Life comes with lots of ups and downs. And that’s especially true for teens. In the adolescent years, it’s not unusual to experience a rollercoaster of emotions throughout the day. Moreover, changes in a teen’s environment also impact their state of mind. Therefore, teens need tools for returning to a place of calm and peacefulness. Such tools can support them throughout life.
In fact, we all need ways to quiet the mind and relax the body, no matter our age. Happily, there are many simple, accessible, all-natural ways to stay calm.
“A quiet mind allows for openness to another, the capacity to reflect and to see the world in a different way. A quiet mind is an effective mind.”
—Michel Mennesson, MD, psychiatrist at Newport Academy
The Rest-and-Digest and Fight-or-Flight Systems
Emotions and events affect the mind—the way we think and feel. Consequently, the body responds as well.
When we are tense or upset, the sympathetic nervous system activates the stress response, also known as the fight-or-flight response. As a result, the heart beats more quickly, the breath becomes shallow, and blood pressure goes up. In turn, these physical reactions emphasize our anxious thoughts and turbulent emotions.
However, we have the ability to counteract the stress response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, the heart rate drops, blood pressure falls, and the breath becomes slower and deeper. Therefore, this is also known as the “rest-and-digest” or relaxation response.
Only one of the two systems (rest-and-digest or fight-or-flight) can be activated at any given time. Thus, learning how to activate the rest-and-digest system is the key to calming the body and mind.
Furthermore, the parasympathetic nervous system counteracts all the negative effects of the sympathetic nervous system. Consequently, it improves energy, helps you sleep better, increase immunity, lowers blood pressure, and stabilizes blood sugar.
The Calming Power of the Breath
Conscious, controlled breathing is one of the easiest and most immediate ways to calm the nervous system. When we slow and regulate the breath, we move out of the fight-or-flight response governed by the sympathetic nervous system. Consequently, we move into the relaxation response governed by the parasympathetic nervous system. Therefore, we shift into a calmer state of mind in which we are better able to handle our emotions or circumstances.
Research has validated the impact of breathing practices on our mental state. In fact, research shows that breath awareness is among the most effective and accessible tools for self-regulation and calming the nervous system.
Here’s one example: In a 2016 study, scientists at the Medical University of South Carolina divided a group of 20 healthy adults into two groups. Next, one group did two sets of 10-minute breathing exercises. Meanwhile, the other group read a text of their choice for 20 minutes.
Subsequently, researchers tested the subjects’ saliva at various intervals during the exercise. The results showed that the saliva of participants who did the breathing exercise had significantly lower levels of three specific cytokines (proteins produced by cells). These cytokines are associated with stress. Therefore, the breathing exercises produced a measurable decrease in stress.
Two Breathing Practices to Create Calm
Coherent Breathing is a breathing practice that quickly brings the mind and body back to a place of calm and relaxation. Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg, authors of The Healing Power of the Breath, have found that Coherent Breathing can create calm and relieve stress within five or 10 minutes.
Furthermore, over time, Coherent Breathing increases stress resilience, meaning that an individual is able to return to a state of calmness more easily after a stressful event or emotion. Additionally, Coherent Breathing can induce up to a tenfold improvement in heart rate variability, a measure of stress resilience, according to Brown and Gerbarg.
Specifically, Coherent Breathing involves a timed breath in which the exhalation is longer than the inhalation. When your exhale is longer than your inhale, the vagus nerve signals the brain to turn up your parasympathetic nervous system and turn down your sympathetic nervous system.
Here’s how to practice Coherent Breathing.
- Sit in a comfortable position or lie down on your back.
- Place your hands on your belly.
- Slowly breathe in, expanding your belly, to the count of five.
- Now, slowly breathe out to the count of six.
If breathing in the five-six count is challenging, you can start by inhaling and exhaling to the count of three and gradually increasing the length of each breath.
Ultimately, practicing this pattern for 10 to 20 minutes daily will help you stay calm and less anxious throughout the day.
Square Breathing is also known as four-square breathing or box breathing. It is an easy breathing practice known to create calm.
- Sit comfortably in a chair, with your feet on the floor and hands in your lap.
- Inhale slowly through the nose for a count of four, allowing the air to fill your belly.
- Hold the breath in for a count of four.
