be courageous
Being able to calm yourself down is a matter of practice. You can think of it like exercising a muscle: Every time you succeed in not looking outwards for reassurance or giving in to an impulse, this muscle becomes stronger. That’s why it’s important to keep at it, even if things don’t work out sometimes.
Keep in mind that if you are able to calm yourself down, this might trigger a reaction from those around you. Maybe someone else has got used to being your rock and is now bothered by the fact that you’re taking on this role yourself. Or perhaps your boss is surprised that you’re no longer working overtime because you’ve realised that this helps you to feel less tense.
So it may take some perseverance and courage to become someone who is self-soothing, self-caring and sets boundaries. But there is no need to feel uneasy: if you become anxious about change, remind yourself that you always have the option to do things differently if they don’t work out. What matters is finding what feels right for you.
Goschke, T. (2007). Volition und kognitive Kontrolle. In J. Müsseler (2007). Lehrbuch Allgemeine Psychologie (2nd edition). Heidelberg: Spektrum Akademischer Verlag.