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Stressed to the max? Try these four proven techniques to calm your mind down instantly—plus, experts share how to train your brain to keep stress at bay in the long term.
Stress is one of the most natural parts of being human—at its core, our stress response aims to keep us alive. “Hundreds of years ago when we’d encounter a threat, we were better able to survive if we could activate [the stress response],” says Erin K. Engle, PhD, a psychologist with NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “An increase in blood pressure and heart rate, and slowing of digestive processes translated into more energy that could be used to escape and survive.”
Today, that biological function remains the same—but the nature of the threat is quite different. According to 2022 research published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, the “myriad of challenges pushing people beyond their limit” has turned stress into the “largest public health crisis of the century.”
If that’s not news to you, here’s a more hopeful take: Research is increasingly showing that when we learn how to relax our mind, we can gain control over this automatic fight-or-flight response—and, like our ancestors did, we can make our stress a resource that empowers us to deal.
How does a stressed mind affect our health?
At manageable levels, stress can be a good thing—it challenges motivation, efficiency, and creativity, Dr. Engle says. But enduring continuous, unrelenting stress is associated with many of the leading causes of premature death, she explains, such as heart disease, hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and a poorly functioning immune system.
Chronic stress takes a toll on our system emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally, too. Long-term stress contributes to feelings like despair, loss of control, disinterest, guilt, anger, trouble sleeping, poor decision-making, trouble concentrating, and changes in appetite and sex drive—just to name a few. This is why over time, stress is associated with burnout and a wide range of psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and depression, says Jacques Jospitre, Jr., MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and co-founder of SOHOMD.
How can I relax my stressed mind fast?
Back in the 1960s, a Harvard University doctor named Herbert Benson discovered the body’s relaxation response is an avenue to reduce stress, actually changing the body’s physical and emotional reaction to its effects, Dr. Engle says.
She points to four specific relaxation techniques, including:
Diaphragmatic Breathing: “Focus on controlled, relaxing breathing, slowing your heart rate, or [focusing on] different physical sensations.”
Progressive muscle relaxation: “Focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group.”
Visualization: “Form mental images to take a visual journey to a peaceful, calming place or situation.”
Autogenic Relaxation: “Create a mental state of relaxed concentration by concentrating on visualizing warmth and heaviness in your limbs and having smooth and rhythmic breathing.”
Can you train your brain to relax?
“The brain is capable of neuroplasticity, meaning it has the ability to reorganize itself, create neural pathways, and expand existing neural networks,” Dr. Engle says. So, on the one hand, exposure to chronic stress is known to strengthen the part of our brain involved in threat detection—making it more and more easily triggered. But there’s evidence that the brain can also learn from and adapt to stress management practices. “By using the body’s natural relaxation response or shifting thought patterns, we can disrupt familiar patterns and support new ways of coping—including how we think about a stressor and respond [to it],” she says, like acknowledging a stressor without automatically reacting to it.
Still, while calming your mind in anxious moments is a powerful way to retrain your stress response, it’s just a part of the bigger picture. “Taking preventative steps [to manage stress] is key,” Dr. Jospitre says. “After all, the best way to handle stress in the long-term is to experience less of it in the first place.”
That means focusing on lifestyle factors like exercise, meditation, adequate sleep, a healthy diet, and regular hydration—all of which help prepare your body and mind to be more resilient in the face of stress. “Practicing self-care is a requirement, not a luxury,” adds Dr. Engle. Whether your self-care means going for walks, journaling, spending time with friends, or whatever else makes you feel good, these daily practices help buffer against stress, she says. Planning ahead and staying organized is essential to “schedule around those things that really make your heart sing,” Dr. Jospitre says, while “[helping] you gain a sense of control over your life.”
Changing thought patterns is a crucial part of taming an overreactive stress response, too. This means replacing harmful or extreme patterns of negative self-talk with nonjudgemental thinking and adopting more self-compassion when we’re stressed, Dr. Engle says. “These efforts support retraining the brain or catching unhelpful thought patterns that exacerbate the intensity of stress and related emotions, and replacing them with more adaptive ways of thinking, or by learning to avoid the triggers for stress that provoke negative emotional reactions.”
Erin K. Engle, PhD, a psychologist with New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center
Jacques Jospitre, Jr., MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and co-founder of SOHOMD
Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine: "In Times of Adversity: A Neuroscience Perspective on Stress, Health, and Implications for Society Post-pandemic"