• Bert Pepper

A Quieting Response: A Quick Way to Calm Down

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

Here is a simple way to find calmness during these stressful times.

Posted May 04, 2020 on Psychology Today

This post will try to show you how to de-stress by practicing quieting response (QR). This 30-second exercise is a way to calm yourself. The QR uses the common elements of different kinds of yoga and meditation. Practiced repeatedly, it will probably reduce your stress level. Doing it once or twice will accomplish nothing.

Many years ago, while studying meditation and self-hypnosis, I learned how to bring myself rather quickly into a state of physical and emotional relaxation.[1] I also bought an electronic watch with an hourly chime. The chime reminded me to practice the QR every hour. That repetitive training led, after many months, to the QR kicking in automatically whenever my body got tense. Here's an explanation of how the QR works and why it can be important.

Fear or anxiety causes the fight-or-flight response of our nervous system. This term was first used by Dr. Walter Cannon 100 years ago. In medical terms, it means activating the sympathetic nervous system. This is done by the release of hormones — chemical messengers released by the adrenal glands — that flow quickly throughout the body via the blood. These hormones cause the heart to beat harder and faster. Blood pressure rises. More blood flows to the arms and legs. Increased blood flow to the brain brings about alertness, tension, and readiness to make big decisions quickly: Fight? Flee?

The brain is fine-tuned to make a split-second decision when danger is perceived: activate the sympathetic nervous system. When we are living in a calm, stable, non-threatening environment, this doesn’t happen often. But we live in an anxious time, the time of the coronavirus. News reports alarm us day and night. We fear for our own safety and that of our loved ones.

It's not just the coronavirus. The age of anxiety began long before the virus threatened our lives. W. H. Auden popularized the phrase as the title of his Pulitzer Prize-winning poem in 1947. I believe that, at least in part, the popularity of yoga, meditation, Xanax, Valium, and alcohol is an attempt to reduce anxiety. Each is effective for some people. Some have negative side effects. Most of them are time-consuming.

A Quieting Response (QR)

The first time you practice QR, you may want to have another person coach you with the instructions.

To Practice QR:

  1. Sit comfortably, feet flat on the floor, hands relaxed on your thighs.

  2. Close your eyes and keep them closed for the next minute.

  3. Take a deep breath, hold it, and make a fist with your dominant hand.

  4. Exhale slowly as you imagine a horizontal line or zone of relaxation on your chest.

  5. While you exhale slowly, imagine the line move down your body, from chest to belly, to thighs, legs, ankles, to feet. As you exhale, gradually relax your fist.

  6. That’s it. Sit quietly for a moment, feel your body. Now, try it again, just once or twice.

Do not expect immediate results. Results require practice. Fortunately, this is not nearly as hard as learning to play the violin, which requires years of daily practice.

When you have practiced QR for a while you may notice your feet tingling, a hallmark of relaxed feet.

How Does QR Work?

Life is rhythmic. There are several intrinsic rhythms that regulate the human body. Each is based on a repetitive cycle of tension-relaxation, tension-relaxation. The most obvious rhythm is the heartbeat. The heart is a muscle, and when it contracts (tension) blood is pushed out into the arteries of the body to supply oxygen and nutrition. When the heart muscle relaxes in the second part of the cycle, veins fill the heart with oxygenated blood coming from the lungs. At rest, the heart may beat 60-70 cycles per minute. During exercise, or during a fight-or-flight response the rate may double. Simply telling the heart to slow down doesn't work.

The rhythm we can consciously control is our breathing. This is another muscular tension-relaxation cycle. We breathe in by:

  1. contracting and flattening the internal sheet of muscle called the diaphragm

  2. by contracting the small muscles that connect our ribs.

These actions increase the volume of the chest and lungs, and air rushes in. When we relax the same muscles, air is pushed out. When we are at rest, we may breathe at the rate of 10 cycles per minute. When we are exercising or anxious the rate may double. Slowing our rate of breathing is relaxing. Controlling, monitoring, and slowing the breath is a core element of QR, as it is of yoga and meditation. The mantra: Follow the breath.

Over the last 30 years I have taught this exercise to hundreds of my anxious patients. Some found it to have no value; they preferred to take a Xanax. But patients who did not like taking medicine were likely to make the effort. I was gratified each time a patient told me that the effort to be more in control of their body and mind paid off.



[1] I am indebted to all my teachers of meditation, hypnosis, and self-hypnosis, especially Herbert Benson MD, Professor of Cardiology at Harvard University and founder of the Mind-Body Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital. His large body of work on The Relaxation Response has been invaluable and influential.

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