Quick Stress Relief
Fast and effective ways to rapidly reduce stress
Ever wish a stress superhero could save you from traffic jams, chaotic meetings, or a toddler’s tantrums?
Guess what? You can be your own stress-busting superhero. Everybody has the power to reduce the impact of stress as it’s happening in that moment. With practice, you can learn to spot stressors and stay in control when the pressure builds.
Learning quick stress relief won't happen overnight. Like any skill, it takes time, self-exploration and above all, practice. But think of it as an education with a huge payoff.
The origins of stress
Are you friends with stress, or do you fear stress and wish you could make it go away? Believe it or not, stress is necessary for life. Without it, you would be dead—you need stress for creativity, learning, and your very survival. Stress is only harmful when it becomes overwhelming.
You may think that the worst kind of stress comes from traumatic situations like a car accident or a mugging. But what you may not know is that chronic, everyday stress can be just as damaging. Relentless small-scale challenges can wear you down, whether or not you even realize it’s a problem.
Internal stress: Are you making yourself stressed?
Stress doesn’t always come from our external environment. Often, stress is self-generated. This can happen when we worry about things that are out of our control, dwell on the negatives, criticize ourselves, imagine the worst, or hold ourselves and others to unrealistic standards, or take on too many responsibilities. Internal stress is one of the most important kinds of stress to recognize and manage.
Being able to manage and relieve stress in the moment is the key to staying balanced, focused, and in control, no matter what challenges you face.
When stress is out-of-control, it can get in the way of your ability to:
- Think clearly and creatively
- Communicate clearly
- Accurately “read” other people
- Hear what someone is really saying
- Trust others
- Attend to your own needs
Bottom line? Those who are aware of their stress and know how to manage it are less likely to get overwhelmed.
How well do you currently manage stress?
To assess your present ability to manage stress, ask yourself the following questions:
- When I feel agitated, do I know how to quickly calm myself?
- Can I easily let go of my anger?
- Can I turn to others at work to help me calm down and feel better?
- When I come home at night, do I walk in the door feeling alert and relaxed?
- Am I seldom distracted or moody?
- Am I able to recognize upsets that others seem to be experiencing
- Do I easily turn to friends or family members for a calming influence?
- When my energy is low, do I know how to boost it?
Source: The Language of Emotional Intelligence by Jeanne Segal
Acknowledging stress is the first step in lessening its impact. Many of us spend so much time in a stressed state, we have forgotten what it feels like to be fully relaxed and alert. Being stressed out feels normal.
What does it feel like to be calm and stress-free? You can see that “just right” inner balance in the smile of a happy baby—a face so full of joy it reminds adults of the balanced emotional state that most of us have misplaced. In adulthood, being balanced means maintaining a calm state of energy, alertness, and focus. Calmness is more than just feeling relaxed; being alert is an equally important aspect of finding the balance needed to withstand stress.
If you don’t feel calm, alert, productive, and focused most of the time in your daily life, then too much stress may be a problem for you.
Tips for recognizing when you’re stressed
Hush the voice that’s telling you, ‘Oh, I’m fine.” Notice how you’re breathing has changed. Are your muscles tense? Awareness of your physical response to stress will help regulate the tension when it occurs.
When you're tired, your eyes feel heavy and you might rest your head on your hand. When you're happy, you laugh easily. And when you are stressed, your body lets you know that too. Try to get in the habit of paying attention to your body's clues.
- Observe your muscles and insides. Are your muscles tight/sore? Is your stomach tight or sore? Are your hands clenched?
- Observe your breath. Is your breath shallow? Place one hand on your belly, the other on your chest. Watch your hands rise and fall with each breath. Notice when you breathe fully or when you "forget" to breathe.
Internally, we all respond to stress the same: our blood pressure rises, our heart pumps faster, and our muscles constrict. When stressed, our bodies work hard and drain our immune system. Externally, however, people tend to respond to stress in three different ways: some become angry and agitated, others space out or withdraw, and still others freeze up.
The best way to quickly relieve stress may relate to your specific stress response. Read on to find out where you fit in.
Stress doesn’t always look stressful
Psychologist Connie Lillas uses a driving analogy to describe the three most common ways people respond when they’re overwhelmed by stress:
- Foot on the gas. An angry or agitated stress response. You’re heated, keyed up, overly emotional, and unable to sit still.
- Foot on the brake. A withdrawn or depressed stress response. You shut down, space out, and show very little energy or emotion.
