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Next Time You Feel Overwhelmed, Try This Two-Step Process to Calm Down Fast

You're lying in bed and your mind is spinning. You're physically exhausted but you can't settle yourself back to sleep. You try reframing your thoughts, deep breathing, and journaling. But nothing is working. Your head is still muddied with worry, your chest is still tight, and your temples are tensely tender.

What can you do when you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed and your regular "go to" techniques are not working?

Whether you are filling up with frustration, bubbling with stress, boiling with anger, or spinning with anxiety—this two-step process is designed to bring HIGH emotional arousal down FAST. I first learned about these skills from internationally renowned psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan— founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

Step 1, Change Your Body Temperature:

When you rapidly change the temperature of your body you can alter the regulation of your autonomic nervous system. When you are feeling overwhelmed or out of control this is a major win. Why? Your body is forced to shift gears, activating your parasympathetic nervous system. So you go from freak-out mode to chill-out mode fast.

One of the scientifically proven ways to do this is by dunking your face in a bowl of ice-cold water. Sounds bizarre right? But by doing this you trick your brain into thinking you've jumped into cold water which activates your "mammalian dive reflex". The dramatic drop in temperature shocks your body into chill-out mode so you can temporarily relax.

Here's how you do it:

  1. Fill a large bowl or Tupperware container with cold water. The water coming out of your faucet at the coldest setting is the ideal temperature. IF you do not have a large bowl or container, you can fill a zip lock bag with cold water or use a cold pack.

  2. In order to activate the "mammalian dive reflex," it is important the water or cold pack covers your eyebrows and cheekbones.

  3. It takes 30 seconds for the "mammalian dive reflex" to kick in. Dr. Marsha Linehan says the "mammalian reflex" is best activated if you bend over and hold your breath (while in contact with the cold) for at least 30 seconds.

When your face first comes into contact with the cold water, you will probably feel a "shock". An added benefit is this helps rapidly shift the focus away from WHAT has caused your overwhelm to the bite of the cold. Once your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, you should feel more at ease. This feeling is VERY temporary— an emergency measure to help you regain control. It's important to practice one of your usual "go to" techniques right after. I suggest paced breathing. Why is this important? Once the cold brings your emotions down, the effects are short-lived. Remember, it's an emergency measure. To continue to regulate your newly calm state, another technique is required.

I often use this two-step process when I cannot sleep and start ruminating about the future. Or if my toddler is relentlessly pushing my buttons and I'm starting to lose my internal cool. I'll dunk my head for 30 seconds or slap a cold pack on my forehead. Then I'll practice a couple of minutes of paced breathing. I find by using this two-step process, I'm able to slip into a sound sleep or back into the madness of motherhood, with a regained sense of control.

Step 2, Paced Breathing:

Paced breathing is a simple and effective way to physiologically change your body's chemistry and activate your parasympathetic nervous system. It is a very useful technique to use when you're feeling emotionally distressed or as a day-to-day practice to help ground yourself. The beauty is it can be done anywhere and anytime and no one will know that you're doing it! Whether you're with your children, on public transit, or having a heated conversation at work— you can use this technique to keep you grounded.

It is all about the exhale. When you inhale, your body is aroused and activated. And when you exhale your body relaxes. Try it, you will feel it! With this premise in mind, you want to exhale longer than your inhale. This is what will activate your parasympathetic nervous system, whose job is to relax you.

Some of my clients (including myself) like to pair the breathwork with counting. I find that if I am feeling particularly distracted or overwhelmed, the counting helps focus my mind. You can use whatever count feels right, just ensure your exhale count is longer than the inhale, and you pause after each inhale and exhale.

For example, inhaling for 4, PAUSE, exhale for 6. PAUSE.

Life is full of stressful situations and curveballs that steal our calm. The next time you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed from whatever life throws your way, try this two-step process to calm down fast.

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