Our body’s natural stress response is meant to work in our favor, sending us into a fight-or-flight mode that helps us better navigate dangerous scenarios. For example, neuroscientist Carolyn Leaf, PhD, explains that the blood vessels around our heart dilate when we’re stressed, which boosts blood flow and oxygen to the prefrontal cortex. This, in turn, improves our decision-making skills.
However, when we fail to manage chronic stress, things start to go sideways.
“The approximately 1000 neurophysiological responses tend to work against us when we enter a toxic stress state,” said Dr. Leaf. “Our stress shifts from positive to toxic, and things can begin to feel a bit like we have just put our brain in a blender.”
While we can’t avoid stress altogether, stress-relieving strategies can reduce the burden put on our body and mind. Here are six proven techniques that can trigger a change in the body’s stress response.
A butterfly hug is a therapeutic exercise that can help with anxiety, stress and feeling overwhelmed. It comes from a form of therapy referred to as Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR). Think of it as a simple way to find grounding whenever you need it.
“Begin by taking a few deep breaths, knowing you are pausing to feel better. Use your arms to cross over your chest, making sure the tips of your middle finger are touching right below your collarbone, advised Hillary Schoninger, LCSW.
While in this position, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Then, tap on your chest with each hand, mimicking the visualization of a butterfly flapping its wings on your chest. Find a rhythm in your breath and continue to tap on your chest.
“Practicing the butterfly hug will help you connect to the calmer side of your nervous system, known as the parasympathetic system,” explained Schoninger. “When we are in this zone, we are more relaxed physically and emotionally. In addition, we are lowering our cortisol, which is the primary stress hormone that we produce.”
Jack Feldman, a neuroscientist and professor at UCLA, has dedicated much of his time to understanding how our body is impacted by breathing. After noticing that we tend to sigh once every five minutes, and more so under stress, he and his team developed the “psychological sigh” method to help reduce stress in real time.
“The technique involves inhaling twice through the nose with two short breaths and exhales out of the mouth,” explains Susan Zinn, a licensed psychotherapist. “Doing so helps reduce the blood flow to the heart, which can decrease feelings of stress and anxiety in real-time. It is one of the fastest real-time tools to help in any situation.”
If you’re experiencing intense emotions, channeling that energy into a focused physical response can help you reset. Leaf says to try the 30-90 second rule, which involves doing one (or all) of the following for at least 30 to 90 seconds: deep belly breathing, silent yelling, and/or a physical exercise like a deep stretch or burpees. Silent yelling mimics the facial movements of screaming without actually letting out sound. Instead, think of forcing air out through the throat for a breathy "scream."
Leaf calls this a “directed neuroplasticity practice.” In layman’s terms, you’re re-channeling intense feelings and energy — which can lead to impulsive actions — into a neutral physical response. Afterward, your body is able to think, feel, respond and act with more clarity.
Mindfulness walks are a simple practice that gently nudge us into greater awareness of the present. They can be done pretty much anywhere — around the block, in the backyard or at a local park.
“While walking, notice how your body moves and feels, and use your senses to notice your surroundings. What do you hear, smell, feel and see?” said Andrea T. J. Ross, PhD, assistant clinical director at the University of Phoenix’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “This practice allows the mind to be aware of what is current and reduces worrying about the future or the past, thereby reducing the symptoms of stress.”
Rainbow breathing is another variation of box breathing (inhaling, holding, exhaling and holding for four counts each), but with a creative slant. It’s also an alternative for people who struggle to focus their mind. Start by creating your own rainbow picture with markers, colored pencils or paint. If you don’t have one, a printed picture works.
“Next, sit comfortably with the rainbow picture on the floor in front of you, place a finger at the left side, and trace your finger along the rainbow while taking a deep breath in through the nose until you reach the middle,” said Reena B. Patel, a psychologist and board-certified behavior analyst.
Once you reach the center, exhale, and continue tracing to the end of the rainbow. Deep breathing helps calm down the body by controlling its physiological reactions, explained Patel. The addition of a visual and physical action can help us focus more intently.
Close your eyes and let your mind wander and daydream for a few minutes when you feel stressed. Maybe you’re walking through a beautiful garden, a scenic city, or reliving a happy experience. As your mind wanders, pay attention to the details you’re imagining.
“Imagining activates the same areas in the brain as if you were actually carrying out the action because the brain follows the pattern of the mind,” said Leaf. She added, “The act of recalling a happy thought can help generate a frequency in the brain that overrides the negative frequency caused by the toxic stress response.”