12+ Ways to Calm Down (when upset, overwhelmed and stressed out)

Sometimes it all seems like too much. Whether this happens to you once in a while or almost every day at some point, it can be very helpful to have some tried and true ways to calm yourself down. Here are a few, including a very  secret (until now!) one that I use.


1.     Take 10 slow, deep breaths. Allow those breaths to reach all the way down into your gut (diaphragm) area. Put your hand right there –that place that if someone were to punch you they’d knock the wind out of you— and feel your hand rise with every inhale, and fall with every exhale. Do that for 10 breaths.

2.     Invite your thoughts to hitch a ride on your breathing, as if your breathing were a wave, or a train, or a car, or an [insert your favorite thing that moves that you can hitch a ride on]. Give your thoughts a place to rest, a place to put their feet up, and enjoy the ride.

3.     Notice your thoughts AS thoughts rather than hooking into or engaging their content and story and following them unconsciously down that same old same old rabbit hole again. That worry about ___? Hello, Thought. That urgent push to do something about ___ right this very second now? And hello to you, too, Thought. That regret about how you didn’t ____? Ah, there there, dear Thought. That looming and quickly approaching deadline for ___? I see you, Thought. If ___ really is something you need to address, it (and you!) will be much better off for you having calmed yourself down.

4.     Don’t take your thoughts personally. Did you make that thought cross your mind? No. Neither can you make that thought disappear. Thoughts come, thoughts go. Don’t take them personally. Notice them as thoughts. Let them come and let them go. If you have trouble not taking them personally, imagine your thoughts running around in a big field somewhere. My thoughts, when I do this, look like wild horses. They can run around but I don’t have to run around in the field with them. I like to sit on that bench there under the big tree while they do their thing, thankyouverymuch.

5.    When there is a thought or a family of thoughts that has got you by the throat and is not letting you sleep or breathe or enjoy your otherwise good life, dammit!, write the stressful thought down on paper and practice meeting it with inquiry and understanding. “My boss is a jerk.” “My child should get off her iPad.” “He doesn’t understand me.” “My children should call me.” “It’s too late.” “If I don’t have a child, my life has no purpose.” What’s your stressful thought? Write it down. (My favorite way to practice inquiry on stressful thoughts is called The Work of Byron Katie. Google it!)

6.     Close your eyes, breathe and take a moment to notice where in your body you sense or feel the upset. Is it heavy in your chest? Is it a lump in your gut? Is it thick in your throat? Is it fuzzy behind your eyes? Is it a pressure in your temples? Put your hand there and say, in your own way, I see you there, I see you. And breathe.

7.     Feel the support of the ground under you. During overwhelm and upset it can feel like our mind is a kite on a flimsy thread in a windstorm. Rather than being that precarious kite, turn your awareness toward the ground under the feet of the person holding the kite. Stand or sit tall and strong like a mountain and breathe into that ground. The ground never went away, you just forgot it was there. Let the ground support you.

8.     Notice the pull of gravity. As long as we live upon and call this dear planet Earth our home, we get to enjoy the force of gravity that keeps us from floating up up and away. The force of gravity is such a part of our reality, we GET to take it for granted. Take a moment to appreciate that there is always this force pulling you back to earth, back to home, back to ground, back to body. The pull of gravity toward ground is with you whether you notice it or not (whew!) — calm comes in noticing it.

9.     Practice being sensual. Turn your awareness toward your physical body. Take a moment to touch, to swallow, to yawn, to smell, to taste, to hear…and notice. Our senses are something else we get to take for granted. Take a moment to notice the world through your body’s senses and allow your thoughts to come and rest in your body.

10.     Let your body work up a sweat doing something physical. Allow the muscle of your heart to pump up its volume while you work it for 20 minutes. Maybe you’ll dork dance in the kitchen, maybe you’ll walk around the block several times, maybe you’ll run, maybe you’ll bike to the store instead of driving, maybe you’ll put on your favorite music and jump up and down… Work up a sweat, shake up the thoughts and let the ones that no longer serve (if ever they did) float away. Thought? What thought?!

11.  Practice the art of not being impressed by your thoughts. Sometimes a very juicy thought comes along, a thought that is really hard not to lasso in and call your very own. Practice the art of noticing and not being impressed by your thoughts, no matter how juicy or enticing. That thought about that same old thing that always bothers you? Hello there. No biggie.

12.  Bring to mind the calmest and most loving person, place or thing you know. Allow yourself, in your mind’s eye, to sit in this person’s, place’s, or thing’s presence with your upset. What are the qualities of this calm person, place or thing? Go there, be there, rest there. How are they (how is it) with your upset? By imagining it, you are practicing it.

I’m about to tell you something very secret: there is an old-timey village in the mountains that I sometimes go to in my mind’s eye when I’m very upset and it all feels too much. In this village there is a group of wise old women — their laps are wide, they have chin hairs and don’t care, their eyes are fierce and ever so kind at once, and they have all the patience and wisdom (from eons of experience) in the world. They are never in a hurry. Sometimes they do a drumming and dancing ritual around me, sometimes they go off and concoct or cook me a magical brothy thing or potion for what ails me, sometimes they chant sounds in an ancient language to put me to sleep, and sometimes they hold me while I cry. They see me; they honor me; and they are never, ever upset by my upset.

