Finding Peace in the Midst of Chaos

Finding Peace in the Midst of Chaos

We all know how it goes: you have an important deadline coming up.  Stretching yourself to your limits, you neglect to sleep properly, to eat properly, to emotionally nurture yourself properly.  You put some pasta on the stove for dinner, and while distracted, the water boils over.  The bills pile up on your side table.  Your phone keeps going off because your friends are concerned about how long it’s taking you to return their texts.


            When you get caught in an anxiety spiral, it can be nigh impossible to break out of it.  Stress feeds into stress, and everyday tasks can turn into monumental obstacles to overcome.  If you ever feel overwhelmed by the stressors in your life, at least know that you’re not alone: in the 21st century, anxiety disorders have become the most prevalent of all mental disorders.  An estimated 33.7% of the world’s population is now experiencing or has at one point experienced a diagnosed anxiety disorder, which include panic disorder and agoraphobia, among others.[1]


There are plenty of proven techniques out there for preventing stress from building up, but unfortunately, those coping mechanisms aren’t very helpful when anxiety becomes so overwhelming that it brings you to a breaking point.  When stress threatens to put you into shutdown, you need immediate respite.  Here are some tips on how to keep calm under pressure and get some quick stress relief when you find yourself paralyzed by panic.


Activate Your Mammalian Diving Response


            Our biology has some pretty neat tricks built into it to help us physically cope with situations that are stressful to our bodies.  Thankfully, these coping methods also help us deal with situations that stress out our minds.  One such mechanism is the mammalian diving response.


            Seen most easily in aquatic mammals like whales and dolphins, the diving response activates when mammals are put into apnea (the cessation of breathing) by being submerged in water and thus having their source of oxygen removed.[2]  Once the response kicks into gear, mammals experience the following effects:

  • Slowed heart rate: by reducing the heart rate by 10-25%, mammals extend the life of a single breath.

  • Rearranged blood flow: the diving response diverts blood flow away from limbs and towards vital organs to keep them oxygenated longer.

Although humans are not aquatic, like all mammals, we, too, are affected by the diving response.  Splashing cold water on our faces simulates the experience of diving and triggers it.  If possible, fully submerging your face or head creates an even stronger response.


            The diving response makes the heartbeat slow and brings more oxygen to your brain, which can help clear dizziness and confusion.  When stress has brought you to palpitations, a little fresh water can force your body to calm down and lay the path for your mind to follow suit.


Lavender: Nature’s Anxiolytic


            Although not a replacement for modern medicine, many herbs have proven pharmaceutical effects.  Ginger and peppermint are powerful antiemetics.[3]  Cayenne is a detoxifier that boosts metabolism.[4]  And lavender?  Lavender reduces stress.


            Lavender has a long and established history of use for treating anxiety.  A 2011 study showed that inhaling lavender has similar effects on the brain as those of chlordiazepoxide, an anxiolytic drug.[5]


            Keep a small sprig of lavender or a few milliliters of lavender oil in a tiny bottle as a kind of anti-anxiety smelling salts. 10 ml bottles are easy to carry around and can be super cute.  A quick whiff of lavender might help stop a panic attack in its tracks.


Take a Hike!  . . . And Get a Rush of Endorphins


            At some point, you’ve probably been told to “take a walk to clear your head.”  But going on a stroll is about more than just finding private space to organize your thoughts. The physical benefits of the light exercise may be even more important in stopping panic than the mental ones.


            A 2009 study tracked the stress relieving effects of walking by chemically inducing anxiety attacks in its subjects and then tracking their vitals as they walked on a treadmill.[6]  The results showed that light exercise may be used to reduce anxiety and panic attack frequency as well as the intensity of attacks when they do happen.  


            Light exercise pumps endorphins through the body’s system, rewarding the brain with an instant rush of good feelings.  Stress hormones, like adrenaline cortisol, reduce during physical activity. For the remaining stressors, concentrating on a repeating motion offers an easy distraction.


If you don’t have the room to go on a walk, try jogging in place for a minute to achieve similar results.


Control Your Breath, Control Your Heart


Panic affects us emotionally, of course, but also physically. The body reacts to stress by prepping itself for fight or flight. Getting control over your physical response to stress makes it easier for your mind to follow suit. Breath regulation tops most lists on how to relieve anxiety, and for good reason--it’s easy and effective.     


One common symptom of panic and anxiety attacks is hyperventilation.  Rapid and shallow breathing makes us dizzy, short of breath, nauseated, and confused.  Calming your breath can calm your entire parasympathetic nervous system. Research has found that the simple act of sighing can restore the physical state of a body under stress.[7]


When anxiety has you so worked up that you literally feel like you can’t breathe, try the following:  First, inhale through your nose, directing the air towards your lower belly.  This is where your diaphragm is, and how newborn babies instinctively know how to breathe.  Keep the breath in your belly for two seconds, then exhale for four.  Wait two seconds, then repeat. 


Do Some Math to Seal Mental Cracks


            If you’re anything like me, the thought of doing math probably fills you with dread--but disruptive counting is actually one of the best ways to take your mind off of a panic-inducing situation.


            The brain only has so much capacity to focus on multiple complex tasks at once.[8]  Make it more difficult for anxiety to take over you mind by filling it with other busywork.  Try counting back from 100 in 3s or 7s--the prime numbers don’t fit nicely into 100, and your brain has to consciously work to complete the task.  By occupying yourself with a menial, but complex tasks, you can remove gaps in your attention where anxiety has snuck in.


Lower the Stakes


            As someone with a personal history of anxiety, I know full well how easy it is to make mountains out of molehills.


            According to Lauren Miller, author of 5 Minutes to Stress Relief, a lot of panic-causing stress is rooted in the anticipation of something bad happening.  This kind of anxiety often leads to self-sabotage; you focus so much on thinking about what can go wrong that you find yourself paralyzed when you actually try to prevent mishaps.[9]


            In my most stressful moments, the fear of making a mistake would freeze me up and shut me down.  I had to learn how to push through the nervousness of messing up.  One of the most effective tools I developed to cope with this uncertainty was a simple question:


            What is the worst that can happen?


            Nine times out of ten, the answer to the question was: “nothing of any consequence.”  Even the most serious outcomes I could imagine--like getting fired from a job--were never life-threatening.  Realistically, the chances were that I wouldn’t get fired for making a single mistake at work, but even if I did, I would remind myself: so what?  I would find another job.  I would get unemployment in the meantime.  Would I have to change my spending habits in the to cover for a lack of income?  Sure, but I could manage that.  And honestly, if my work was causing me that much stress to begin with, it might be a change for the better.


            Few things are worth making yourself sick over, and that means mentally as well as physically.  When you’re drowning in anxiety, remind yourself of what is at stake for you.  Unless someone’s life is in danger, meeting that deadline isn’t as important preserving your mental health.


Conquering Chaos


            Stress comes in many forms, and relief from it is just as varied.  Long-term stress reducers like meditation and positive thinking are great tools to help prevent anxiety, but sometimes an attack comes out of nowhere and needs to be dealt with immediately.  I truly hope that some of the strategies detailed here will help you take back control when panic makes your situation look uncontrollable.

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