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7 Ways to Be Serene

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— October 4, 2019

7 Ways to Be Serene

By Polly Campbell
  • Get past your anxieties so you can get back to living.
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Given the world we live in, most of us can find plenty to worry about.

But never finding the off switch turns worry into anxiety, our fight-or-flight response to a perceived threat.

There are times when feeling a little jittery can be useful, such as if you’re preparing for a big playoff game or a crucial job interview. But when anxiety goes into overdrive, it can make dealing with the daily routine difficult.

What’s more, most of what truly troubles us doesn’t come to pass. Participants in one Penn State study recorded their worries throughout the day for 10 days and found that 91% of what they worried about never came true.

More than 90% of people's worries never come to pass, which makes time spent worrying a stressful waste. Click To Tweet

Fortunately, there are techniques you can use to calm your qualms before they run away with you.

Take a Breath

Start by tuning into your physical response and taking some deep breaths, says clinical psychologist Seth Gillihan, PhD, host of the Think Act Be podcast and author of The CBT Deck (PESI).

“Practice noticing the anxiety in your body as early as possible; maybe you notice your breath getting shallow,” Gillihan says. “Then take a calming breath in and a slow exhale. Most of the relaxation we get from breathing comes on the exhale.”

Slow, controlled breathing can activate the calming part of the nervous system, which in turn slows the stress response, according to researchers writing in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Slow breathing can help keep stress from running away with you. Click To Tweet

Try it by taking in a slow, deep breath, exhaling slowly while imagining that you are exhaling out one of the worries or problems that you are holding onto. You can even say “Ahhhhh” as you do it, says psychotherapist and former monk Donald Altman, author of Reflect: Awaken to the Wisdom of the Here and Now (PESI). “It slows everything down and even gives your heart a rest,” he says.

Turn on the Tunes

Mellow music can keep the body from going into fear mode, while upbeat rhythms can shift one’s energy from uptight to fun and motivated, even celebratory. The key is to pick sounds and songs that you appreciate and enjoy.

Melody Wilding, LMSW, a New York City-based career coach, recommends tuning into music with binaural beats, the sounds created by playing two different frequencies at the same time. Such music prompts relaxing brainwave changes, according to a study published in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine.

Check out the playlists found on many streaming music services, including Apple Music and Spotify, or the free recordings on YouTube.

Get Moving

Moving your body can also move your mood. Numerous studies have found that exercise and motion help manage anxiety.

According to Gillihan, simple stretching exercises like reaching out wide with your arms can counter the normal tendency to shrink and hide when you are anxious. The slow, deliberate movements in tai chi and yoga encourage deep breathing and focus, while aerobic exercise, such as a brisk walk or jog, can decrease tension levels, stabilize mood and improve sleep.

“Moving and stretching and exercise can get us unstuck from the freeze part of our fear response,” Gillihan says.

Write It Out

Clearing some of the mental clutter by writing out your concerns can be a good way to limit the power of anxiety-producing thoughts.

Research pioneered by James Pennebaker, PhD, at the University of Texas, Austin, has shown that pouring your emotions out on a page for about 20 minutes a day can be effective.

Wilding recommends a technique called “release writing” as a way to process emotions. “Start with the structure ‘I feel,’ and fill in your emotion, then pour out all your thoughts and reactions onto the page,” she says.

Pouring your feelings out onto paper can help dissipate anxiety. Click To Tweet

Gillihan suggests making a to-do list. “Anxiety can come from a lack of direction, like when we’re drifting at work and unsure what to focus on,” he explains. “Make a list of the three most important things you plan to accomplish for the day, then focus on the first; fold over the list so you can only see the one task you’re working on. Forward progress can be a big antidote to anxiety.”

Chew Gum

Can a square of bubble gum be enough to settle your nerves? Research indicates it might.

In one study, participants were asked to chew gum twice a day for 14 days and then report on their mood and fatigue levels; their results were compared to those of a group that didn’t chew. The chewers were significantly less anxious and fatigued than the non-chewers, according to results published in Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health.

It hasn’t been determined why the benefits of gum chewing were so pronounced; researchers speculate that it was perhaps the chewing process, the sensory experience of the flavor and texture.

Give It A Name

When caught up in nervous feelings it’s easy to begin ruminating; as emotions intensify, anxiety can then run away with your thoughts. But we can rein in those feelings by giving them a name, according to research done at the University of North Carolina.

It was found that labeling emotions increases activity in the prefrontal and temporal regions of the brain, which helps assign meaning to feelings. That process helps you appraise the situation; you may realize that you’re not feeling anxiety at all, but a cousin like confusion, bewilderment, caution or vulnerability.

Creating an emotional vocabulary can help you deal better with whatever you’re experiencing.

Change Your Environment

Moving to a different space can also help us move to a different emotional state. “A change of environment can be a big help, especially if you are sensitive and easily stimulated,” Wilding says.

Going outside is the best move you can make. As Gillihan puts it, “There’s something about having green all around us that is inherently calming.” That’s because focusing on vegetation and greenery can help you escape the loop of negative thoughts that you can get trapped in when you’re anxious.

Even walking where there are a few trees and really noticing them can be soothing. In fact, the calming sounds found in nature, and the pockets of deep quiet one finds in the woods, have been found to help lower blood pressure and cortisol (stress hormone) levels.

Time spent in nature has a way of making stress melt away. Click To Tweet

If you can’t get out, even listening to a tape of nature sounds or looking at pictures of naturescapes can help create calm.

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