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Published on January 20, 2021

How to Quickly Calm Your Mind and Refocus When You’re Stressed

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How to Quickly Calm Your Mind and Refocus When You’re Stressed

Do you sometimes feel that the demands of life are squeezing you so tightly that it is hard to breath and regain a calm mind? Problems are cropping up faster than weeds in a garden, and your to-do list is growing exponentially faster than your “it’s done” list.

All of this can lead to a tsunami of tension. Staying focused, calm, and engaged is a struggle.

Many people hear this and just shrug their shoulders. “That’s just life. There is no other way to respond when stress boils over,” they conclude.

But there are solutions and effective approaches for dealing with even the toughest stress. It just requires you to learn, and then practice, some basic skills.

These are the same skills used by Air Force PJs – and if they work to help these guys stay calm, they will definitely work for you and me.

But you are probably asking “What’s an Air Force PJ?”

They are part the Special Ops forces, the elite of the elite. Their job is to rescue other military members who are trapped behind enemy lines, thoroughly cut off from support and at risk of being captured or killed.

So how do special operators manage to deal with the mental stress of their mission and calmly get the job done?

They use an approach that is called Stress Inoculation Training or SIT[1].

Let’s take a look at what this is and how you can use it, as well.

Staying Calm Under Pressure

Stress Inoculation Training (SIT)…that phrase is nearly self-explanatory. Just like a medical inoculation that is used to guard against a medical threat (e.g., malaria, the flu, hepatitis), stress inoculation is intended to guard against the impact of intense or prolonged mental pressure.

The main components of SIT include the following:

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  • ONE: Identify the expected circumstances under which you will become distressed and also pinpoint your typical reaction to those stressful situations.
  • TWO: Learn specific relaxation techniques that calm your mind and emotions.
  • THREE: Develop a short list of statements that trigger a calming response.
  • FOUR: Expose yourself to increasingly stressful situations where these techniques are practiced.

Practice the following four step process and you’ll be feeling like a tension busting pro in no time.

1. Know Thyself

The best auto mechanics know each system of a car inside and out. Because of this wealth of knowledge, they are able to diagnose and repair a car with expert skills.

The best cardiac surgeons also have a through and intimate understanding of the heart and vascular system. These insights allow surgeons to bring remarkable changes to a person’s health.

If you wish to learn how to achieve a calm mind when under stress, it is important that you also develop a thorough knowledge of what makes you stressed.

The way to gain these insights is by keeping track of what situations are most stressful for you and what makes them a challenge. Do you begin to immediately assume the worse? Do you imagine catastrophic endings or believe that you will be humiliated? Do you imagine that the setbacks you may suffer will result in permanent failure?

Write down the five most common stressors that hold you back. Also write down your typical thoughts or reactions to these stressful situations.

If you want to take this first step just a little further, do the following: think about ways that in the past you have succeeded in pushing through the stressful situations you just listed.

There are bound to be times that you have successfully dealt with stress in the past. Identify what you did to succeed in those situations. Did you take a step back and put things in perspective? Perhaps you took a few minutes and spoke with a friend? Maybe all it took to calm your mind was taking a few deep breaths.

2. Learn Relaxation Techniques

There are many helpful relaxation techniques from which to choose. We will look at three techniques that most people find useful and easy to employ on a moment’s notice.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

The first of these is called is diaphragmatic breathing. This is breathing where the focus is on using your diaphragm (that sheet of muscle under your lungs).

Diaphragmatic breathing is sometimes referred to as belly breathing (versus chest breathing). That’s because when you concentrate on expanding your lungs by contracting your diaphragm, it causes your stomach to move slightly outward.

The reason diaphragmatic breathing is important is that it stimulates the vagus nerve. This, in turn, sends signals to the brain that induces a sense of calm.

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The vagus nerve acts like a brake pedal on the nervous system. When stimulated, it tells the brain to slow things down. The anxiety and stress that were building up then begin to reduce.

There are many ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. For example, some meditation practices include reciting a mantra in a way that resembles humming. This stimulates the vagus nerve and increases a relaxed response.

Grounding

This approach is focused on getting someone who is lost in a downward stress spiral to return to the “here and now.” By shifting one’s focus to the present, stress about imagined threats begins to fade, and tensions dissipate.

Grounding is frequently used to help people who struggle with stress arising from a variety of sources including panic attacks, trauma, work pressures, and more.

There are dozens of grounding techniques[2] to select from to fit your preference and circumstances. We will look at just one approach, a very common technique that most people find helpful and easy to use at a moment’s notice.

For this to be effective, you need to momentarily focus on the sensory input from your immediate surroundings: colors, sounds, smells, and textures. For instance, if you are in a business meeting and feeling overwhelmed, then you can intentionally draw your attention to the color of the notepad laying on the table in front of you; the hum of the A/C; the smell of the coffee in that mug by your hand, and; the texture of the chair on which you sit.

