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We usually need to relax when we are feeling tense, anxious, or angry. Part of these feelings are due to an activation of something called the sympathetic nervous system, which includes parts of your brain that detect and respond to threats and stress. Without getting too deep into the physiology, when you are tense, anxious, or angry, your sympathetic nervous system is activated, and your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow, your blood pressure increases, your digestion stops, your muscles tense, your circulation changes, stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline, among others) are released in your blood stream, and your thoughts speed up and focus on a target. When this is happening, our bodies feel unpleasant and we look for ways to feel better.
Take steps to change your physiology when you are tense, anxious, or angry. This is basically done by shifting attention and taking control of breathing as a way to jump-start the parasympathetic nervous system. There is no magic, just basic steps (some that you already do) that should result in you feeling more relaxed, quickly.
1. Orienting: the first step is intentionally orienting yourself to your surroundings. This means visually and mentally recognizing where you are right now and what is around you. Orienting allows us to start relaxing by recognizing our immediate surroundings, which are hopefully calm, stable, and safe.
2. Grounding: the second step helps shift your attention to how you are connected to your environment. Since relaxation is a physiological process, it is important to direct your attention to your senses. So for this step, intentionally notice ways you are connected to your surroundings.
3. Slowing: this third step will now bring your attention to what is happening inside you, particularly your breathing and heart rate. Although there are a lot of ways we can learn to change the way our body responds in any given moment, the easiest is to control our breathing. There are dozens of breathing techniques, but here’s an easy one called “4-7-8 Breathing”. It works like this:
Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet on the floor, and close your eyes. Once you are settled and notice your breathing, inhale through your nose for a count of 4, hold it for a count of 7, exhale through your mouth for a count of 8, and repeat. The pace doesn’t matter, it should just be something that feels good to you. The key is having the exhale really stretch out much longer than the inhaling. Try and make the exhale smooth and have almost all of the air leave your body. Do it with the counting as long as you need to get the pace down before going to the next step.
While doing this, you should really start to notice some changes in how you are feeling, most obviously a slowing heart rate. That is your parasympathetic nervous system going into action.
4. Coaching: once you have the breathing pace down, keep doing it while you move to this step. The key here is giving yourself positive, reassuring, and calm messages, rather than continuing with the tense, anxious, and angry thoughts. Keep doing this along with the breathing until you feel sufficiently ready to reconnect with what you were doing.
5. Emerging: the key in this final step is calmly reentering the world. Rather than just stopping this process and jumping back in, focus on going back to what you need to do with the same peace you might have when you wake up from a nice sleep. Just gently getting back into the flow of your day. This should keep your mind and body both staying in a more relaxed and positive state.
And so you’ll find your life somewhat more relaxed and peaceful!
Remember to practice this everyday, especially during times of lower stress, because the effect is cumulative. Meaning, the 20th time you do this should have a faster and greater impact than the first. If it doesn’t work right away, stay with it and keep going, and make sure you are following all of the steps.