- Exhale slowly through the mouth for a count of four.
- Finally, hold the breath for a count of four.
- Repeat the sequence for four minutes.
As you breathe, visualize a healing blue or white light washing over your body. Ideally, repeat the exercise for four minutes, four times a day. However, practicing Square Breathing just two or three times daily will help you become calmer and more relaxed.
Relax the Body to Calm the Mind
Because the mind and body are so closely intertwined, relaxing the body will also relax the mind and emotions. Here are two relaxation techniques that can help teens become calmer. Moreover, practicing them every day—not just during a difficult moment—will increase teen stress resilience.
- Lie on a comfortable surface.
- Start by tensing the muscles in your toes.
- Keep them tensed for about five seconds, and then consciously relax those muscles.
- Relax the entire body for 30 seconds.
- Next, tense your foot, hold for about five seconds, and release. Relax for 30 seconds.
- Continue working your way upward, tensing each area of the body for a few seconds, releasing, and then letting your whole body relax.
- Picture a place that you find particularly relaxing, such as a beach, a house you feel especially comfortable in, or a beautiful garden.
- Visualize how this place looks, sounds, and smells. Imagine the temperature and how the air feels on your skin. Is there sun on your face? Do you smell lilacs? Can you hear the breeze blowing in the trees?
- Breathe slowly and deeply as you focus on the sensations and the positive feelings that the visualization creates.
Three Techniques for Calming the Emotions
While it’s important for teens to acknowledge and work with their emotions, it’s easier for them to do so when they are calm. Therefore, teens (and adults!) can use the following approaches for calming the mind when they’re feeling stressed, afraid, angry, sad, or any other difficult emotion. Subsequently, they can work on addressing the root causes of these feelings.
1. Labeling Your Emotions
Putting your emotions into words has been proven to have an immediate calming effect. Specifically, labeling our feelings with words shifts brain activity from the emotional areas of the brain toward the thinking areas of the brain. As a result, we can observe our emotions with less turmoil.
In a series of studies by UCLA psychologist Matthew D. Lieberman, participants who assigned names to their emotions had less activity in the amygdala. To clarify, the amygdala is the part of the brain that governs the fight-or-flight response.
Moreover, participants also had more activity in the prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain. Therefore, labeling their feelings shifted them from an emotional state to a thinking state.
Here’s how to practice this approach:
- Notice what you are feeling and give it a name, such as “stress,” “envy,” “anger,” “fear,” etc.
- Pause and notice how this emotion feels, without judging yourself for feeling this way.
- Say something compassionate and accepting to yourself, such as, “It’s okay that I feel afraid right now.”
- After you have labeled your emotion, noticed how it feels, and offered compassion to yourself, think about what actions you might want to take. For example, if you noticed you were feeling sad, you might want to reach out to a good friend. If you were feeling angry, you might think about positive ways to deal with the conflict. If you were feeling nervous, try a calming breathing practice like the ones mentioned above.
“Riding the wave” is a practice for handling intense emotions when they arise. Rather than pushing the emotion away, we go deeper into it, with compassion and relaxation. While this practice is similar to labeling the emotions, it involves the body more.
- Pay attention to your breath and consciously make it slower and deeper.
- Relax your body, letting the muscles release from head to toes.
- Tune in to the feelings you are experiencing in your body and your mind.
- Observe what you are feeling with compassion and without judging yourself.
- Continue to let the feelings be there without pushing them away, as the wave recedes.
“Riding the wave is a metaphor to help illustrate the ebbs and flows associated with life. Sometimes the waves are big and other times they are small, but if we can learn to observe when they are starting to swell, and experience the feelings associated with that, we can mindfully ride them out without getting swept away.”
—Kristin Wilson, MA, LPC, Vice President of Clinical Outreach at Newport Academy
3. The RAIN Technique
Similar to Riding the Wave, the RAIN technique is an approach to calming the mind. Moreover, it helps us look at our emotions from a compassionate distance, rather than getting caught up in them. Here’s how to do it.
R = Recognize. Recognize and notice the emotions or thoughts that are troubling you, without judging them. You can also label them as described above. Furthermore, you can identify the story or concern that you are feeling. For teens, for example, labels might be “the story of how my friends won’t like me anymore” or “worry about my parents getting divorced,” or “stress about doing well on the SATs.”