This requires only a few moments. It takes your attention away from the stress, and refocuses on the present in order to get you back to a calm mind.

If you add one or two deep breaths, all the better.

Guided Imagery

If you have ever lost yourself in a daydream, then you have a good idea of how guided imagery works. It focuses your mind on a vivid scene that brings about a sense of calm and confidence.

To master this skill one need only spend a little time practicing. The first step is to think of a place where you have experienced feeling calm and in control. That may be when you were gazing out over the Grand Canyon, lying on a white sand beach, working out in a yoga class, or reading a book next to a fire.

The next step is to close your eyes and begin to vividly fill in that mental picture with as much detail as possible. Once again, you will want to use as many sensory inputs as possible.

For instance, if you imagined yourself sitting on the front porch of a mountain cabin, you would include the smell of pine trees, the feel of the breeze against your face, the sound of the wind through the trees, the color of the light cast over the porch, etc.

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The more vividly you imagine this place, the stronger will be its impact on reducing stress.

3. Select Calming Statements

In this step you remind yourself to put your current stressors in perspective. This is important because stress has a snowball effect. The longer it goes on unopposed, the more momentum it gathers, destroying your calm mind. Small concerns begin to appear larger than they have any right to be.

Before things ever get to that point, you need to take control, and you can do this by repeating some well-chosen statements that bring peace and clarity to mind.

Examples of these statements include:

  • I’ve handled difficult situations like this before, I can do so now as well.
  • Is the worse outcome really likely to happen, and if it did would it be the sort of disaster I have in mind?
  • I’m stressed but still strong. I’ve got the skills to handle this situation. I just need to take a short break, step back for a minute, then come back and tackle it.
  • I’m feeling stressed and need to stop for a second to take some deep breaths. I’ll just use the guided imagery I’ve practiced and things will feel more focused.
  • I can feel the muscles in my neck knotting up, and I know that this stress is just going to get worse. I need to get grounded, take deep breath, and prioritize where I will put my energy.

Self-statements serve several functions. They help put things in perspective, and they remind you to use the stress busting skills you have in your mental toolbox (deep breathing, guided imagery, etc.).

To get the most out of self-statements, be sure to write them down ahead of time. Make a long list of such statements, then review them a little later on and notice which statements are most helpful.

Select four of five of these and keep them on your phone, or a piece of paper. That way they are easily referred to the next time stress begins to build and you need to get back to a calm mind.

4. Do Hard Things

The more you take on difficult challenges in life the more you develop mental toughness, or “grit”[3]. This allows you to face stressful situations with greater confidence knowing that you have prevailed in other grueling circumstances.

For example, when faced with a killer deadline at work, it can be helpful to remember that half marathon you ran, and how you continued to push yourself when it seemed that your legs had turned into cement posts. Even so, you persisted and crossed the finish line.

Remember how good it felt when you completed the race? Dwell on that for a moment because that same feeling is what you will have when you don’t succumb to stress and you complete the project within the deadline.

Now, use that same grit to face the stressors that press down on you today. You will get through this moment of testing. You’ve proven that you have the “right stuff” to overcome the challenges.

By pushing yourself in other areas of life, you not only develop “grit” but change your self-perception. You begin to see yourself as the man or woman who perseveres and gets things done.

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I remember during a deployment to Iraq when a Special Ops guy asked me to work with one of his soldiers who had gone sideways. I had several stipulations. His response was “Right, Captain. Too easy. Done.”

He had faced much greater challenges than the stipulations I had made for granting his request. This soldier was unfazed with the challenges put before him, even though he had numerous other responsibilities that bore down on him.

From his perspective this really was too easy, and he confidently moved forward in getting things done so I could then work with his soldier.

Doing hard things will develop this same mindset in you.

That sort of confidence does wonders to calm your senses when under stress.

What sort of ‘hard stuff’ should you do in order to build more grit? The sky is the limit:

  • Prepare to compete in a Spartan race or a Go Ruck challenge
  • Go to the gym regularly and push yourself to increase your personal best in some area of fitness
  • Get into white water kayaking, backpacking, or adventure racing
  • Travel to places that sound exciting but that you have avoided due to anxiety
  • Take on tasks at work that you’ve avoided because you have feared putting yourself to the test

The main thing is to push yourself to do what is difficult. The specifics don’t matter. What you are looking to do is become toughened to facing challenge.

If you succeed at the task you set for yourself great. If you fail, this too can be used to your advantage. You’ll learn that even in failure you are able to pick yourself up and push forward.

When you are confident of your ability to persist in the face of adversity the stress will feel lighter, and it will be easier to maintain a calm mind.

