5 Tips for Calming Your Mind When Stress Hits

This is the third in a series of posts in honor of Stress Awareness Month (April).  In the past two weeks we talked about 12 Signs You Have Too Much Stress & What You Can Do About It and How to Create Balance & Avoid Burnout

If you are one of those people like me who has an over-active mind, this weeks tips will help you restore calm to your busy, stressed-out mind. 

5 Tips for Calming your Mind

Thought Watching

When you recognize that your mind is swirling around a stressful event like Chicken Little running around yelling that the sky is falling, watching your thoughts will help you detach and they will lose power over you.  Different visualizations work for different people, but below are a few suggestions my clients and I have found helpful.  Choose one that works for you or make up your own.

  • Imagine you are sitting by a riverbank, watching the water flow by. Every time a thought arises, imagine writing it on a leaf and dropping that leaf in the water to watch it flow downstream. Once it’s out of sight, let it go.

  • Imagine you’re laying on your back looking up at a bright blue sky. Each thought is like a cloud floating across the sky. Once it passes out of view, let it go.

  • Imagine each thought running through your mind is like a sports score on the ticker tape at the bottom of an ESPN broadcast. Once it’s off the screen, let it go.

  • Imagine you’re sitting by the train tracks and each thought is like a car rolling by on a passing train.

The idea with each of these visualizations is to put some distance between you and the thought so you can hold it at arm's length, look at it, but not get too wrapped up in it.  You don't need to try and make the thoughts stop or push away ones you don't like (trust me, it won't work).  The nature of the mind is to think, so if your mind is busy don't take it as an indication that there is something wrong with you.  Simply watch the thoughts go by and you will likely find that when you don't get so attached to them, they will slow down on their own.  

Worry Tree or Safe Container

One of the biggest issues that I've seen people face is never feeling like they can put their worries aside and this leaves their system feeling constantly stressed without any down time to recoup.  A visualization that helps my clients and I is to imagine a Worry Tree they can hang all their worries on at the end of the day.  The idea came from a man who would pull into their driveway each night and imagine hanging all his worries on the tree outside his house before going inside to spend time with his family.  So, I ask people to imagine writing each of their worries down on a little piece of paper, and hanging them on the Worry Tree like ornaments, where they will stay safely until the person comes back and to pick them up again.  An alternative to this is to imagine placing all the worries in a safe container where they cannot escape until the person goes to retrieve them again. 

5-Sense Grounding Exercise

Oftentimes when we feel anxious we get caught up in our heads, listening to the worry tape that plays on repeat, without even realizing it.  One way to get off the worry train is to bring ourselves back to our bodies through our 5 senses, walking through each of them and noticing what information they are bringing to us.  I find this exercise has an added calming effect if you do it outside in nature. 

  • 5 – Sight: start with your sense of sight. Look around and find 5 different things in your environment that you can see and describe them in as much detail as you can, as if you were trying to explain them to a blind person. Notice colors, shapes, light, shadow, etc.

  • 4 – Hearing: Same as above; but close your eyes. Try to identify 4 different sounds you can hear and describe them in detail. You may have to slow down a bit to notice subtle or quiet sounds.

  • 3 – Touch: Find 3 ways to interact with your environment using your sense of touch. Run your fingers through the grass. Feel your butt in the chair. Notice the cool air on your cheeks.

  • 2 – Smell: Seek out 2 things you can smell. Perhaps it’s freshly mowed grass, or the smell of your detergent on your clothes.

  • 1 – Taste: Is there something in your environment you can safely taste? A drink or food nearby? If not, simply notice the taste inside your mouth.

Happy Place

Similar to the exercise above this one walks through your 5 senses, but instead of your immediate environment/surroundings, I invite you to go someplace safe in your mind.  This could be a real place or an imaginary one, or a combination of both.  The only requirement is that it is a place you feel like you can safely relax, let go, and be yourself.  Call that place up in your mind in as much detail as you possibly can.  And then walk through the 5 senses exercise above in your mind’s eye in this happy place you have created.  This exercise can be helpful to calm your nerves when you feel anxiety coming on, as well as proactively when you do not feel anxious, to remind your nervous system that it’s ok to rest and relax sometimes, thus preventing it from getting overburdened later on. 

Progressive Relaxation

This is a perennial favorite of my clients and can be especially useful before bed when the “what if’s” crawl inside your ear and keep you from sleeping.  The concept is simple: tense, hold, and then relax the different muscle groups of your body progressively from head to toe (or vice versa).  This signals your body that it’s time to release the tension it’s holding, and then the mind will follow suit.  There are many different guided sessions for this available for free on the internet via YouTube, or the Insight Timer.  Simply find one that suits you, hit play and let the relaxation begin!


What's your favorite way to calm your busy mind? Leave a comment below.


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Help with managing stress and living a more balanced life

If you found the tips above useful, check out the full guide for a more comprehensive list of strategies to help you relieve stress and regain balance and happiness in your life.