Feeling Frazzled? Access Instant Calm in 3 Steps

UPDATED: May 21, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 19, 2015

Busy, successful people don’t want to remove stressful events from their lives. They simply want the ability to control them.

By learning to control our response to stressful events, we can keep the positive energy and motivation they evoke, while avoiding the negative reactions and ramifications, like the sleepless nights or angry, nerve-filled outbursts. Wellness experts Jan Bruce, Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., and Adam Perlman, M.D., M.P.H., authors of meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier, call this ability instant calm. They know how to attack stress at its roots and recalibrate the way you think about those events.

There will always be events that stress us out, but it’s important to know what to do right then and there, in that moment. It’s important to know how to access calm—instantly.

So how can you relax on cue when you’re feeling frazzled? No one stress-busting technique is a cure-all for everyone, so the key is finding a skill or skills that work for you.

Here are three instant calm skills that the authors find helpful:

1. Deep Breathing          

Many people take short, shallow breaths unconsciously, but doing so means we take in less oxygen and the heart has to pump faster to get the same amount of oxygenated blood to the vital organs. But when you take deep breaths from the abdomen, rather than shallow breaths from your upper chest, you inhale more oxygen and feel more relaxed.

Deep, abdominal breathing will trigger your parasympathetic nervous system and help you regain equilibrium when stressed. You can do this anywhere—at your desk, in the car, during a meeting.

In a relaxed position, try breathing in, allowing your stomach to expand for count of four. Then breathe out for a count of six. Even two to three minutes can make a difference.

2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Our muscles tense when we’re stressed as part of our fight or flight response. By relaxing those same muscles, you send the signal to your body that the threat is gone, and that promotes the relaxation response.

Try starting by consciously relaxing the muscles of your face and then work your way down your body to your toes. Remember to also breathe deeply and relaxed.

3. Positive Imagery

Think of a place and time when you felt completely at peace. A real memory works best. Recall the scene using as many of your five senses as you can.

Positive imagery is a particularly powerful and transformative tool, because it involves all your senses. You can instantly cut off the sympathetic nervous system by shifting your mind from threat to treat.

Write down what you remember in detail. The next time you’re overwhelmed, you can go back to your notes to quickly reset your equilibrium—to access instant calm.

Check out 11 common strategies for managing stress—plus, a few wild cards.

Adam Perlman, M.D., is a recognized leader in the field of integrative medicine and a respected researcher and educator in the field of complementary and alternative medicine and wellness. His research has been published in the Archives of Internal Medicine and The New York Times. In 2011, he became the executive director for Duke Integrative Medicine.