Have you watched Jurassic Park and wondered how living among dinosaurs would feel? Sharing the world with saber-tooth tigers, always watchful for pterodactyl shadows?
Imagine stepping back in history, only to encounter a dinosaur. You’d be faced with two options – tackle it and battle for your life, or flee like the wind.
You may not have planned any of it (how could you?) but in a second your breath has quickened, your muscles tensed, and your heartbeat has ramped up to warp speed.
Today, T-Rexes are no longer a threat – but our fight or flight instincts still run strong. If you’ve ever felt your heart race, your chest pound, or your breath quicken when you’re feeling stressed, I’ll explain why.
Keep reading to learn what happens to your nervous system when you panic, and how you can calm your rapid pulse when it’s pressure – not love – that’s making your heart race.
Link to Stress
As you can imagine, your time-traveling self was under plenty of strain in my Jurassic Park analogy. When that predator appeared, you were faced with two options: fight, or flight.
Both demanded instant action, and both required your body to kick into high gear – so your autonomic nervous system took over your physical processes.
If we’re being specific…
- Emotional strain caused your brain to release a flood of stress hormones into your system
- These hormones – including cortisol, triggered your involuntary sympathetic nervous system, a division of your autonomic system, and
- You became much more physically alert, experiencing more blood flow to your muscles, a quickened heart rate, and faster breathing for that extra oxygen boost,
Put simply, what we perceive as threats today simply take a different form.
While we may not be facing T-Rexes, our very same brain regions can be just as responsive to an angry client or fast-approaching deadline.
A pounding pulse is by far one of the most common reactions to stress that I encounter as a coach, which is why I created the Having a Rapid Heartbeat Stress Coaching Card. For three highly effective ways to stop your heart from racing, check out the following tips.
3 Ways To Calm Your Heartbeat
1. Break The Vicious Spiral
Now that you know how your emotions (or emotional turmoil) trigger a sympathetic nervous response, you can take action to stop it all from spiraling out of control.
- Stress (e.g. worry about a meeting) leads to a faster pulse
- Without awareness of what’s going on inside your body, you might feel even more concerned (“Oh no, trouble ahead!”)
- This adds to your stress, causing your heartbeat to elevate even more.
Understanding this self-reinforcing pattern can help you calm down when you notice your heartbeat quickening. You can take early action to relax a little, freeing you from the vicious cycle of physical and emotional responses.
2. Take A Hike!
…Or a walk. Or any physical exercise, really.
By heading outdoors when you sense your heart starts to pound, you can stimulate the release of ‘happy hormones’ that counter the impact of ‘stress hormone’ cortisol. This causes you to unwind and relax, helping you to feel calmer and happier while easing some of the discomforts you might feel from Muscle Tension, for example.
You don’t need to push yourself to enjoy the benefits of exercise-induced endorphins – according to experts, even a gentle stroll is enough to unlock their benefits.
3. Mental Escape
Guided imagery is a therapist-recommended way to relax your brain, calming your body in the process. You can think of it as a “mental escape” by visualizing peaceful, serene pictures with your own imagination.
To create harmony between your mind and body:
- Sit or lie comfortably in a peaceful place.
- With your eyes closed, take a few slow, deep, relaxing breaths.
- Try to picture a tranquil place where you feel happy, content, and at leisure – perhaps an idyllic setting you’d like to visit, or somewhere familiar where you’ve had a good time.
- Bring your other senses into the visualization. Make it as realistic as possible with your sight (what can you see?), hearing (is it a babbling brook?), smell (like freshly cut grass or sweet flowers), touch (e.g. a soft, warm breeze), and taste (the slight salt of coastal air, for example).
- Including a path in your visualization is a good trick – experience yourself moving forward, and feeling increasingly relaxed as you move further into your mental escape.
- Once you’re feeling calmer, spend a few moments appreciating your unwound state. Breathe slowly for several minutes, savoring it.
- Come back gradually and gently into reality in your own time. Remember that you can revisit your private escape whenever you need to; this can help you tap into that calming feeling as your day unfolds. This knowledge can make dealing with anxiety, stress triggers, and other challenges much less of a struggle.
- End the exercise by counting to 3, then re-open your eyes. Do you feel more relaxed, soothed, and tranquil?
One final tip: This visualization can also be done using guided meditation. I’ve visited many beautiful beaches, forests, and meadows before, but when I was searching online, this waterfall meditation and this forest stroll were the most peaceful to me.