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Becoming Calm: The Ultimate Guide to Overcome Anxiety, Stress & Overwhelm
We are living through a global stress epidemic. Millions of us worldwide suffer from stress-related diseases and disorders. From income inequality and systemic disadvantage, to natural disasters and a climate emergency; how could we not be anxious?!
In this environment, becoming calm can feel beyond our reach. And yet overcoming stress, anxiety and overwhelm has never been more crucial.
In order to weather the storm of an uncertain world, we need resilience.
And the bedrock of resilience? Is learning to become (and stay) calm.
In this post we’ll be taking a deep dive into what it takes to become calm.
- why overcoming anxiety can feel so difficult
- the biology of stress
- why your capacity to manage stress matters
- how calm is a learned skill
- how & why trauma relates to anxiety
- why it's possible to overcome anxiety
- how you can overcome anxiety, stress and overwhelm with ease
- how to regulate a dysregulated nervous system
- why becoming calm matters
- plus some extra resources to inspire your journey
You may want to bookmark this post so you can return to it again and again. We will try to cover as much ground as possible, but always remember our posts can never substitute professional help or medical advice.
If you need extra support to heal from deep anxiety, trauma, grief or illness: we recommend finding a trauma-informed therapist who can help. They will be able to create a safe space for you and address your personal, particular situation.
Let’s dive in.
Why is Becoming Calm So Difficult?
In a word? Dysregulation.
This one word will help you understand so much about your body and mind. With this one word, you will realise that you are not wrong or broken.
You are not an anxious wreck. You are not lazy. Your feelings of overwhelm are not your fault. And understanding dysregulation will help you learn exactly how to overcome anxiety.
So what is dysregulation and why does it matter?
Dysregulation is the “chronic activation of the stress response system”.
Let’s break that down.
The Biology of Stress & Anxiety
Your body and brain contain a glorious network of electricity.
Your nervous system. And your nervous system is what responds to stress.
From your spinal cord to your brain, and with nerves branching out into every part of your body: this network translates sensory input, stress and emotions into energy.
Your nervous system has two components. The sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
As Harvard Medical School puts it:
The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It provides the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It calms the body down after the danger has passed.
A healthy nervous system manages or ‘regulates’ this energy well. It balances incoming stimulation with a complementary release of energy.
If you perceive a threat, your body gives you a burst of stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, so you can survive.
Once the danger has passed, your body releases soothing hormones, like oxytocin and acetylcholine to calm you down.
Therefore, a regulated nervous system can easily shift from stress to calm.
Which means a dysregulated nervous system is one that has been inundated by stress and trauma. It gets ‘stuck’ in hypervigilance, anxiety, and overwhelm. Over time, chronic dysregulation leads to burnout and exhaustion.
So why is dysregulation so important to understand?
Because your stress responses are biological responses. They are instinctive. They are evolutionarily adaptive survival mechanisms.
And this is why your anxiety and overwhelm are not your fault. Your body is responding exactly the way it should in the face of stress.
Why Your Capacity To Manage Stress Matters
Your capacity to manage stress is called a ‘window of tolerance’. This window is your optimal state of nervous system regulation.
Within this window you feel relaxed yet alert, engaged and secure.
There may be events throughout the day that take you to your edge of tolerance, but using different strategies, you’ll be able to soothe your nervous system and stay within your window.
You naturally respond to the ebb and flow of life.
But when stress pushes you beyond your window of tolerance, you become dysregulated.
These dysregulated responses to stress are sometimes called the 4 F’s of Fear
- Fight - become combative, hostile or argumentative
- Flight - run, escape, avoid, or withdraw
- Fawn - become overly friendly, cooperative or submissive
- Freeze - disassociate, numb or shut down
These responses are ways you adapted to survive threats and danger. Which means dysregulation is different for everyone. It could look like:
- a racing heart
- bursting into tears
- a panic attack
- or even becoming overly friendly (especially during conflict)
If dysregulation continues to increase, your nervous system can become completely flooded and you could feel
- withdrawn, or
Types of Stress Responses
Your capacity to manage stress may be higher or lower than someone else. What one person finds mildly annoying may be completely overwhelming to others. Everyone’s window of tolerance is different.
