Understanding and Strengthening Your Body's Built-In Calm Response
You're likely familiar with the body's Fight-Flight-Freeze mechanism, which is responsible for the visceral, bodily aspect of many of the emotions we feel (anger, fear, sadness). However, less well-known is the opposite mechanism referred to as "Rest and Digest," or the body's Calm Response - it's the Luigi brother of nervous system responses.
If the Fight-Flight-Freeze mechanism is like a switch that starts turning on a flood of stress chemicals in the body, the Calm Response is the switch that turns it off and returns the body to a sense of peace. Whereas Fight-Flight-Freeze is controlled primarily by the Limbic System in the brain, most notably the Amygdala, the Calm Response is controlled by a separate mechanism called the vagus nerve (pronounced like Vegas).
A common experience in a range of mental health concerns is that our Fight-Flight-Freeze mechanism can be triggered in the absence of imminent danger. That is, your body is screaming at you as if there is a tiger right in front of you, but really you're giving a PowerPoint presentation to a room of 15 people. In these situations, you may notice that it is quite difficult to simply "talk yourself out of the anxiety," which is because we experience that sense of danger in a different place in our consciousness than we do our language-based thoughts.
However, despite this, there are ways to communicate to our bodies that we are currently safe. There are strategies that you can use to stimulate the body's natural Calm Response. These are considered "bottom-up" rather than "top-down" strategies, meaning that they come from your senses up to your brain, rather than coming from your brain down to your body (for example, a more cognitive strategy like trying to "talk yourself out of the anxiety").
The best news is that we can actually strengthen our body's ability to engage in the Calm Response over time. This is referred to as your vagal tone (like muscle tone) - the ability of your body to bring itself back to a state of calm when a stressor is over. By practicing these strategies over and over, you can strengthen your own vagal tone, which can boost recovery from anxiety and reduce the experience of unnecessary anxiety overall.
Six Strategies to Invite the Calm Response
The following are six different strategies you can use to invite the Calm Response in the body during Fight-Flight-Freeze activation. This is phrased as "inviting the Calm Response" to acknowledge that occasionally when we try to force ourselves to feel calm, this can backfire.
Tip the temperature of your face with an ice pack or bowl of cold water for about 30 seconds.
This stimulates the Mammalian Dive Reflex. In essence, doing this tricks your body into thinking that it's underwater, and in response your body induces the Calm Response in order to conserve energy. Please note that if you have a heart condition, you should check with your medical doctor before trying this strategy, as it has the effect of temporarily slowing your heart rate.
Practice Grounding by looking around yourself and noticing that you are physically safe. Next, try to name:
3 things you can hear
3 things you can see
3 things you can touch
This serves to remind you via increased focus on your senses that in your immediate surroundings, you are safe. This in turn can help trigger the body's Calm Response.
Put on some upbeat music and start moving and dancing to the music.
In the Fight-Flight-Freeze reaction, our muscles tend to tighten to prepare us to fight off or flee a threat. This strategy counteracts that process by loosening our muscles, sending the message to our brain that we are actually safe.
Laughing can stimulate the Calm Response in the body.
One can think of "Rest and Digest" as being a primarily pro-social mode. That is, we are in "Rest and Digest" when things are calm, we feel at ease, and when we're enjoying others' company.
This is in contrast to Fight-Flight-Freeze which is anti-social in nature - our guard goes up and we become wary, cold, or hostile toward other people. It makes sense then that laughter, as a pro-social activity, can help invite the Calm Response. You don't even have to find something funny in order for it to work!
Yawning is another way to invite the Calm Response. It works by lifting the soft palette in the mouth, which is connected to the vagus nerve. This connection also makes sense given that we often yawn when we're tired, which tends to then make us feel more tired - consistent with "Rest and Digest."
Stretching and slow breathing is another way to promote the Calm Response in the body. Like #3, this loosens your muscles, sending the signal to your brain that you are not in danger. Purposeful slow breathing counteracts the natural tendency to breathe more quickly when emotionally-activated.
Although our Fight-Flight-Freeze mechanism can become overactive at times, blaring at us when we're not in true danger, the good news is that our bodies also have an opposing process that brings us back to a state of peace and calm. This Calm Response can be invited in the body by using "bottom-up" strategies that go from your senses up to your brain, and like a muscle, this response can be strengthened over time (vagal tone).
It can of course be helpful to have an individual therapist to help guide you through this process. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.