- Foot on both gas and brake. A tense and frozen stress response. You “freeze” under pressure and can’t do anything. You look paralyzed, but under the surface you’re extremely agitated.
How do you act when stressed?
When it comes to managing and reducing stress quickly in the middle of a heated situation, it’s important to be familiar with your specific stress response.
- Overexcited stress response – If you tend to become angry, agitated, or keyed up under stress, you will respond best to stress relief activities that quiet you down.
- Under excited stress response – If you tend to become depressed, withdrawn, or spaced out under stress, you will respond best to stress relief activities that are stimulating and that energize your nervous system.
- Frozen stress response (both overexcited and under excited) – If you tend to freeze: speeding up in some ways while slowing down in others, your challenge is to identify stress relief activities that provide both safety and stimulation to help you “reboot” your system.
There are countless techniques for preventing stress. Yoga and meditation work wonders for improving our coping skills. But who can take a moment to chant or meditate during a job interview or a disagreement with your spouse? For these situations, you need something more immediate and accessible. That’s when quick stress relief comes to the rescue.
The speediest way to stamp out stress is by engaging one or more of your senses—your sense of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement—to rapidly calm and energize yourself.
The key to practicing quick stress relief is learning what kind of sensory input helps your particular nervous system find calm and focus quickly. Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so an awareness of your preferences is essential for reducing stress.
Talking to someone who listens: a rapid stress reducer
Want to know a quick social stress reliever? Talk to someone! It’s true, talking about your stress with a calm and balanced listener will make you feel better instantly. Although it’s not always realistic to have a pal close by to lean on, building and maintaining a friendship network is ultimately good for your mental health. Between quick stress relief techniques and good listeners, you’ll have all your bases covered.
Here comes the fun part. Now that you know that your senses are powerful tools in your stress-busting toolkit, it’s time to experiment with various kinds of sensory input. Remember exploring your senses in elementary school? Grownups can take a tip from grade school lessons by revisiting the senses and learning how they can help us prevent system overload.
Start by slowing down. When you slow down, you learn better and feel better.
Sights. Surround yourself with visual stimulation such as comforting mementos and uplifting photos. Wear accessories and jewelry that make you feel powerful when you catch sight of them. Hang a prism in the window for a rainbow display. Keep a fresh bouquet of flowers at a table or workstation.
Sound. Experiment with music and other sounds that calm and soothe you. Keep birdfeeders outside and tune into bird chatter. Hang wind chimes near an open window. Place a small fountain in your home or office so you can enjoy the soothing sound of running water. Listen to different interpretations of your favorite music.
Scent. If you tend to zone out or freeze when stressed, keep energizing scents nearby. If you tend to become overly agitated under stress, look for scents that are comforting and calming. Inhale the smell of freshly brewed coffee or tea if you start to feel yourself zoning out. Keep a bowl of fragrant fruit nearby.
Touch. Experiment with textures and with warm and cool temperatures to relax and renew. Play with your dog, feel his warm, soft head against your face. Give yourself a hand or neck massage—lightly tap your head and neck for a few seconds. Press a warm (or icy) beverage mug into your skin.
Taste. Mindless eating will only add to your stress—and your waistline. The key is to indulge your sense of taste mindfully and in moderation. Eat slowly, focusing on the feel of the food in your mouth and the taste on your tongue. Slowly drink a refreshing cold beverage. Chew a piece of sugarless gum.
Movement. Movement has a sensory effect on stress and acts like one of our senses. If you tend to shut down when stress strikes, try pacing while you talk on the phone. Stand up—instead of sitting down—at a desk to write and work. Keep a rubbery stress ball at your desk and squeeze it to relax. Use a rocking chair to focus and relax. Got more energy to burn? Try pushups!
The power of imagination
Sensory rich memories can also quickly reduce stress. After drawing upon your sensory toolbox becomes habit, another approach is to learn to simply imagine vivid sensations when stress strikes. Believe it or not, the sheer memory of your baby’s face will have the same calming or energizing effects on your brain as seeing her photo. So if you can recall a strong sensation, you’ll never be without access to your quick stress relief toolbox.
Sensory stress-busting techniques give you a powerful tool for staying clear-headed and in control in the middle of stressful situations. They give you the confidence to face challenges, knowing that you have the ability to rapidly bring yourself back into balance. The following worksheet will help you find the stress relievers that work best for you.Tips for finding sensory inspiration
Inspiration is everywhere, from sights you see on your way to work to smells and objects around your home. Explore a variety of sensations so that no matter where you are you’ll always have something you can do to relax yourself. Here a few ideas to get you started.
