No matter how much we want it, inner peace isn’t always easy to achieve in today’s world. The fast pace, ever-changing social and work dynamics, and unexpected events can cause fear, anxiety, and upset that activate the nervous system and make us feel frazzled.
With all these stressful external factors, how does one keep calm and carry on?
Katie Pankonin is a mental health therapist who specializes in treating anxiety with unique coping skills that regulate the nervous system. She emphasizes that this process looks different for everyone. “I always encourage experimenting with a multitude of different skills to find what works well for you,” she says. “The more distracting the activity is for your brain, the easier it is to regulate the system.”
Katie dishes on some of her favorite hacks to take your nervous system from chaotic to cool as a cucumber.
Take two deep breaths in (with no exhale in between), and allow one big exhale/sigh to follow. Studied by Stanford’s Andrew Huberman and David Spiegel, this breathing trick (aka cyclic sighing) increases oxygen levels, lowers stress, and improves mood.
Temperature - TIPP Skill from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
Cold water can be the MVP when our nervous system is activated, thanks to the dive response in mammals. This can be triggered by submerging your face in cold water for five to 10 seconds. Your body believes you are diving underwater, so the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, slowing your heart rate and redirecting blood to the vital organs to conserve oxygen.
Keep a collection of Sour Patch Kids, Red Hots, or any other sour/spicy candy on hand. Our taste sense becomes “shocked” when we eat it, meaning the brain immediately focuses on the flavor over the looming anxiety.
Getting a little crafty can bring a heightened sense of calm to an activated nervous system. Focusing on an art project (such as painting or a coloring book) can improve your sense of control, direct your attention away from ruminating thoughts, and activate the reward circuit in your brain.
DBT recommends “intense exercise,” but this doesn’t have to mean running a marathon when you’re in a state of high anxiety. Going for a brief walk outside, cleaning a portion of your home, organizing your closet, or even breaking out in your favorite song and dancing around the living room can elicit the same impact.
Keeping ingredients in your cupboard for when your nervous system is feeling imbalanced can be one of the best coping skills. It utilizes every sense we have for grounding (sound, smell, touch, taste, vision), becoming a rhythmic, calming way to feel less anxiety.
Throw a lemon in your freezer, and save it for when you feel anxious. Smelling the lemon, touching the cold texture, and rolling it in your hands can trick the brain into another version of the mammalian dive response.
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