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It’s beginning to look a lot like the most stressful time of the year. If your stress levels are getting out of hand, here are some simple ways to reset your nervous system and feel calmer, fast, writes Anna Bartter.

Ah, the build-up to Christmas. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, sure, but for anyone over the age of 10, it can also be fraught with endless tasks, a bigger-than-usual workload and social arrangements requiring military-level organisation skills. It’s enough to tip us over the edge (as if the promise of recession wasn’t enough to do that already). If you’re already feeling the panicky heat, we’ve asked the experts for some fail-safe ways to calm ourselves down – and quickly.

Stress and anxiety are largely triggered by our nervous system. And the key to de-stressing and calming down lies in that complex network.

“The nervous system comprises the brain, spinal cord and nerves and is responsible for regulating and sending messages throughout the body,” explains Chloe Brotheridge, hypnotherapist and author of The Anxiety Solution. “When our thoughts are overwhelming, it’s easy to get lost in worrying. This is when tuning into our bodies can be helpful. It’s impossible to have our attention on our body and be worrying at the same time.”

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What happens to the nervous system when we get stressed?

“When our nervous system is in overdrive, it’s usually because it’s predicting a future threat,” explains life and leadership coach Lara Cullen. “This triggers our brains to release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, and activates the amygdala. This is a primitive part of your brain that keeps you safe from threat or harm by engaging a set of responses in your brain and body that allow you to meet challenges and danger in the moment (fight or flight),” she continues.

“Sometimes a fight or flight response is appropriate – for example if you really are in a life-or-death situation – but most of the time it’s not helpful.”

Put simply, our bodies and brains can’t tell the difference between a mild threat and a life-threatening one – our fight-or-flight response is the same either way.

So, if your only predator is your Christmas food shop, it’s important to be able to talk yourself down, as being on high alert is stressful both mentally and physically.

“Because a fight-or-flight response is designed to make you react quickly and instinctively to danger, it blocks your ability to think logically, rationally, calmly and clearly,” explains Cullen. “It also has a physical impact – you might notice your heart rate increases, you may sweat a bit, shake or become emotional.”

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How can we reset our nervous system?

“When our thoughts are overwhelming, tuning into our senses can be enough to anchor us back into calmness,” says Brotheridge. “There is also an element of distraction as we’re focusing our attention on something other than our anxious feelings or thoughts.”

She advocates the five-senses method to ease stress and anxiety, which essentially means using all five of our senses, in turn, to calm our minds and return to a state of balance. And the good news is, it’s quick to do and easy to remember.

So, how does it work?

“When you engage all your senses simultaneously, you’re using your full suite of mental resources to interrupt challenging thought patterns and bringing yourself into the present moment instead,” explains Cullen.

 “You’re placing your attention in the moment rather than the ‘threat’ and distracting your brain from catastrophising, panicking or even being overly excited. Instead, grounding yourself to the here and now, where actually you’re safe. This all serves to quieten your amygdala down and activate your parasympathetic nervous system instead, calming down those stress hormones that cause you to feel imbalanced and have those physical responses and reopening your ability to think clearly and logically instead.”

How to practise the five-senses method

Five things you can see

The first step is to identify five things that you can immediately see around you. This could be anything from the sofa to your pet or a holiday snap on the bookshelf. In fact, anything with a special memory attached can be particularly effective since it will promote a sense of peacefulness.

Four things you can touch 

Next up, it’s time to get tactile. Our skin is our largest organ, and we all learned so much about the power of touch during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many of us went months without touching another person. Counsellor and hypnotherapist Liz Sharpe recommends stroking your arms or even hugging yourself, in the absence of anyone else, for an oxytocin boost that helps to balance out cortisol levels.

Touch can be as simple as feeling the ground beneath your feet or perhaps smoothing some hand cream on. Bonus points if it’s scented.

Three things you can hear 

Tune in to your surroundings, and really listen. Whether it’s birdsong, the hum of your fridge or your Spotify playlist, focusing on the sounds in your environment distracts your brain from the anxiety and stress you’re experiencing.

Two things you can smell 

Scent is a hugely powerful sense and has the ability to transport our minds in an instant (anyone whose first boyfriend wore Lynx Africa will understand). Take a deep breath and notice what you can smell – coffee, a scented candle, fresh washing. Close your eyes and really inhale the aromas (admittedly not so great on a packed Tube) as you start to relax.

One thing you can taste 

Finally, focus on your sense of taste. This could be the gum you’re chewing or your morning latte. Notice and savour it for as long as you can. 

When to use the five-senses method

“This technique can be used whenever we feel stress, anxiety or overwhelm coming on,” Brotheridge reassures us. “It can also be used in bed at the end of the day to help you to switch off or before a meeting you’re nervous about to help you to feel centred and calm beforehand. It’s a quick and simple tool that could be used daily as part of your routine or whenever you need to ground and calm yourself.”

And if you’re pushed for time and five senses feels like a lot, just do what you can. “Some people find it useful to have a reminder printed out on their desk to prompt them,” says Brotheridge. “You might find that you can connect with some of your senses more than others; if, for example, touch is very grounding, you can choose what works best for you if you don’t have time to connect with all of your senses,” she explains.

And breathe. 

Images: Getty/Oscar Wong

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