Most self-improvement advice says that recognizing your thoughts and feelings is the first step to calming down under pressure. But you've probably found that this approach backfires. In fact, you might find that the more you focus on the worries, and judgments rushing through your mind, the more anxious and stressed out you become. 

For that reason, you need to approach conquering overwhelm differently. In your case, your first task isn't gaining greater awareness of your emotions; it's to bring your physical state down from overdrive, back to baseline.

So, how exactly do you dial down the intensity of your stress reactions? 

First, a quick psychology lesson.

Your Body Under Stress

When you're overwhelmed, your brain releases hormones that change your physical state. That's why you may have certain bodily reactions like sweating, shallow breathing, or tunnel vision. It's your body preparing to fight or flee what it perceives to be a threat, which in this case is a stressful situation at work. This physical reaction often hijacks your ability to think and act rationally

Create Calm in 5-4-3-2-1

A simple way to stabilize your body when you feel overwhelmed is with a mindfulness skill called grounding. Grounding techniques help you de-escalate your reactions and physically calm down your nervous system. Grounding helps lower the volume on negative chatter going on within your mind as well.

One of my favorite grounding exercises is the 5-4-3-2-1 Technique:

  1. Select FIVE things you see around you. Describe them in detail. Maybe it's a white notepad or perhaps a spot on the ceiling.
  2. Pick FOUR things you can touch or feel around you, such as your tongue in your mouth, your hands in your lap, or your computer keyboard.
  3. Notice THREE things you hear. Listen for sounds going on around you. You might attune to the ringing of a phone or the hum of an air conditioner, for example.
  4. Identify TWO things you can smell. If you can't smell anything, name your two favorite scents.
  5. Name ONE thing you can taste. It might be the lingering taste of coffee, gum, or a mint after lunch.

Finally, take a deep breath and notice how your physical state has shifted. How has your body changed? Do your shoulders feel less tense, for instance? Notice any new shifts in your thoughts as well. Hopefully you're already beginning to feel more clearheaded, calm, and ready to objectively explore the thoughts and feelings causing you distress.

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