A = Acknowledge, Accept, Allow. The next step is to acknowledge and accept how you are feeling. Ultimately, accepting your feelings does not mean that you want to keep feeling that way. Rather, when we accept and allow what we are feeling, the emotion tends to lose its intensity and pass more quickly.
I = Inquire, Investigate. Next, investigate the emotion further. Specifically, look at what might have triggered it, when you have felt this way before, and whether there are any actions you can take at this point to help resolve the feelings.
N = Non-identification. That is, remember that you are not your feelings. Moreover, stepping away from the intensity of your feelings will help you find a place of calm within. However, as stated above, this does not mean rejecting or suppressing your feelings. Rather, observe them with compassion and remind yourself that they do not define you.
Calming Meditations to Do Every Day
Research shows that mindfulness-based exercises like meditation help decrease anxiety, depression, and stress. Furthermore, they improve mental health and quality of life. Additionally, meditation helps us practice compassionate self-observation as described in the RAIN technique above.
In fact, a study showed that meditation is more effective than a vacation for improving mental health. A total of 90 participants were divided into three groups. The group of experienced meditators went to a meditation retreat. Moreover, a group who had never meditated also did a meditation retreat. Furthermore, the third group did not participate in meditation; instead, they listened to health lectures and then did fun vacation activities for a week.
Subsequently, all three groups showed statistically significant improvements in scores measuring stress and depression. In other words, both meditation and vacation were effective for mental health.
Furthermore, the researchers questioned the participants again 10 months later. As a result, they found that both the regular and the new meditators still showed significant improvements in anxiety and depression levels. However, the vacationers had returned to the same levels they showed before the vacation. Therefore, meditation clearly has a powerful and long-lasting impact on state of mind.
Here are three meditations that teens and adults can use throughout the day to restore calm and decrease anxiety.
Basic Mindfulness Meditation
- Sit quietly with eyes closed and breathe normally.
- Bring your attention to your breath. Repeat the phrases “breathing in, breathing out” to help keep the mind focused on inhaling and exhaling.
- When a thought comes into your mind, simply label it as “a thought” and allow it to float out of your mind like a cloud moving across the sky.
- Then gently bring your attention back to your breath. Practice for as long or as short a time as you wish. Even a few minutes of meditation can make a huge difference in your day and in your mindset.
In order to do a mantra meditation, you don’t need to use a specific mantra. Instead, you can choose a poem, prayer, saying, or motto that is meaningful and calming for you. In fact, you can even think of something a loved one or friend said to you that lifts your heart and makes you feel peaceful.
Simply recite this calming phrase to yourself as you sit comfortably and breathe slowly and deeply. As a result, you’ll begin to feel calmer and your entire body will relax.
Research by Barbara Fredrickson, Robert Emmons, and others has uncovered a powerful link between gratitude and well-being. Therefore, bringing gratitude into our experience of daily life has beneficial effects.
To calm your mind and relax your body, try this gratitude meditation: Simply take 30 seconds to focus on a few things that you are grateful for. Breathe deeply and slowly as you bring your attention to people or circumstances in your life that inspire you to feel thankful and appreciative.
Mindful Walking and Sense Meditation
This meditation can be done indoors or out, but if you practice it outside, you also receive all the scientifically proven mental health benefits of being in nature.
- Walk at a natural, comfortable pace.
- First, pay attention to the lifting and falling of your feet as you pick them up and place them back on the ground. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your steps.
- After a little while, begin to focus your attention on the sounds around you. What do you hear? Listen to the small and louder noises, without judging the sounds as pleasant, disturbing, etc.
- Now shift your awareness to your sense of smell. Notice the smells around you. Again, don’t judge them; just pay attention.
- Do the same with your sense of sight. Therefore, take in all the colors and textures you see in the world around you.
- Now bring your attention back to your own body by returning your awareness to the lifting and falling of your feet on the ground.
- Notice any difference between the way you feel now and the way you felt when you began your mindful walk.
In conclusion, these tools for staying calm are free, are always accessible, and have no side effects. Everyone benefits from having their own personal toolkit to help them come back to a place of peace and relaxation in difficult moments. And remember, it’s never too early or too late to start building these skills.
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