As a highly sensitive person (as defined by Elaine Aron in her bestseller The Highly Sensitive Person), I’m easily overwhelmed or over-aroused. As such, I am always looking for ways to calm down. Here are some techniques I have compiled over the years. Some of them I picked up in Aron’s book, some as part of the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program I participated in, and others in Lauren Brukner’s fantastic book The Kids’ Guide to Staying Awesome and in Control (but they work for adults, too).
1. Get to the Pressure Point With Hand Massage
I learned this one in both the MBSR program and in Brukner’s book. What’s great about it is that you can do it while attending a lecture, listening to your kids fight, or sitting at your desk working. No one will notice. Simply use the thumb of one hand and press around the palm of the other hand. It’s very soothing.
2. Relieve Stress and Ground Yourself With a Palm Push
By pushing your palms together and holding for 5 to 10 seconds, you give your body “proprioceptive input,” according to Brukner, which “lets your body know where it is in space.” I like this one because it reminds me of tree position in yoga, which is the last of the standing series postures in Bikram yoga. The palm push is like a mini, portable tree position I can pull out anytime to calm down.
3. Combat Stressful Situations by Closing Your Eyes
Aron says that 80 percent of sensory stimulation comes in through the eyes, so shutting them every now and then gives your brain a much-needed break. She also says that she has found that highly sensitive persons do better if they can stay in bed with their eyes closed for nine hours. We don’t have to be sleeping. Just lying in bed with our eyes closed allows for some chill time that we need before being bombarded with stimulation.
4. Sigh to Help Yourself Be Fully Present in the Moment
During the MBSR class, we would take a few mindful sighs between transitioning from one person speaking to another. You breathe in to a count of five through your mouth, and then you let out a very loud sigh, the sound you hear your teenager make. I was always amazed at how powerful those small sighs were to adjust my energy level and focus.
5. Do This Monkey Stretch to Release Tension
In this exercise, you bring your hands (arms extended) in front of you, then bring the arms down. Then you bring your arms (still extended) to your side, and then down. Finally you bring your arms all the way past your head and then swoop down, with your head dangling between your knees, and you hang out there for a second. This exercise is extremely effective at releasing the tension we hold in different parts of our body.
6. Give Yourself a 10-Second Hug to Boost Your Mood
Did you know that a 10-second hug a day can change biochemical and physiological forces in your body that can lower the risk of heart disease, combat stress, fight fatigue, boost your immune system, and ease depression? You can begin by giving yourself a hug. By squeezing your belly and back at the same time, you are again giving yourself proprioceptive input (letting your body know where you are in space), says Brukner, which can help stabilize you.
7. Stabilize Yourself With a Five-Second Wall Push
The wall push is especially beneficial for people with sensory integration issues. You simply push against the wall with flat palms and feet planted on the floor for 5 to 10 seconds. If you’ve ever experienced an earthquake, you can appreciate why this gesture is calming — placing the weight of our body against a solid, immobile surface and feeling the pull of gravity is stabilizing, even on a subconscious level.
8. Gain Power and Calm With a Superman Pose
If you do Bikram yoga, the Superman pose is basically the full Locust position (airplane position), except the arms and the hands are stretched out in front of you, not to the sides. You lie on your belly on the floor and extend your arms in front of you. At the same time, you extend your legs behind you and hold them straight out. Hold that pose for 10 seconds. It’s a great exercise if you are groggy, overexcited, distracted, or antsy.
9. Shake It Off and You’ll Free Yourself From Fear
Did you know that animals relieve their stress by shaking? Lots of animals like antelopes shake off their fear after being frozen in panic to escape a predator. In the MBSR program, we practiced shaking for about 15 minutes at a time. I can’t say it looked all that pretty, but neurologically, I do believe it was beneficial.
10. Inhale Deeply for a Relaxing Bubble Breath
My favorite exercise in Brukner’s book is the Bubble Breath, because it is so simple and calming. Here’s how to do it:
- Breathe in for five seconds, out for five seconds.
- Imagine you have a wand with a bubble on it. When you breathe out, be careful not to pop the bubble.
- Place one flat palm on your heart, one flat palm on your belly.
- Breathe in through your nose and hold your breath for five seconds.
- Breathe out a large “bubble” through pursed lips, blow out for five seconds.
11. Pour a Few Drops of Lavender Essential Oil
There are different theories as how and why lavender oil calms you down. Some scientists believe that lavender stimulates the activity of brain cells in the amygdala (fear center) similar to the way some sedatives work. Others think molecules from essential oils interact in the blood with enzymes and hormones. Research backs its soothing results. A study published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine measured the responses of 17 cancer hospice patients to humidified essential lavender oil aromatherapy. Results reflected a positive change in blood pressure and pulse, pain, anxiety, depression, and sense of well-being. I sometimes use lavender oil to sleep better.
12. Hydrate With Water and Meditate on Water
During the workday, I will often walk a block over to a creek and follow the subtle current with my eyes. Maybe it is because as infants we emerged from water that it has the power to soothe. “Water helps in many ways,” writes Aron. “When overaroused, keep drinking it — a big glass of it once an hour. Walk beside some water, look at it, listen to it. Get into some if you can, for a bath or a swim. Hot tubs and hot springs are popular for good reasons.”
13. Music Therapy Heals the Body, Mind, and Soul
From the earliest days of civilization, music has been used to heal the body and soul, and to express what is difficult to articulate in words. Victor Hugo once said, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” Therapists have tapped into the healing power of creative lyrics and the composition of notes to design music therapy programs for persons struggling with depression.
14. Reduce Anxiety With the Four-Square Breathing Exercise
A final breathing exercise to try is the “Four Square,” which I learned years ago to reduce anxiety:
- Breathe in slowly to a count of four.
- Hold the breath for a count of four.
- Exhale slowly through pursed lips to a count of four.
- Rest for a count of four (without taking any breaths).
- Take two normal breaths.
- Start over again with number one.