Find stress relief with these science-based strategies

Jelena kecmanovic

THE WASHINGTON POST – There is a saying in the Balkans, where I was born and raised, which roughly translates to: “There is nothing worse than finally seeing the light, to be at again plunged into darkness.

As a psychologist, I have watched my patients’ extraordinary levels of stress and anxiety begin to subside, to be replaced by anger, disappointment and hopelessness as cases of the coronavirus reappeared and the promise of an end to the pandemic has become more elusive.

The widespread return to school in person and the uneven return to office this fall further contributes to the feeling of being pushed to the limit.

This has led many of my patients to wonder what they can do when they are feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, panicked, or being watched in a tunnel. While proven self-help strategies, such as exercise, good sleep, socialization, mindfulness, positive reframing, and self-compassion, are still the best prescription for reducing stress in general, sometimes a practical solution that can bring immediate relief is what is needed.

Here are some original but science-based strategies that can help us calm down quickly, so that we can keep functioning and doing what needs to be done.


One of the most effective stress resets is to dip your face in ice water while holding your breath. This activates the diving reflex, which slows the heart rate and redirects blood away from the periphery of the body, to the heart and other vital organs. These physiological changes have been shown to decrease anxiety.

If you don’t have a bowl or bucket of ice water, you can apply ice packs to your eyes, upper cheeks, and temples while bending down and holding your breath.

“Stay like this for as long as you can tolerate it. We generally recommend 15-30 seconds, although I have observed the effect [take hold] much faster, ”said Jenny Taitz, clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills, Calif., and author of End Emotional Eating.

Sheri Van Dijk, psychotherapist in Newmarket, Ont., And author of Calming the Emotional Storm, warns that people with low blood pressure, heart problems or eating disorders should get permission from their doctor before trying. this strategy.

We share the diving reflex with other air breathing vertebrates.

Consider activating your diving reflex as a way to channel your inner dolphin.


When we are very stressed or anxious, our attention narrows and focuses only on the negative aspects.

If you have a hard time looking at a situation objectively and making decisions, or if you feel mentally blocked or paralyzed, a quick distraction can give you a reset.

While repeatedly avoiding your negative feelings and escaping through Netflix or video games may result in more distress in the long run, occasionally distracting yourself by using a strong sensory impulse or engaging in mental games may provide respite from it. acute stress.

“It gives you a chance to take a psychological break, expand the lens to see the big picture, and gain courage for the next step,” said Kelly Koerner, Clinical Psychologist, CEO of Jaspr Health and author of Doing Dialectical Behavior Therapy: A Practical Guide.

Chew on a hot pepper, listen to loud music, hold ice cubes in your hands, or smell a tangy cheese to briefly distract your attention from stress.

Alternatively, you can “make an alphabetical list of car models, flowers, colors, or create a mental top 10 list of your favorite movies, novels or places,” Taitz said.

“One of my tips is to suck on a lemon, or imagine doing it. You will start to salivate, engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, which leads to relaxation, ”said Van Dijk.


Nature has long been associated with relaxation, but research over the past few decades has shown that art and computer images that mimic certain natural patterns can have a similar effect. Fractals, forms that repeat themselves at increasingly finer scales, are often found in nature. (Consider chambered nautilus shells, snowflakes, cones, tree branches, or leaf veins.)

They appear particularly pleasing to the human eye, and viewing them has been shown to reduce physical signs of acute stress.

Branka Spehar, professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and colleagues discovered that Jackson Pollock’s iconic paintings are also fractals.

“It helps explain the immense popularity of these similar arts and architectures over the years. Humans prefer lines that are neither straight nor smooth, with [a] moderate level of complexity, ”she said.

Our affinity for fractals probably came from evolution, as there are no perfect shapes or straight lines in the natural world.

“Everything you see in nature has imperfections,” Spehar said. “And a dose of imperfection is calming, like in Japanese wabi-sabi,” the aesthetic and worldview that emphasizes the acceptance of imperfection and impermanence.

When possible, spend time in nature to reduce stress. Other than that, mimic natural effects by looking at perfectly imperfect fractals. As singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen said, “There’s a crack, a crack in everything. This is how the light enters.


In the midst of an emotional storm, we often get confused with the catastrophic, critical or desperate voice in our head. Everything looks bad, now and in the future. The more we try to get out of it, the more we get stuck in the quicksand of negativity. To stop the spiral, change the way you talk to yourself. “When you use third-person pronouns and your name to refer to yourself, you zoom out and move away from the current situation,” said Ethan Kross, professor of psychology as well as management and organizations at the ‘University of Michigan and the author of Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It.

Studies by Kross and others show that speaking in the third person reduces stress and defuses stress, often quite quickly.

No matter how silly or contrived, try counseling or coaching yourself as you would someone you love the next time you’re stressed out. Doing it silently will work, but you might want to try saying the words out loud if your environment allows.

Emulating the way children talk to each other in the third person can ensure you don’t fall for self-criticism.


The first study examining the calming effect of chewing gum, published in the journal Science in 1939, reported beneficial effects on muscle tension associated with stress.

More recently, research has shown that chewing gum can reduce anxiety, stress, and cortisol while increasing alertness.

Even though a review of studies linking gum chewing and stress reduction showed inconsistent effects, you have nothing to lose by engaging in this easy and even fun activity.


Each emotion is associated with certain body postures, facial expressions and behavioral impulses. For example, when you get angry, you probably tend to have an upright posture, frown, and speak loudly or scream.

If you feel angry when stressed, try intentionally changing your posture to a non-aggressive posture, relaxing your expression into a smile and speaking very quietly. Research suggests that this technique, called “opposing action,” reduces the intensity of the original emotion.

A recent study has shown that even just changing your facial expression can change how you feel. For example, participants in a 2012 study reported more positive affects and had a lower heart rate during stress recovery after smiling.

The effect was stronger for those who displayed a “Duchenne smile”, one that involves the eyes in addition to the mouth. “Information about your facial expression travels to your brain via cranial nerves connected to your facial muscles,” said Eric Finzi, dermatologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University and author of The Face of Emotion: How Botox Affects Our Moods. and Relations.

“It happens without awareness. For example, when you see a snake, your face displays a frightening expression within 40 milliseconds, before you become consciously aware of your fear.

So when your negative emotions seem overwhelming, try smiling for immediate relief.


Research by Andrew Gallup, associate professor of psychology at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, suggests that yawning has a cooling function of the brain in vertebrates, including humans.

“Brain temperature rises during times of stress and anxiety,” Gallup said. “And yawning occurs naturally before and during stressful situations, promoting relaxation and better cognitive functioning. It has nothing to do with boredom.

While there is no experimental evidence that cooling the brain by inducing yawning – such as watching videos of people yawning – results in reduced stress, Gallup believes the effect is likely and would be. consistent with existing results.

For now, yawn. Who knows? Maybe you will trigger yawns in others and reduce their stress as well.

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