Best Life: Calm down, now, with these stress-busting techniques

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There are ways to lessen stress gradually, such as improving your sleep routine, exercising, and monitoring caffeine and sugar intake. They form an excellent foundation for long-term health. 

But there are challenging moments, days, and weeks when our cortisol is running higher than we’d like. Very often this can be brought on by larger external events out of our control, like work or health stresses, and other times, it’s about our reaction to smaller-scale triggers, like having a familiar argument with a friend or partner. 

Or a trigger can take you by surprise. One minute you are perfectly calm, and the next, maybe an interaction with a stranger at the supermarket, on the highway, or on social media sends you into a tailspin. Usually these are a sign that the event is echoing a previous upset your brain tagged as traumatic, perhaps one from childhood. It can even be a sound, a scent, or a visual cue you may not be consciously aware of. These are well worth unpacking later, but not right now.

Regardless of the cause, your goat has been gotten. You went from zero to 90 with the speed of a Ferrari, and if you are lucky, you notice it before saying or doing something you’ll regret.


How can you tell if your fight-flight-freeze system has been activated? There are some telltale signs that to watch for, or perhaps we should say feel for. They’ll be different if you are leaning more towards “flight” or “fight,” both more active modes, or “freeze,” a shutting-down and hiding response. Sense how your body feels and try to name any emotions you are having. Noticing these may take a little practice.

Please note that I’m not recommending ignoring your body’s fear response. This isn’t about repressing your feelings and “getting through,” but recognizing and acknowledging them and calming down to achieve a better situation. If you feel truly overwhelmed or unsafe, make your excuses and take the time to take care of yourself.


• Your heart is beating faster

• Your breath is shallow

• Your eyes are darting around the room

• You feel a queasiness in your gut, energy in your legs or butterflies in your chest

• Your hands are clenching into fists, a knot in your chest, and your jaw is tightening

• You are rubbing your temples or shoulders, hugging your chest, or contracting your body position by slumping


• Feeling angry and amped-up, ready to argue or defend – “fight”

•Feeling scared and ready to run – “flight”

• Feeling overwhelmed and sad – “freeze”


Here are some techniques to bring your central nervous system back into its “rest and digest” mode, from sympathetic to parasympathetic.

1. Deeper breaths.

Anything slower than your current rate is a help. Six seconds in and out is great to shoot for, but longer exhales than inhales cue the body to relax.

Some specific techniques to try include:

• Box breathing: Inhale 4 seconds (say “one-one thousand”), hold 4, exhale 4, hold 4.

• 4-7-8 breathing: Inhale 4, hold 7, exhale 8.

• Breathe in for 6 seconds, out for 6 seconds.

2. Moving

When a gazelle evades a lion, what does it do? It shakes. This is a common trauma release response in the animal kingdom. I’ve seen dog trainers recommend that if your reactive dog meets another on the street, it’s better to walk them in a circle (or away) than to let them sit staring at the other dog. The action both interrupts the body’s involuntary stress response and once finished, your body sends a relaxation message to your muscles.

It may feel silly until you try it. Bounce on your heels, get your arms involved – you’ll feel much better. If you’re in a boardroom or other public situation, shake out your hands as if you just washed them, roll your head, take a walk around the room.

3. Body cues

• Hug yourself – wrap your arms around yourself, on your arms, shoulders or neck tells the body you are safe and loved. You may find yourself doing this already.

Feel your feet on the ground. Sometimes stress can make us feel like we are not really here – like we are observing ourselves. Get back into your body, feel your feet on the floor, your legs on the chair, notice your breathing.

• The 5-4-3-2-1 Technique: This is a grounding technique to keep you in the present moment. Identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.

See which of these you like the best. Try some of these yourself the next time you feel yourself getting upset, and you’ll feel better in no time.