13.    Practice the tenderest kindness imaginable toward yourself today and give that kindness a physical expression. Maybe you’ll put your hand on your heart or reach your arms around you and squeeze the remarkable being that is you. Notice you. Even and especially when you are at your most upset, anxious and stressed, take a moment to notice how you are showing up and doing the best you can. Hooray! I, for one, am so happy there are people like YOU in the world.

2 things to help you relax (almost anywhere!)

“How would you like to feel when you leave here today?”

Over the years I’ve heard my question answered in many ways but there is one intention that is, by far, the one that clients say the most:


What a worthy intention! When we are relaxed, hard things somehow become softer, easier. Tight places become roomier. Annoying things feel more neutral, and maybe even, humorous.

Being relaxed allows for seemingly impossible things to shift and settle into something new, something which tightness and anxiety may not have allowed us to see before. Relaxing clears space for the next and best thing to happCrazy-Cat-Sleeping-Positionsen unimpeded; seen that way, relaxing makes better things possible.

I’m certainly not one to tell people who are feeling anxious or tense to “just relax” — it’s annoying, to say the least, and a bit insulting, too. After all, you’re smart and you do your best, and if it were so easy, I’m sure you would have already.  But I love helping people relax, and today I want to tell you two things that make relaxing much more likely to happen:

1. Acknowledgement

Think of acknowledgment as saying hello to what is there, even when (or especially!) when what is there for you is unpleasant or hard. It’s a nod of recognition, a way of letting the unpleasantness or tightness know that you see it. It’s a little bow of respect. You may not like it, and you may wish it were different than it is but you are saying, nonetheless: “I notice you. Hello.”

Tension, anxiety or whatever word best describes what is hard for you, deserves your noticing and respect. After all, it is there for some good reason. Maybe it is trying to protect you. (Letting you know, for example, not to take on anything else.) Maybe it wants you to remember that “no” is a valid answer needing no further explanation. Maybe your body —through tightness and anxiety— is trying to express something that is off (like how you keep smiling and pretending everything is fine when it isn’t), or out of balance (like when you sit for hours on end, not letting your body get movement or fresh air).

Our bodies hold a wealth of wisdom and I love helping my clients learn to listen to their bodies, but simply acknowledging what is there for you right now and saying hello to that is always a good place to start.

2. Support

It’s hard to relax when we don’t feel supported.

Imagine you’re entering a room and are looking for a place to sit and the only chair available looks kind of sketchy. You aren’t sure it will support you. If you sit down at all, you’d probably do so very tentatively, holding back some of your weight and then only letting go a little bit at a time until you know that the chair is stable and strong enough.

The support of the ground or of the furniture we sit upon is something we often get to take for granted. Thankfully, most chairs we go to sit in do support us.

Habitually tense and contracted places in your body can become so accustomed to tightness that even when your body is fully supported and by all accounts could be resting, those places may have a hard time letting go. If your body remains on high alert and tight when you would love to be resting, take it as a signal to pause and notice the support that is already there for you. Especially notice the support right under and around the place of tightness. And then, after you have said your “hello I see you there,” take a conscious and deep breath and as you exhale, notice if there is any softening, any relaxing, that is ready to happen.

Yes, it’s hard to relax when you don’t feel supported, but feeling supported can often be as close and as possible as an intention to give a nod of acknowledgment followed by a conscious noticing of the support that is there… it’s worth pointing out that the support is there whether you notice it or not; the magic, however, in this matter of relaxing, is in noticing.

Go ahead. Next time you have a hard time relaxing, practice saying hello, notice the support that’s there, and on your next exhale, see what happens. Maybe, like me, you will hear the ground saying to you:

“It’s OK. I’ve got your back.”

A case for crying: Reflections on homesickness, birthdays, and going back for parts that got left behind

A case for crying: Reflections on homesickness, birthdays, and going back for parts that got left behind

Dear Ones,

For me, birthdays are always a time for thinking back, and in the last years when I have thought back on other birthdays the needle invariably has settled around the memory of one birthday in particular… There is something incomplete, unfinished about that one. Probably me-then is still needing something. This here is me-now, years later, going back for her…

Three weeks shy of my twelfth birthday found my parents standing on the roof of the airport in Chile waving goodbye to my brother and me as we set off for Quito, Ecuador to board at a school dedicated to educating (and keeping in line!) the children of missionaries, which we were. My youngest two siblings remained in Chile.

