The basic tools for staying calm – stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system

Your peer-supporter will be able to help signpost you towards your next step in moving your life forward, if your brain and mind are calm and you can think clearly. When our minds are calm we can think things through and consider options, rather than just worry about them.

These tools all have a common thread. When we are anxious, angry or in overwhelm our brain is tricking us into believing that we are still in the jungle. So, it persistently stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, preparing us to engage the “fight/ flight response”, in 1/50 second, for any real or imaginary threat. Each of us must learn to control this primitive defence system by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest response”), the one which normally calms us down when real danger has passed. When we learn to do this, at will, we can stay calm despite even very difficult circumstances in our lives. When calm, we can think clearly again, and create and achieve goals to help us get our human needs met. These basic tools for staying calm are:

Counting to 10 and breathing out deeply/ even sighing, in the face of a “trigger”

  • 7:11 breathing. The 7/11 Relaxation Methods involves abdominal (tummy) breathing. As you undertake the 10 steps below – your shoulders and your chest stay still. The movement caused by breathing will take place in your abdominal (tummy) area. It takes a little practice and patience to learn and master this Relaxation Method. Any attempt to force the 7 it will have a counterproductive effect. The first time you try the 7/11 technique it is recommended you take 20 minutes to calmly learn and master the technique.
  • Turn off your mobile phone/laptop and all electronic equipment.
  • Make sure your clothes are loose.
  • Settle yourself comfortably (you can sit or lie) in a place where you won’t be disturbed.
  • Place your hands side by side on your lap.
  • Breath in and out through the nose
  • Attempt to start the breath at the abdomen, and then filling the rest of the chest
  • Counting to 7 as the lungs fill up with air, and
  • Counting to 11 during a slow exhale, thus ensuring the out-breath takes longer

(The count can be 5 in and 8 out if that works better for you)

  • Do this for 30 seconds during a crisis or a minute or two each hour. A minimum of 3 two-minute periods per day is recommended.
  • It can also be done for 5- 15-minute periods daily, as a mindfulness / meditation/ visualisation – type exercise to create calmness/ creativity

This YouTube video gives a good visual demonstration of 7/11 breathing

Aerobic exercise.
This is essential! It must be done for 2.5 to 3 hours per week, ideally over several different days. This can be fast walking, running, cycling, swimming; anything that increases the heart rate substantially. Such exercise raises our blood serotonin (the happiness hormone) level as high as any antidepressant.

Muscle relaxation exercises.
hen our muscles are relaxed and our outbreaths longer than our inbreaths, we stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and our brain must calm down. It has no other choice!

Tensing and shaking out.
First one tenses the muscles by standing on tip-toes, stretching to the ceiling, holding every muscle as tight as possible for 30 seconds. Then, vigorously shaking out the muscles (arms, legs and torso), on the spot for 30 seconds, until the body feels like a limp rag-doll. This is repeated 2-3 times per session. This calms the brain and gives a sense of energy flowing.

Sitting tensing and relaxing.
Some people find it more beneficial to sit and tense their muscles, then let them relax. This is done by tensing the muscles in sequence: hands, arms, shoulders, neck, face, chest, tummy buttocks, hips, thighs calves and feet. One holds that for 30 seconds while breathing, then gently relaxing the muscles in the reverse order and noticing the relaxation.

Both, or either of these to be done several times per day.

It is important to find the time to do things that we enjoy doing, such as, singing, tennis, dancing, photography, walking. Often in the busyness of life we give up on these. But it is important to find time to do them.

Finding the time.
People often say that the above is impossible because they already don’t have enough time each day. That they are already too busy. It is imperative to find the time. Sometimes it means getting up half an hour earlier, or walking for 20 minutes each day at lunchtime etc. When we create a daily routine of these practices, we become more efficient, and so gain time

Important to become masterful. It does not work to use these tools just when one feels tense. Remember, the adrenalin release happens in 1/50 second. So, as with a sport skill, we must practice methodically before we need to use it. The aerobic exercise must be done weekly and the breathing and relaxation exercises daily, even when things are normal. This way one becomes masterful at managing stress.

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We would like to thank Des Rice and Paul Grant from CCO for their help and support. Their friendly advice and expertise have helped us collaborate the support network that the veterinary community requires.