I'm A Neuroscientist & This Is How I Decompress (In 60 Seconds Or Less)
Though our triggers are different, most of us know what it feels like to be overcome with difficult emotions. Maybe you feel stress after opening up an email, anxiety when thinking about an upcoming presentation, or sadness when rehashing a conversation that didn't go your way. These moments can cause us to get lost in our feelings—even if they're not the most logical or helpful.
The next time you find yourself in a charged moment, Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., author of Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, has some tips for quickly making your way out of it. The key, she says, is using decompression activities that, by definition, help us return to a normal, more relaxed state. "By utilizing decompression activities, we can enter a space that allows us to bring whatever emotions we have down to a more manageable state," Leaf tells mbg.
Here are four of the cognitive neuroscientist's favorite ways to decompress and stop negative thinking spirals in their tracks—all of which are free, fast, and easily accessible:
Connect to the body.
The next time your mind takes over, Leaf recommends using grounding practices to come back to your body. "When we feel stressed out or overwhelmed, we may find ourselves too mentally exhausted to process our emotions, or we may be too overwhelmed by the intensity of our feelings. In moments like these, it can be incredibly beneficial to connect with our ability to touch and feel," she says. In doing so, we take our attention off our racing thoughts—which may or may not be true—and connect with the real and tangible world around us.
One quick way to come back to yourself is with a body scan. Moving slowly up and down, from the tips of your toes to the top of your head, consider how your body feels in that moment. Is there any warmth or coolness? Is there tension or looseness? What can you feel on your skin? By paying attention to these sensations, Leaf says "we can help calm our sympathetic nervous system and bring our bodies out of fight-or-flight mode."
"Another tool that helps us decompress is to harness our creativity and imagination," Leaf explains. In moments of tension, moving your body freely, dancing to a favorite song, or taking a pen to paper can all be ways to find relief quickly.
Creative outlets can also play a role in long-term emotional maintenance. "Creativity can teach us a lot about ourselves. It is a great way to embrace our own sense of self-discovery and get to the root of what is making us stressed out, and where we want to go in life," Leaf says. From a neurological perspective, she adds that engaging with creativity can promote gamma waves1 in the brain—the fastest brain wave that is associated with learning and integrative thinking.
Yet another reason to start journaling, drawing, dancing, or doing any kind of creative practice in the new year.
In stressful moments, you can also put your creativity to work through visualization exercises. In your mind's eye, you can picture yourself protected by a bubble of light, rooted into the Earth like a tree or embedded in other imagery that makes you feel more confident and grounded in the moment.
Deep belly laughs can lighten any mood, and they even have a positive physiological impact. "Laughing reduces the level of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline)," Leaf says. "It also increases the level of health-enhancing hormones in our brain and body, such as endorphins."
The next time you're in need of some levity, look through an old greeting card that makes you chuckle or a video that never fails to crack you up. You could even keep a few of your favorite laugh-inducing resources in one place so you always have them on hand when you need them.
Looking for expert-approved decompression tools? Body scans, creative expressions, visualizations, and laughter can all help bring us back to our bodies during high-stress moments and send us on our way feeling a little steadier.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.