The Science of Calm

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By Alicia Cox, MA, AMFT

In therapy, there are many techniques that I often suggest to clients to help them come back to a calmer state. Many of these techniques are connected to biological reactions to triggers that induce a calmer state. There is a science to these exercises, which have been proved useful for when we need help managing emotions. Here are a few of the more common calming techniques to help you relax and de-stress:

Breathing Exercises

One of the most common practices I have shared with my clients regards learning the proper way to breathe. Fortunately, there is an easy routine you can follow to help you breathe to feel calmer and relaxed.

First, try breathing in twice as fast as you breathe out. For example, breathe in to the count of three and breathe out to the count of six. When we breathe in, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated. This is the area of our brain that is responsible for our fight-or-flight or stress response. When we breathe out, our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is activated. This is the area of the brain that is responsible for relaxation. When we breathe out longer than we breathe in, we will slowly calm ourselves down, over time.

Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth with pursed lips. This practice also activates the PNS area of the brain and can help us reach a calmer state.

Make sure you are breathing diaphragmatically, which means to breathe from your stomach or diaphragm instead of your chest. When we take shallow breaths (chest breaths), we activate a panicky sensation that can increase anxiety in moments when we may not need to be anxious. Breathe from your stomach regularly, so you do not trigger this response.

Test if you are breathing from your diaphragm by feeling the temperature of your out-breath on your hand. If your breath feels cold, your breathing is shallow; if the temperature is warm, you are breathing diaphragmatically. You can also put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. The hand that rises as you breathe in is where your breath is coming from. If your breathing is shallow, practice breathing from your stomach so that you begin to breathe this way more naturally.

Cold Water

When you splash cold water on your face, take a cold shower or drink cold water while holding your breath, you activate the “dive response.” This response tricks your brain into believing you are underwater, which slows down your heart rate and redirects the majority of your blood to the brain and heart. After exposure to cold water, your body and mind will slowly start to calm down so you can manage these intense emotions more easily.


Floating in water has many health benefits. Floating increases our blood circulation and allows oxygen to be distributed more efficiently throughout our body and helps the brain to function more effectively. Floating can also cause the brain to release endorphins, which can improve our mood.


I encourage you to try these calming techniques when you are feeling stressed or having trouble managing emotions. But for these skills to be most effective, it is important to practice them regularly. In doing so, you are preparing yourself for difficult times when you might need them most.


Kallevang, B. How Floating Can Change Our Brains Incredibly, According To Science. Retrieved from

Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

McKay, M., Wood, J. C. & Brantley, J. (2007). The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation & Distress Tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

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The Buddhist Meditation Practice of Tonglen

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photo credit: Kwanbenz)

By Nicolina Santoro, MA, LMFT 

The act of being aware of how and why we suffer broadens our own understanding of the world by visualizing the reality of an empathetic connection we share as we breathe in. The meditative breath practice of Tonglen involves inhaling through the pain the person you are visualizing is experiencing or is perceived to have caused while breathing out a new frequency of love toward the person we are trying to help, accept or forgive.

According to The Tibetan Book of the Dead by Sogyal Rinpoche, Tonglen is effective in negating the restricting and sometimes detrimental influence of our ego by opening our hearts to those around us without losing ourselves in their personal drama. We are compassionate observers and teachers, while the people around us teach us about how their experience of suffering has affected them.

A powerful part of this practice is visualization, which has a number of cognitive benefits. Continually visualizing scenes that evoke positive emotional states reinforces the production of neurotransmitters in the brain associated with positive emotional states, and encourages the pruning of synaptic relationships that are counterproductive to this practice.

Tonglen Breathing Exercise

It is important to be in a quiet place where you can assume a comfortable posture. As this is a breath awareness exercise, it can be helpful to place your hand on your stomach to increase awareness of your diaphragm moving in and out with each breath.

While inhaling, visualize the pain associated with what you are trying to release around a specific person. Any confrontations or experiences that were especially salient to you will be a good fit for this exercise.

While exhaling, visualize having a positive healing experience with this person, where love is flowing from you to the subject of your practice. This practice is a process of thought transmutation that encourages emotional healing around a person or experience.

A good rule of thumb when adopting any meditation practice is to accept that you may find it difficult to focus while you are experiencing the miscellaneous thought traffic that will drift in and out of your meditation time. Also, if you are a novice meditator, keep it brief at first. Try 10-minute increments once daily until you can sit with ease, then increase the time in 5 or 10 minute intervals until you find what amount of time gives you the maximum benefits.


Rinpoche, S. (1993). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. (p. 195). NY:Harper Collins.

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