When you feel keyed up or on edge, there are some really helpful things you can do to relax and regulate your nervous system – quickly.

Something pushed you over the edge. Whether your kids are screaming at each other again, you had another work project dumped on your lap, or your spouse said something insensitive, you may want to know how to calm yourself down in these moments.

The need to calm down now, is different from seeking out general stress management.

“How I like to differentiate the two is that stress can be a pervasive, long-term feeling that we deal with in the background of our minds. The other is an acute presentation of anxiety or stress in the moment,” says Jennifer Anders, PsyD, of Yellow Pine Therapy in Boulder, Colorado. Each requires a different approach.

Namely, you can know all the good stress-coping skills, like going for a walk, doing yoga, carving out ‘me’ time in your day, but when you’re in a high anxiety state you’re in a state of dysregulation, says Dr. Anders. Meaning, your nervous system has entered the sympathetic fight-or-flight mode which makes it hard to think straight. “You really can’t access common stress-coping skills when you’re dysregulated. Instead, you do need to calm your body and mind down fast,” she says. This requires techniques that bring your body back into parasympathetic “rest and digest” quickly.

After using one of the many calming techniques, you can then make a plan to problem-solve or determine ways that you’ll manage future stress. But when you’re in the moment, here’s how to calm down fast.

*NOTE: All tips may not work or resonate for you, so it’s important to pick those that you feel comfortable with and are doable based on your preferences and circumstances.

1. Sit With the Stress and Label Sensations

Stress, and the magnitude of your stress response, can take you by surprise sometimes. You can go from 0 to 60 quickly, so that’s when you want to label what’s happening.

“Drop into your body and notice the physical sensations present,” suggests Kathryn Williams, PhD, a Los Angeles–based psychologist licensed in California and New York. “Is there tightness? Do you feel like you want to jump out of your skin? Do you feel restless or on edge?” she asks. Name these sensations, which will help connect your mind to your body, and here’s the tough part, allow those sensations to be there. Sit with the stress and allow it to flow through your body – and out.

2. Move Your Body to Combat Stress Hormones

When you have a rush of stress hormones and you’re in fight-or-flight mode, your body needs you to move. “We know from research on burnout that the nervous system often needs movement to finish the fight-or-flight cycle, which is when the sympathetic nervous system is activated,” says Dr. Williams. Movement therefore, tells your body that you’ve completed this fight-or-flight cycle and you can move on to rest-and-digest mode.

So jump up and down, dance, jog in place, or whatever feels good to you in the moment.

3. Shake It Off

If you’ve ever seen an animal in peril, say a dog running away from a perceived threat, you’ll notice that they shake their bodies off right after, says Anders. “Part of the reason why is that they’re bringing their nervous system back into balance,” she says. Anders recommends that people shake their arms and legs “vigorously” for three seconds to “buzz your body and induce relaxation.” (Alternate between your arms and legs so you can still stand up and do this.)

4. Soak Up the Sun to Shut Off Your Brain

Regular exposure to sunlight has been linked to positive mental health benefits, including better mood and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression, according to a review published in March 2022 in Psychiatry International. But it may also work when we’re thinking about how to calm your mind in the moment. “For many people, the sun has a calming effect and they say it kind of ‘shuts off’ their brain,” says Anders.

Part of that is because you’re outdoors, as well as getting more vitamin D, but sun exposure may also affect the release of serotonin, a mood-regulating brain chemical, suggests research published in Comprehensive Psychiatry in July 2021. Anders advises exposing your face to five minutes of sun – literally lift your face up to “look” at the sun. (Don’t actually stare directly at the sun, close your eyes. Also, wear sunscreen on your face to protect your skin.) If it’s a cloudy day, position yourself in the direction of the sun – it will still help.

5. Take Deep Breaths to Calm Your Nervous System

“Take a deep breath!” is something we teach even the tiniest of tots to do when they’re learning the skills of emotional regulation. And although it’s one of the simplest – and quickest – calm-down strategies accessible to you at any time. It can also be one of the hardest to do, but with practise, you can make it an automatic habit.

“When in a fight-or-flight mode, you’re not getting enough oxygen in your body in order to calm your nervous system. Breathing puts this oxygen back into your body,” says Jenny Yip, PsyD, founder and executive director of the Renewed Freedom Center and Little Thinkers Center in Los Angeles. Deep diaphragmatic breaths work by breathing in through your nose, expanding your lower belly, then exhaling through your mouth, advises Harvard Health.

6. Use Cold Water or Ice to Rest and Digest

In the movies or on TV, one character may have slapped another to “get them out of” their keyed-up state. (The audience laughs, of course.) There’s no reason to ask a friend to do that, but you can try to snap yourself out of your anxiety with ice and cold water. “My clients love to use cold to regulate their nervous system,” says Williams. Cold stimulates the activation of the vagus nerve, the nerves that control your parasympathetic – or rest and digest – nervous system, per Cleveland Clinic. Splash water on your face, use an ice roller on your face, neck, and chest, or submerge your face into water with ice, she recommends.

7. Watch ASMR to Reduce Anxiety

ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, and it’s a trendy thing on social media. In the videos, people might crinkle paper, prep a meal, tap, whisper, or any number of things. The sounds, sights, and tactile sensations induce a pleasant tingling sensation on the viewer’s or listener’s scalp and neck, according to research published in February 2022 in PLOS ONE. Not everyone experiences ASMR, but for those who do, these videos have been found to reduce state anxiety (defined as the temporary feeling of being tense or worried), the study found. (More research needs to be done to determine exactly why.) ASMR may also help you calm down to fall asleep at night.

8. Hover Over Your Stress

Visualise hovering over yourself, looking down, and watching yourself experience a high-stress episode. “This is something I practise with myself when I’m in that state. It creates a sense of detachment from your stress and brings levity to it,” says Anders. The out-of-body experience is actually more physical than mental. “It’s almost dissociative. It brings your body lightness and creates a tiny opening of space to realise that you have more control than you think,” she explains.

9. Hum to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve

Humming is another activity that stimulates your vagus nerve. “Humming produces a frequency inside your mind and body that helps to soothe the nervous system,” says Anders. In a pilot study published in April 2023 in Cureus, Bhramari – a breathing practice whereby you make a humming sound like a bee in the back of your throat – was found to improve heart rate variability and thus, could be used “as an antidote to stress.”

When to Seek Help for Stress or Anxiety
Episodes of high stress tend to be fleeting, but sometimes their effects stick around or you may find that you’re moving from one episode to the next and having to try a lot of things to continually calm yourself down. So, how do you know if you may need extra mental health help? “If you feel like your functioning – whether it’s at work, school, family, or social — is debilitated by spending so much time in an anxious state and it’s interfering with things that you need or enjoy doing, then it’s necessary to seek additional help,” says Dr. Yip. She points to the Find a Therapist Directory tool on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s website as a good resource.