5 Ways to Calm the Body
Updated: Mar 22
When we are stressed, our bodies move into the fight-flight mode which is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. In this state, we breathe faster and more shallowly with our upper chest, our muscles tense up, and our digestion slows down. When we consciously turn these body responses in the opposite direction, it can help us activate the calmer, parasympathetic state of the nervous system where we rest, digest, and repair our bodies.
Learning to the calm the body-mind can be powerfully healing. These practices helped me move through chronic pain and repressed trauma, and when I worked as an integrative physical therapist, I watched how they helped my patients, too. But these measures are not just for people in pain, they can help us all calm down, and this state can be important for maintaining our health and well-being.
Sometimes when we do activities to calm the body, the mind follows along. For example, when we focus on how our bodies feel as we are relaxing - it can help our minds move out of stressful loops or patterns. And when are bodies move into the calmer state, it can give our minds the message that all is well. Like any skill, the more you practice calming your body and mind, the easier it is to move into this state throughout your regular life. Over time, this peaceful state can become less of a novelty for your system and more of a habit.
What follows are five key ways to calm your body.
When we are calm and the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge, we breathe slower and deeper with our diaphragm, and our abdomen moves out with each inspiration. Breathing is automatic, but breathing is also in our control. When we consciously breathe with our diaphragm, it can move our nervous system into the calmer mode. And when we focus on our breathing, it can give our minds a break.
Our bodies tense up and ready us for action when we are in the stressed fight-flight mode, and when we release this tension it can help us calm down. To relax this body-response, consider doing yoga or performing gentle stretches. Move your body into positions where you feel it is tight, and stop when you first feel tissue tension. Don't go into a painful range because the body will often just increase muscular tension to avoid the stretch. Hold each position for at least thirty seconds and up to a few minutes. While you are stretching, tune in to the tight area, breathe with your diaphragm, and picture the area softening like butter melting in the sun.
When the body engages in different forms of exercise, it moves out of habitual holding patterns, and this (along with the cardio-vascular work-out) can help us release built-up tension. Move your body so your heart rate increases, and if you break a sweat that is even better. It can be as simple as taking a brisk walk or dancing around the room.
Your body is less likely to be stressed when it receives adequate hydration and nutrition, so consider limiting your consumption of processed foods and refined sugar and increasing your intake of water, fruits, and vegetables. Caffeine can also ramp up the system, so it is very helpful to avoid it (sorry, coffee lovers!).
There are many different forms of meditation, but for me the one that is the most powerful is progressive relaxation because it incorporates both the body and mind. With this type of meditation, you tune in to the tension in different body areas, put out the message to relax, and then accept whatever tension remains. When you accept whatever tension remains, it can help you relax even more. To learn this technique, it can help to scan the body from the top of your head to your feet or from your feet to the top of your head. Sometimes, people contract different muscle groups and then release them to help them sense the body at first. You can also use an audio recording to guide your efforts. There are many on YouTube that you can try out, and you may also find the app Calm to be helpful.