Talk about a high-stress job.
In a crisis situation, I found that it was a tremendous asset to be able to keep my cool, maintain a level head, and return to a calm baseline fast. When the adrenaline was pumping and emotions overwhelmed my brain, it could make it difficult to do my job and took a while to get back on track after the emergency was over. I learned this lesson firsthand early in my career.
The inherent stress of the work crept up on me and kept accumulating until I had no choice but to get serious about learning ways to de-stress and calm myself down after a shift. About a year into my career, I started feeling the emotional toll that emergency medicine takes on a first responder. It became harder and harder to return to calm and bounce back from the tough calls. My habit of compartmentalizing my emotions and running on pure adrenaline wasn’t enough to keep me centered amidst the chaos I faced at work every day anymore.
I had to learn and routinely use mental health tools and practices to help calm my brain and body quickly so that I could keep on working. Here’s what I found helped me along with the science of why it works.
Listen To Music
I turned to music first in my search to find peace and calm. When “Taylor” by Jack Johnson came on the radio one day, I had an epiphany. Jack Johnson at the Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington state was the first big concert I ever attended. I was in high school. It was one of those almost perfect days. The sun was shining, and I was relaxed and in the company of good friends. Most importantly, I wasn’t surrounded by dying people who needed me to save them!
I can just think of the song, and it anchors me to the feeling of that calmer time. The effects are immediate. I feel a rush of proverbial cool water wash over my brain every time I recall the memory.
Music has so many brain benefits. Research shows that music influences an array of cognitive processes in the brain. Studies show that music may reduce anxiety in cases where the symptoms are induced by stress. One study published in Nature Neuroscience found that listening to music can cause the brain to release dopamine, a pleasurable neurotransmitter, at periods of peak enjoyment.
Not all studies investigating the stress-reducing effects of music have shown conclusive results, and more clinical research still needs to be done. However, music seems to have a unique ‘backdoor’ into the brain. Music is one of the few therapies that consistently (albeit temporarily) reduces symptoms of cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients.
One study involving 20 male patients with Alzheimer ’s found that patients treated with music therapy had increased melatonin levels, improved behavior, and a reduction in sleeping problems.
Surround Yourself with Soothing Smells
I’ve also found that certain smells have a powerful impact on my emotional state. The scent of pine trees relieves my stress fast.
The olfactory senses have a direct line of communication with your brain through the amygdala, the part of your brain that controls emotions and helps modulate stress response. What you smell has a unique intimacy with your emotions. The sense of smell is more strongly tied to memory than any other sense.
When I was a kid, my happiest memories were during vacations at my grandparent’s mountain cabin in western Montana. The scent of pine was thick in the air while my best childhood memories were being formed. I began carrying pine needles around in my pocket while I was in the ambulance, and I’d take a sniff when needed. Combine that with listening to a little Jack Johnson, and I had discovered a fast-acting stress-reduction formula.
If pine isn’t a favorite of yours or if you can’t find a scent that triggers happy memories, take a whiff of lavender. There’s plenty of research supporting lavender aromatherapy as an effective way to soothe anxiety fast. Hospital patients awaiting invasive procedures, like heart surgery, display greatly reduced anxiety after breathing lavender essential oil.
Try a Short Burst of Exercise
My personal stress reduction game plan became complete when I added a little exercise into the mix. I was halfway through a twelve-hour shift when my partner and I messed up and almost lost a patient. Luckily we had already called for back-up. We ended up reviving the patient but I had trouble reviving my personal sanity. I just couldn’t calm down after that call. For the first time, I had the feeling of guilt accompanying the stress. After a few hours of feeling like an emotional zombie, I started frantically doing push-ups. Then I did some lunges, squats, and pull-ups.
It only took about five minutes of vigorous activity for me to instantly feel better. Over the course of the following weeks, I settled into a post-911-call routine. After we’d drop the patient off, I’d finish my report and find a quiet corner outside the hospital. Blasting Jack Johnson, I’d do a quick workout, and take a few whiffs of the pine needles in my pocket. It didn’t always bring me back to my center right away, but it did the trick 80 percent of the time — not bad when your mind’s reeling from almost just killing someone.
It’s important to note that short bursts of high-intensity exercise can raise levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Exercising for stress reduction is different from exercising to get in shape for a triathlon. You don’t want to go so hard that you cause excessive inflammation. The goal is to get the brain benefits without the extra wear and tear.