As the oldest, I had always done my fair share of taking charge and taking care of things I thought needed caring for, tending to, or fixing. Some would call that flair for care “bossy,” but isn’t there always more to those things than what an easy label implies? “Besides, what’s so wrong with bossy?,” I say with a hand on my hip: I’m a helluva good at knowing what’s missing, what’s broken and what needs fixing. I can look at something and see what’s broke before you even register what the thing itself is. Anyway, where was I? Ahh yes…

When Karl and I boarded that plane on that 22nd day of January 1980, the mothering and care I knew so well to extend to others served me not one bit: I had not the first clue about directing my superpower onto my own dear self. Also, Karl who would be living in a separate wing in the dorm from me, understandably wanted nothing of a barely-older-than-he sister taking care of or fighting any battles for him thankyouverymuch.

On the plane I cried and cried, quietly, mind you, as secretly as possible, but still. I would cry plenty more at school also, but always —if it could be helped— alone and, I hoped, out of sight and sound of anyone. Apparently I believed there was something wrong with crying and with a person who cried. Oh dear. Oh, dear…

The dawn of my very first morning at school found me awake earlier than my roommate and rummaging as quietly as I could —sense a pattern here?— for a notebook and pen. That was the day I began writing letters as if my life depended on it. I’m sure my letters home contained agonizingly detailed accounts of this that and the other and not much mention of how I felt. I wrote almost every day but I don’t think I ever fessed up to crying and how homesick I was for Chile other than the usual sign off of “I miss you tons” or “I love you.” If you read between the lines, though, it was there: a homesickness so constant it would cry me to sleep most nights, while I tried, as best I could, to keep it quiet and secret.

Year before last when I met the man I would fall in love with, one day he saw me crying. I let him see me and it didn’t scare him. It did not make him turn away. It did not even make him try to make me stop crying. He just sat with me while I cried. Later, I forget if that day or another, he would say to me: “You are the quietest cryer I have ever met. How come you don’t make noise when you cry?” That was the day it started dawning on me that maybe I did not have to cry alone and keep it a secret. I had a lot of things to cry about and he wanted to be with me while I cried. (Wait, what?!) And sometimes he even cried with me.

I’m not sure when or why I picked up the belief that crying is shameful, but I had. Back when I was 12 I must have thought: Whatever would people think if they found out I was so homesick? Me-now replies: That I was homesick?

“Be strong,” people say. All the time people say that. Have you noticed?

Thing is, there is a lot to cry about and the more we try not to cry when something in us wants to, the more brittle and hard we become. And brittle and hard is not actually strong anyway! Brittle and hard takes a toll, especially on the body. I know. I know from my own body’s experience and from the bodies I touch every day. Brittle and hard is much more likely to be injured. Soft and supple is flexible and bendy, giving here, taking there and allowing for the support of the ground and the support all around us, rather than trying to keep it all in and hidden and pretending all is fine when it isn’t. The body really does not when we pretend things are different than they actually are.

I turned 12 in the days before e-mail, when snail mail letters —especially the ones that had to cross a border or two— took what seemed like forever, which is exactly how long it took letter #1 from home to arrive at school. In actuality it was probably somewhere between one and three weeks —like I said, forever. I turned 12 also in the days of outrageously expensive phone calls, especially international ones, and especially on my parent’s missionary “allowance.” But on the morning of February 10 I was woken up by a knock at my door and the dorm-father’s voice saying, “Heidi, there’s a phone call for you.” It was my mom and dad calling to wish me, their oldest daughter, a happy birthday, singing it to me, I’m sure, followed by three minutes in which four of us —for bleary-eyed Karl had joined us by then— would exchange the quickest of quick I-don’t-know-whats. To this day, I am not a fan of talking on the phone but I remember not knowing what or how to say anything, certainly not as fast as I knew I needed to; all I could see in my mind’s eye was a picture of the place called home where my parents were, surely, huddled around the one and only, black, rotary-dial, rope-chord phone in the living room in the house where I wasn’t in Temuco, Chile. And anyway, what can be said in 3 minutes?

“Three minutes is just not enough.” I said this once to a friend as I recalled this birthday memory. And she, playful and wise soul that she is, replied: “Wouldn’t that be interesting to test?”

I was a bit puzzled but said, “Sure.” And then she proceeded to tell me, for 3 minutes, all the things she loved, including, yes, the things she loved about me.

Three minutes. What can be said in 3 minutes?

Today, in honor of me-then who, in writing this I go back for, and in honor of all of us who cry or want to cry or can’t cry or are embarrassed to cry, and in honor of anyone with a homesickness or a longing for something which they may not even have words for, in honor of us all: What can be noticed and said in 3 minutes? Set a timer. Ready, set, PLAY!

Maybe you’ll write it down. Maybe you’ll even put it in a letter to someone: What do you hear? What do you see? What do you sense? What do you remember? What’s it like around you? What’s it like inside you? What feels good? What feels OK, so OK even that you get to take it for granted? What feels hard? What makes you cry? What do you miss?

Ahh, the presence of what’s missing…the space left by what’s not here… But, funny, that! Because the moment we notice that we miss something, aren’t we then, in the noticing, experiencing it ever so intensely? And in some way then isn’t what is missing even more present?

Maybe missing is just be another word for love.

Missing you. Wishing you were here… Oh wait–!


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