Final Thoughts

Staying calm in the face of extreme stress is within your grasp. The skills needed to succeed are simple, but they do require that you intentionally work on building them as part of your tool kit for dealing with tension.

Your success in this regard will lead to a greater sense of confidence and freedom. Stressors will no longer be intimidating, but instead seen as simple challenges that you are capable of surmounting on your way to reaching a calm mind.

More on Managing Stress

Featured photo credit: Andriyko Podilnyk via unsplash.com

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Reference

More by this author

Forrest Talley

Forrest is a Clinical Psychologist who has been helping adults, teens and children for over 30 years.

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Published on October 15, 2021

Does Anxiety Make You Tired And Why?

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Does Anxiety Make You Tired And Why?

When you think of anxiety, several scenarios may come to mind: the endless tossing and turning of a restless night, dread over potential future events, pandemic-related overwhelm, or full-blown panic attacks. Even if you’re not diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you’ve likely experienced anxiety symptoms at some point in your life. In these situations, you might feel a queasiness in your stomach, racing heartbeat, excessive sweating, chest tightness, some tension in your jaw/neck/shoulders, or worrisome thoughts as you prepare for the worst possible scenario. But does anxiety also make you tired?

After experiencing these symptoms, you may indeed feel fatigued. The sensation could fall anywhere on the exhaustion spectrum, from feeling like you just ran a marathon and need to sleep for two days, to just a little worn down and wanting a quick nap to recover.

Below are 7 ways anxiety zaps your energy and how to restore it.

1. Stress Hormone Overload

Anxiety can make you tired via overloading your body with stress hormones. The “fight or flight” response is a key connection between anxiety and fatigue. In fact, this process is made up of three stages: Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion. Anxiety triggers our body systems to go into high alert. This is a natural, involuntary reaction that developed in the human brain for survival.

When humans lived with the real, imminent threat of being attacked by a predator, it made sense for our bodies to spring into action without much preparatory thought. Such dangers are rare in modern times, but our brains continue to respond in the same way they did thousands of years ago.

The hormones and chemicals that flood our bodies to prepare us for safety can both affect and be affected by several body systems, and this interaction itself contributes to exhaustion. Adrenaline and cortisol are the two most notable hormones to address here. First, adrenaline is sent out, tensing the muscles and increasing heart rate and blood pressure in preparation to run. Later in the stress response, cortisol is released, enhancing the brain’s use of glucose. This is one of our main fuel sources, so it’s no wonder this contributes to fatigue (see #2).

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You can regulate baseline levels of these stress hormones by regularly practicing yoga, breathwork, meditation, and/or engaging in aerobic exercise.[1] It’s easier to lean into these routines for relief during stress when you’ve already mastered using them during times when you feel calm.

2. Elevated Blood Sugar Levels

Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), which is shown to be associated with anxiety in diabetic patients.[2] Many people who experience hyperglycemia report feeling tired all the time regardless of their quantity or quality of sleep, nutrition, or exercise.

Although this connection has shown more prevalent and prolonged effects in diabetics, it also occurs with nondiabetics exposed to psychiatric stress.[3] In fact, for all people, the natural stress response elevates blood pressure and heart rate as well as cortisol levels, all of which increase blood sugar levels.[4] This means that anxiety causes a double-hit of exhaustion related to blood sugar fluctuations.

Instead of reaching for comfort foods like chocolate during times of stress, take a calming walk around the block. Gentle movement alone is a great stress reliever that incidentally also helps to regulate blood sugars.[5]

3. Negative Mindset

Anxiety can also make you tired because of repetitive negative thinking (RNT), which is a common symptom of anxiety. RNT involves continuous thoughts via rumination (dwelling on sad or dark thoughts focused on the past) and worry (angst regarding the future). Some researchers argue that having a longtime habit of RNT can harm the brain’s capacity to think, reason, and form memories.[6] While the brain is busy using its energy stores to fuel negative thought patterns, the energy available for these other more productive endeavors is thereby reduced.

Negative thoughts can also disrupt or prevent healthy sleep patterns, keeping our minds racing at night and effectively wreaking havoc on daytime energy. (See #7)

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Reduce these patterns by reframing your feelings over anxious thoughts. Instead of staying stuck on “what if,” focus on what you can do in the here and now. What activity can you engage in for five minutes (or more) that brings you joy? What are you grateful for, no matter what’s going on around you?

4. Digestive Issues

It’s common for people to experience both intestinal and mental issues simultaneously. This suggests a strong connection between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is known as the gut-brain axis.[7] Simply put, what happens in our digestive tract (and as a result of what we eat) affects the brain and vice versa.