Exercise has numerous benefits for your brain. It is proven to increase levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) in the brain. BDNF is a protein that’s critical to neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons. Professor John J. Ratey, M.D. calls BDNF “Miracle-gro for the brain” in his book, Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. BDNF not only aids learning by helping forge new synaptic connections but also works to slow cognitive decline with its neuroprotective effects.
Move Through Some Yoga Poses
Research has shown that a regular practice over time alters the fundamental biochemistry of the brain by improving the levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that tends to be low in people experiencing depression and anxiety. Yoga is far more effective at boosting GABA levels than walking according to a recent study. If push-ups or walking aren’t your things, try squeezing in some yoga.
GABA is the inhibitory neurotransmitter to the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. People with high anxiety tend to be low on GABA. Without enough GABA available, glutamate doesn’t know to stop firing. A single 60-minute session of yoga can boost GABA levels by 27 percent according to a recent study. Yoga has been shown to ease stress and depression.
The deep breathing in yoga stimulates the vagus nerve that runs from your gut to your brain. When you breathe deeply, you put pressure on the vagus nerve which signals a reduction in heart rate. The resulting lower blood pressure and lower respiratory rate reduce stress.
I understand if you may not have time to get to a yoga class in the middle of your day. In that case, a few poses will yield more benefits than none.
Down a Few Drops of Passionflower
Passionflower is a herb that acts on GABA receptors in the brain. It’s one of my favorite remedies for anxiety because I find it to be fast-acting, soothing, and non-sedative.
If you don’t have a chance to take time out to do yoga, exercise, or listen to music, you can always take some passionflower extract really quickly. Passionflower behaves differently for everyone. Try it and see if it works for you. Other herbs that act on GABA receptors, such as valerian root, are too sedative for me to take during the day. Passionflower provides a nice balance between calming me down without knocking me out.
Take a Probiotic Supplement
It’s impossible for me to talk about reducing stress without mentioning probiotics. Probiotics are “good” bacteria which help maintain digestive health and boost the immune system. You can take them in a dietary supplement or get them from food sources, such as yogurt. Scientists are learning that our emotions and mental health are influenced by our gut bacteria. Information travels from your gut to your brain via the vagus nerve.
In addition to that big brain in your head, you also have a brain in your gut, called the enteric nervous system. This second brain consists of a network of some 500 million nerve cells and 100 million neurons. Just like the brain in your head, the brain below uses and produces over 30 neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin. What you put in your mouth has everything to do with what goes on in your head.
A compromised gut lining can wreak havoc on your mental health and the stress response. Bacterial imbalance in the gut, also known as gut dysbiosis, can lead to increased intestinal permeability. Research has shown that consuming quality probiotics can help recolonize gut bacteria, reduce inflammation, and reduce chronic stress.
There’s a bit of controversy surrounding probiotic products still. I have found a few that work really well for me. I call Kevita probiotic beverages my ‘happy juice.’ I always felt more stressed on days where my gut’s feeling off. Drinking Kevita soothes my gut and calms me right down quickly. On the west coast, you can find them in most conventional grocery stores.
I suspect that this fast response may be correlated to the role that healthy gut bacteria play in neurotransmitter production, specifically serotonin. Your gut produces almost 90 percent of your body’s serotonin. When your gut bacteria is out of balance, your mental health can suffer.
As for probiotic supplements, I only take the VSL#3 strain which research has shown to be particularly effective. It’s prescription grade and can be purchased at most pharmacies. You have to ask the pharmacist for it. They’ll need to pull it from their refrigerator behind the counter. Many of the clinical studies use the VSL-3 strain of probiotic for testing.
Sometimes you need to calm down fast. Fortunately, my job afforded me the freedom to move around and try different things. I could easily find a place to exercise, do some yoga poses, or listen to my music. If you’re more confined in your place of work, there are several ways you can still fit in some stress reduction.
- Identify smells that calm you. They may be ones that have strong positive ties to distant memories. If not, you can always reach for lavender, an essential oil proven to reduce stress fast.
- Deep breathing reduces stress by stimulating the vagus nerve. You can do it at your desk or anywhere if you can’t find a tucked-away corner to do some yoga.
- Passionflower is a herb that acts on GABA receptors in the brain. Keep some in your desk for when you need a quick chill pill.
- Finally, stress and anxiety can often start in the gut. Probiotics can help correct gut bacteria imbalances and restore proper neurotransmitter production.
Justin Faraday is a former EMT and massive health and nutrition enthusiast. After struggling with his health for many years, he got serious about feeling incredible. Get stellar mental health and nutrition advice at his blog, dopefreshfit.com.