- Memories. Think back to what you did as a child to calm down. If you had a blanket or stuffed toy, you might benefit from tactile stimulation. Try tying a textured scarf around your neck before an appointment or keeping a piece of soft suede in your pocket.
- Watch others. Observing how others deal with stress can give you valuable insight. Baseball players often pop gum in their mouth before going up to bat. Singers often chat up the crowd before performing. Ask around about what people you know do to stay focused under pressure—it could work for you too.
- Parents. Think back to what your parents did to blow off steam. Did your mother feel more relaxed after a long walk? Did your father do yard work after a hard day? Try some of the things they did to unwind; they might work for you too.
Take a break from technology
Taking a short hiatus from the television, computer, cell phone, and iPod will give you insight on what your senses respond to best. Here are some “unplugging” tips:
- Try tuning into relaxing music instead of talk radio during your commute. Or try riding in silence for 10 minutes.
- Stuck in a long line at the grocery store? Instead of talking on your cell phone, take a moment to people watch. Pay attention to what you hear and see.
- Instead of checking e-mail while waiting for a meeting to begin, take a few deep breaths, look out the window, or sip some aromatic tea.
- While waiting for an appointment, resist the urge to text and give yourself a hand massage instead.
Let’s get real. It’s not easy to remember to use our senses in the middle of a mini—or not so mini—crisis. At first, it will feel easier to just give into pressure and tense up. The truth is, quick stress relief takes practice, practice, and more practice. But with time, calling upon your senses will become second nature. Here’s how to make it habit.
Learning to use your senses to quickly manage stress is a little like learning to drive or to play golf. You don’t master the skill in one lesson¾you have to practice until it becomes second nature. Once you have a variety of sensory tools you can depend on and use, you’ll be able to handle even the toughest of situations.
- Start small. Instead of testing your quick stress relief tools on a source of major stress, start with a predictable low-level source of stress, like cooking dinner at the end of the day or sitting down to balance your checkbook.
- Identify and target. Think of just one low-level stressor that you know will occur several times a week, such as commuting. Vow to target that particular stressor with quick stress relief every time. After a few weeks, target a second stressor. After a few weeks more, target a third stressor and so on.
- Test-drive sensory input. Experiment with as much sensory input as possible. If you are practicing quick stress relief on your commute to work, bring a scented handkerchief with you one day, try music another day, and try a movement the next day.
- Make “have fun” your motto. If something doesn’t work, don’t force it. Move on until you find your best fit.
- Talk about it. Verbalizing your quick stress relief work will help integrate it into your life. It’s bound to start a fascinating conversation—everyone relates to the topic of stress.
The best part of quick stress relief is the awareness that you have control over your surroundings. Even if you share a work area, you can personalize your space to serve as a “stress prevention zone” or to put quick stress relief within arm's reach. We all have our stress hotspots. Where are yours?
Quick stress relief at home
- Entertaining. Prevent pre-party jitters by playing lively music. Light candles. The flicker and scent will stimulate your senses. Wear clothes that make you feel relaxed and confident instead of stiff and uncomfortable.
- Kitchen. Cool the kitchen commotion by breathing in the scent of every ingredient you use—even if you’re just opening cans. Delight in the delicate texture of an eggshell. Appreciate the weight of an onion.
- Children and relationships. Prevent losing your cool during a spousal spat by breathing and squeezing the tips of your thumb and forefinger together. When your toddler tantrums, rub lotion into your hands then breathe in the scent.
- Sleep. Too stressed to snooze? Try using a white noise machine for background sound or a humidifier with a diffuser for a light scent in the air.
- Creating a sanctuary. If clutter is upsetting, spend 10 minutes each day to tidy and organize. Paint the walls with a fresh coat of your favorite calming color. Display photos and images that make you feel happy. Throw open the curtains and let in natural light whenever possible.
Quick stress relief at work
- Meetings. During stressful sessions, stay connected to your breath. Massage the tips of your fingers. Wiggle your toes. Sip coffee.
- On the phone. Inhale something energizing, like lemon, ginger, peppermint or coffee beans. While talking, stand up or pace back and forth to burn off excess energy. Conduct phone business outside when possible.
- On the computer. Work standing up. Do knee-bends in 10-minute intervals. Wrap a soft scarf around your neck. Suck on a peppermint.
- Lunch breaks. Take a walk around the block or in the parking lot. Listen to soothing music while eating. Have a quick chat with someone you love.
- Your workspace. Place family photos on your desk and display images and mementos that remind you of your life outside the office.