Anxiety, worry, and fear are emotional responses expressing internal distress. In this article, we will discuss three ways you can practice emotional regulation to help you calm down in the midst of anxiety, fear, or distress.The part of our brain which signals our body to be on alert, releasing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and activating the sympathetic response (Fight, Flight, or Freeze) of our autonomic nervous system is called the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for the perception of emotions such as anger, fear and sadness, as well as controlling aggression.
It’s the processing center hooked up to receive incoming messages from our senses and internal organs. The amygdala’s functioning can aid us in severe danger from a physical threat, and works together with our brain’s frontal lobes, which help us think through rational action and plan, but could hinder functioning when undergoing psychological threats like stress.
“When stress makes you feel strong anger, aggression, or fear, the fight-or-flight response is activated. It often results in a sudden, illogical, and irrational overreaction to the situation. . . . It happens when a situation causes your amygdala to hijack control of your response to stress. The amygdala disables the frontal lobes and activates the fight-or-flight response.” (https://www.healthline.com/health/stress/amygdala-hijack)
A hijacked or overactive amygdala can also create relational challenges when anxiety, worry, fear, or anger impair emotional closeness with others.
Three Practices to Help You Calm Down
This article will focus on three practices that when engaged help our body (including our amygdala) to calm down, be soothed, re-engage thoughtful reasoning, and enhance our connections to others and to God.
1. Diaphragmatic Breathing
Breathing deeply and slowly from the diaphragm stimulates the vagus nerve running up the core of our body, which then calms the amygdala, engaging a parasympathetic response to our central nervous system, soothing, slowing respiration, and decreasing heart rates.
An easy way to ensure diaphragmatic breathing is to put a hand on one’s stomach and when inhaling through the nose, notice that one’s hand moves away from the body, then exhale through the mouth with a longer, smooth breath.
A good suggested rhythm for deep breathing is five seconds for inhaling, holding for five seconds and exhaling for five seconds. The resulting peace can be part of what it means for followers of Christ to experience and “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body” (Colossians 3:15). Inner peace issues into relationships with others because we then are more likely to be attuned and present to others.
2. Focused Thinking/Meditation
Meditation is focused thinking which soothes. Many have found that meditating on Scripture has a calming effect on them when anxious. Researchers have taken brain scans of subjects as they meditate and observed that the right hemisphere of the brain is calmed neurologically, resulting in being soothed. (https://news.wisc.edu/meditation-affects-brain-networks-differently-in-long-term-meditators-and-novices/)
I’ve found that meditating on certain parts of God’s Word have helped me to experience peace, calm, and soothing, such as 1 Peter 5:6-7: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him because he cares for you.”
Many of my clients have found it helpful to select a few verses of Scripture, writing them out on a card, keeping them posted or close at hand, or committing them to memory in order to use in times of distress. Meditating on God’s Word helps us to connect with Him and can free and focus us on His perspective for my relationships and others.
Like meditation, prayer has been demonstrated via brain scans to calm the right brain hemisphere and create the same effect of calming subjects who have been distressed.
Prayer triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps our bodies to “rest and digest.” Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
The act of crying out to God in our distress triggers physiological processes that bring release of anxiety, peace to our hearts, clarity about what we need, and openness to understanding the other with whom we had been in relational distress.
Christian Counseling for Anxiety ReliefScience, as it is the observation of physically measurable data, affirms practices that people of faith have engaged in throughout human history. Christian counseling can also affirm these practices, not just because they are physiologically effective, but enhancing to one’s relationship with God and others.
Both anxiety and anger can be regulated when we acknowledge those emotions, engage in self-soothing practices, and identify corresponding relational needs paired with these emotions. When emotions are calmed, the complex functions of our pre-frontal cortex are facilitated, and our interactions with others more likely tend toward patience, kindness, and compassion.
If you are interested in healthy emotional regulation and its effect on relationships, and how to cultivate those relationships in line with biblical values, feel free to contact me or one of my colleagues.
“De-Stressing”, Courtesy of Elijah Hiett, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Meditating”, Courtesy of Ben Blennerhassett, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hope,” courtesy of Matese Fields, unsplash.com, CC0 License “Praying”, Courtesy of Marquise Kamanke, Unsplash.com, CC0 License