This is because regulation of the nervous system is a spectrum. Regulation isn’t an on/off switch. It’s more like a continuum from highly dysregulated to highly regulated.
Also, it's difficult to pinpoint exactly when someone’s system will move from regulated to dysregulated.
You may have a big deadline at work, followed by a traffic jam on the way home, be rushing to get dinner on the table, and still feel regulated. Or a similar situation may entirely overwhelm you, especially if you’re a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).
Because Highly Sensitive People process information deeply, they are more susceptible to dysregulation and flooding or ‘HSP overwhelm’.
That’s ok. We are all unique and the way we process stress is extremely individual.
So if dysregulation is the foundation of chronic stress, anxiety and overwhelm, it means that regulation is the key to wellbeing.
To overcome anxiety, you need to help your nervous system become more regulated.
Calm Is A Learned Skill
Calm is a function of the parasympathetic nervous system. And activating this calm is a learned skill, called self-regulation.
Professors in social work and education from Lakehead University describe self-regulation like this:
“Successful self-regulation is not something we are born with; rather, it develops slowly throughout childhood and into the mid-twenties as parts of the brain fully develop and connect.”
When a child is born, they are hardwired to survive. But babies are extremely vulnerable, therefore they are very sensitive to threats.
Which is why babies cry. They cry because they have very little control over their own nervous system. And they cry to get their needs met, and to receive feelings of safety and reassurance from a kind and reliable caregiver.
As the caregiver soothes the baby, they help the infant's nervous system regulate. This is called co-regulation.
Over time, with consistent co-regulation, a child will grow up learning to self-soothe or self-regulate.
However, we can have trouble regulating our own nervous systems if we haven’t been shown how to.
Even if you had loving parents and a stable home environment, you may not have been given successful self-regulation skills. Our parents are fallible human beings. They may not have always been present and attentive. They also may have struggled to self-regulate themselves.
And this lack of co-regulation can be traumatic to an infant or child.
How Trauma Relates to Anxiety (and why any trauma matters)
When we think of trauma, we usually think of the big things. War, violence, abuse or neglect.
Trauma can also be bullying, discrimination, oppression or persecution. Systems of oppression are traumatising for all marginalised groups, especially Black people, Indigenous or First Nations people, and People Of Colour (BIPOC).
Survivors of big trauma need tremendous compassion and deep support for the horrific and debilitating events they have endured.
However, trauma can also be an accumulation of smaller overwhelming events. It could come in the form of the loss of a loved one, financial stress, medical intervention or chronic illness.
But trauma isn’t about the event itself: it’s about how your body processed it.
Trauma is a fundamental feeling of threat. A perceived lack of safety. It is anything that overwhelms your ability to cope. And there’s a lot that can overwhelm a child.
Remember, trauma is always about the impact, rather than the event itself.
And in the face of overwhelm, without consistent soothing from a regulated caregiver, a child will grow up with a model of the world that is unsafe, inconsistent and uncertain.
This stress can lead to chronic dysregulation. As an adult, chronic dysregulation often results in anxiety, c-PTSD, attachment issues and depression.
Or perhaps your trauma came later in life.
You may have had successful self-regulation skills when you were younger, but overwhelming life events led to the build up of chronic dysregulation.
However, there is hope!
Yes, You Can Overcome Anxiety
If you're struggling with anxiety, get stressed easily or find it hard to calm down, you may have a narrow window of tolerance. And in order to become calm, you need widen your window of tolerance. But here's the crucial part...
You don't need to increase your capacity for stress. You need to deepen your capacity for calm.
Because there's two ways to open a window, right? You can take it higher, or lower.
And honestly? Deepening your capacity for calm is much more pleasurable.
Even if you haven’t been modelled calm effectively as a child, you can teach it to yourself. You can learn the ability to self-regulate by experiencing calm.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change the structure of its neural network. Your brain can form new neural pathways, generate new neurons, and even rearrange or remove existing connections. In other words, neuroplasticity is your ability to change.
Because of neuroplasticity, your brain and nervous system are highly adaptable. Which means you can improve your emotional self-regulation over time.
You can learn to become calm.
And an easy way to become calm? Is with meditones.