The gut microbiota is a complex population of GI tract microorganisms. When its balance is altered, the body can develop conditions that affect the gut-brain-endocrine relationship. The endocrine system produces and manages adrenaline, for starters. And the gut bacteria’s production of feel-good hormones (serotonin and dopamine—see #5) ties into this relationship as well.

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptors are also found in gut bacteria. GABA is a natural brain relaxant that makes us feel good by helping the body to unwind after a stress-induced neurotransmitter release (e.g., cortisol and adrenaline). When GABA activity is low, it leads to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and mood disorders. These are just a few of the manifestations that demonstrate how gut bacteria influences behavior. All of these contribute to feeling both physically and mentally tired.

You can minimize the symptoms of depression and anxiety by keeping your gut microbiota balanced with probiotic-rich fermented foods. Yogurt with live cultures, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, miso soup, and tempeh are great foods to include in your diet.[8]

5. Depression

Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. Research continues to indicate a complex relationship between depression and decreased serotonin—a key neurotransmitter for regulating mood and feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Anxiety is also a direct symptom of serotonin deficiency. Serotonin helps with healthy sleep, mood, and digestion.

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Serotonin is produced in the gut, almost exclusively, at an estimated 90 percent. However, a small quantity is also produced in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that is pivotal for transmitting energy balance signals. This small cone-shaped structure receives and relays signals transmitted via the vagus nerve from the gastrointestinal tract. It has a central role in mediating stress responses, regulating sleep, and establishing circadian rhythms. It senses and responds to a myriad of circulating hormones and nutrients, directly affecting our mood and energy.[9]

Dopamine is another mood-boosting neurochemical that is depleted in depression. It creates feelings of alertness and wakefulness and, when the body is operating normally, is released in higher amounts in the morning (allowing for daytime energy) and lower at night (preparing for healthy sleep). Stress is one factor that can deplete dopamine, thereby leading to depression, sleep disorders, and fatigue.

Studies show that dopamine levels in the brain can be elevated by increasing dietary intake of tyrosine and phenylalanine.[10] Both of these amino acids are naturally found in protein-rich foods like turkey, beef, eggs, dairy, soy, peas, lentils, and beans.

6. Breathing Problems

Breathlessness and anxiety are closely linked, and this is one of the ways anxiety can make you feel tired. Anxiety can lead to shallow breathing, which can cause shortness of breath while feeling breathless can exacerbate anxiety.[11] It’s a vicious cycle that often leads people to take rapid and shallow breaths, breathing into their upper chest and shoulders.

This type of breathing minimizes oxygen intake and usability. Despite comprising only two percent of the body, our brains consume 20 percent of the body’s oxygen supply. Oxygen is fuel for both mental and physical tasks. When breathing patterns compromise healthy oxygen levels, this can cause considerable fatigue.[12]

End the anxiety-fatigue cycle with focused breathing exercises. It’s important to practice this regularly while you’re not experiencing anxiety or stress, as this will help you to be prepared should a moment of breathless anxiety hit unexpectedly.

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There are several different styles of breathing exercises. There’s an easy one to try, called “Resonant Breathing.” Simply breathe in slowly through your nose as you count to five, then exhale for a count of five. Repeat this for a few minutes. It’s helpful to bring your awareness to any tension, deliberately relaxing your neck, shoulders, and jaw in particular.

7. Sleep Issues

Most of the elements we’ve already discussed inherently tie into sleep issues, which is often the reason why anxiety can make you feel tired. But it’s important to note that this is not always a directly linear cause-and-effect process. Much of it is cyclic. If we don’t get enough quality sleep, we increase our risk of excessive cortisol production, elevated blood pressure and blood sugar levels, depressed mood and mindset disorders, and dysregulation of appetite/craving hormones that affect our digestive health.

Sleep is obviously the number one antidote to feeling tired as a result of anxiety. But at the same time, many of these elements—including anxiety itself—lead to less-than-restorative sleep. We can improve our energy levels by addressing each element discussed here, as well as taking a proactive approach to our sleep health.

One simple habit to help recalibrate your circadian rhythm for healthy sleep patterns is to get outside in the morning. Sunlight exposure in the early hours of the day regulates melatonin production, helping us to feel sleepy at night.

You Don’t Have to Live Your Life Anxious and Exhausted

Times of extreme stress, like driving in heavy traffic or nerve-wracking situations like public speaking, can easily induce an anxiety response. Even “normal” everyday stressors, like feeling overwhelmed with work and home responsibilities, can build up to anxious feelings over time.

Our bodies’ response to stress and anxiety affects many of its functions in complex ways. When we unravel the interconnections of these processes, we can see how each part plays an intrinsic role in contributing to fatigue. By addressing each element individually, we can make simple lifestyle changes that resolve anxiety and diminish the ways it makes us tired as a result.

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Featured photo credit: Joice Kelly via unsplash.com

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