How To Overcome Anxiety With Ease
Meditones® are both powerful and gentle. In fact, they’re the most transformational tool that is also the easiest to use.
Meditones are precisely tuned frequencies of sound. When these frequencies are combined, they create a humming vibration. Scientists call them ‘binaural beats’.
Normally sound is processed in the part of the brain called the auditory cortex. However, when you listen to this vibration with headphones, the brain responds in a remarkable way.
The left and right hemispheres of the brain work in unison to create calm brain waves - similar to ones you produce during relaxation and sleep. Which makes meditones the perfect antidote to stress, anxiety and overwhelm.
By creating calm brain waves with meditones, you naturally soothe your nervous system and become calm. Without having to do a thing. It’s effortless.
When you use meditones, you expose your brain to calm, focused states of consciousness. But they don’t just work in the moment. They also have long term effects.
The Long Term Benefits Of Meditones
There’s a saying in neuroscience “Neurons that fire together, wire together”.
Imagine your brain as a large field of tall grass. There are a few different pathways across the field. Some are well worn paths, others are slightly overgrown, and there are large patches of thick, impenetrable grass.
The easiest solution to cross the field is to choose the well worn path.
The same is true for your brain. It loves efficiency. So it's much easier for the brain to choose a pathway that is thick and strong.
Just like the well worn path through a field of tall grass, your neural pathways become thicker through repetition.
And the more you form calm neural pathways, the more your brain naturally chooses calm responses instead.
Which means, the more you use meditones, the stronger those neural pathways become. Making it easier to become and stay calm.
How To Regulate A Dysregulated Nervous System
Whilst meditones are an easy solution to calm, they are just one tool. Ideally, you need a whole toolbox.
Anything that will help you soothe your nervous system and slow down will help you become calm.These practices are the bedrock of restful self care.
And just like the field of grass analogy above, the more you can regularly experience calm - the easier it is to stay calm more often.
You could try:
- Diaphragmatic or belly breathing
- A weighted blanket
- A warm shower or Epsom Salt bath
- Yoga or gentle stretching
- Placing your legs up the wall
- A nice cup of tea
- Listening to calming music
- Hugging a loved one
- Patting a beloved pet
- Spending time in nature
If you are deeply struggling with feelings of anxiety or overwhelm, it’s important to reach out. You may need the support of a therapist or medication. There is no shame in receiving extra support to help your nervous system become calm.
The Benefits of Becoming Calm (and why it matters)
There’s one more important thing to remember about overcoming anxiety, stress and overwhelm.
Calm isn’t just a lovely feeling. And out of all the scientific benefits of calm, there’s one that really stands out.
More than restful sleep. More than better memory. More than clarity, focus or high performance at work. And even more than better relationships.
Becoming resilient is the biggest key to making lasting changes in your life.
If you want to live a deep and meaningful life, you need to be resilient. And becoming resilient requires calm.
Counselor Emily Read Daniel writes "Resilience is about the nervous system: the body's stress response and its ability to remain in a healthy range of arousal and settling without getting stuck in an over or under-activated state.”
So the greatest result of becoming calm? Is being resilient enough to do the things that matter to you.
Terms to Remember
- Sympathetic Nervous System: the stress response arm of the nervous system
- Parasympathetic Nervous System: the calming response arm
- Regulated: when the nervous system is easily and effectively able to switch from stress to calm
- Dysregulated: when the nervous system is unable to match incoming stimulus with the appropriate response
- Co-regulation: learning to become regulated with a soothing presence or caregiver (parent, partner, friend or therapist)
- Self-regulation: the ability to self soothe and process emotions appropriately
- Anxiety: chronic dysregulation leading to an inability to respond appropriately to perceived danger
- Window of tolerance: your optimal state of nervous system regulation where you feel balanced and can process information with equilibrium
Resources for Becoming Calm
- 5 Subtle Ways To Ground Yourself
- How To Switch Off Your High Alert Button
- 3 Simple Mantras To Calm Your HSP Overwhelm
- Hurry Slowly with Jocelyn K. Glei
- Black Girl in Om with Lauren Ash
- Nothing Much Happens with Kathryn Nicolai
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