FEATURE 01 January 2010

Quick Stress Relief

When we’re under high levels of stress, rational thinking and decision making go out the window. Runaway stress overwhelms the mind and body, getting in the way of our ability to accurately “read” a situation, hear what someone else is saying, be aware of our own feelings and needs, and communicate clearly.

By learning how to quickly and reliably relieve stress and stay calm and focused in the moment, you will be able to tackle challenges with a clear head and communicate clearly and powerfully even in tense situations.

The power of quick stress relief
Being able to manage and relieve stress in the moment is the key to resilience. This ability helps you stay balanced, focused, and in control—no matter what challenges you face.

In small doses, stress can be a good thing. The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you perform under pressure, rise to meet challenges, and stay focused, energetic, and alert. But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing damage.

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

How stress affects relationships

Stress cripples your ability to accurately see and hear other people; be self-aware and in touch with your own deep-rooted needs; and communicate your needs clearly. When you’re stressed, your ability to listen and speak intelligently is impaired. Your mind can’t think clearly enough to remember the tips and use the appropriate tip to orchestrate your response.

Our stress responses are so powerful that, if we don know how to manage them, they can paralyze us emotionally and undermine even the strongest love or work relationships.

How to quickly manage stress tip 1: Realize when you’re stressed
The first step to reducing stress is recognizing what stress feels like. Many of us spend so much time in a stressed state, we have forgotten what it feels like to be fully relaxed and alert.
What does it feel like to 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.

Signs that you may be stressed

  • You feel drained and depleted
  • You can’t concentrate or think straight
  • You feel nervous and keyed up
  • Your stomach is upset
  • You’re having trouble sleeping
  • Your muscles are tense

How to quickly manage stress tip 2: Identify your stress response
Everyone reacts differently to stress. Some people get angry and do or say things they regret. Others shut down, withdraw, or freeze with anxiety. The best way to quickly relieve stress and calm yourself down depends on your specific stress response.

The most common ways of responding to stress:
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 – 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.



Overexcited vs. underexcited
When it comes to managing and reducing stress quickly in the middle of a heated situation, it’s important to know whether you tend to become overexcited or underexcited when overwhelmed.

Overexcited – If you tend to become angry, agitated, or keyed up under stress, you will respond best to stress relief activities that are calming and soothing.

Underexcited – If you tend to become frozen, depressed, withdrawn, or spaced out under stress, you will respond best to stress relief activities that are stimulating and that energize your nervous system.


How to quickly manage stress tip 3: Discover what works for you
The best way to reduce stress quickly and reliably is through the senses: through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. But each person responds differently to sensory input, so you need to find things that are soothing to you.

We all have different preferences and needs. What some people find soothing may be unpleasant or even stressful to others. For example, certain kinds of music may relax one person but irritate another. So you need to be a “stress-buster detective,” spending time figuring out what works for you. Then you can use what you’ve learned to create calming, sensory-rich environments at home, in your car, at the office, or wherever you spend time.

Knowing the right kind of sensory input is essential to:

  • Speed up, if you are a person who is spaced out or depressed

  • Slow down, if you are a person who is angry or agitated

  • Help get unstuck, if you are a person who is frozen with anxiety

Learning the sensory stress-busting techniques that work for you give you a powerful tool for staying clear-headed and in control. You’ll have the confidence to face challenges, knowing that you have the ability to rapidly bring yourself back into a state of equilibrium.


It’s important to identify stress relief techniques that:

- Both relax and energize you
- Have an immediate impact on your stress
- Are enjoyable and make you feel good
- Consistently work for you
- Are always available or easily accessible


The five senses: The best way to quickly relieve and manage stress

You can rapidly reverse the effects of stress by exposing yourself to sensory input that brings you back into balance. Sensory input encompasses what we hear, feel, touch, taste, and see. You can use the five senses to soothe, comfort, and invigorate yourself almost immediately. All you need are a few short minutes.

Movement for quick stress relief
If you tend to shut down when you’re under stress, stress-relieving activities that get you moving may be particularly helpful. Anything that engages the muscles or gets you up and active can work. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Run in place.
  • Jump up and down.
  • Dance around.
  • Roll your head in circles.
  • Do a few quick yoga stretches.
  • Stomp your feet.
  • Go for a short walk.
  • Squeeze a rubbery stress ball.

Sight for quick stress relief
If you’re a visual person, try to manage and relieve stress by surrounding yourself with soothing and uplifting images. You can also try closing your eyes and imaging the soothing images. Here are a few visually-based activities that may work as quick stress relievers:

  • Decorate your home or office with cherished photos and favorite mementos.

  • Bring the outside indoors; buy a plant or some flowers to enliven your space.

  • Enjoy the beauty of nature—a garden, the beach, a park, or your own backyard.

  • Surround yourself with colors that lift your spirits (paint your walls with your favorite color, for example)

  • Close your eyes and picture a situation or place that feels peaceful and rejuvenating(e.g. playing with a beloved pet or baby; thrilling to a game of tennis or basketball; a day at the seashore swimming in clear blue water). The more sensory rich the image, the better.


Touch for quick stress relief
Experiment with your sense of touch, playing with different tactile sensations. Focus on things you can feel that are relaxing and renewing. Use the following suggestions as a jumping off point:

  • Wrap yourself in a warm blanket.
  • Pet a dog or cat.
  • Hold a comforting object, such as a stuffed animal or a favorite memento.
  • Soak in a hot bath.
  • Give yourself a hand or neck massage.
  • Wear clothing that feels soft against your skin.

Sound for quick stress relief
Are you sensitive to sounds and noises? Are you a music lover? If so, stress-relieving exercises that focus on your auditory sense may work particularly well. Experiment with the following sounds, noting how quickly your stress levels drop as you listen:

  • Sing or a hum a favorite tune.
  • Listen to uplifting music.
  • Tune in to the soundtrack of nature–crashing waves, the wind rustling the trees, birds singing.
  • Play an instrumental or classical CD.
  • Hang wind chimes near an open window.
  • Buy a small fountain, so you can enjoy the soothing sound of running water in your home or office.

Smell for quick stress relief
If you tend to zone out or freeze when stressed, surround yourself with smells that are energizing and invigorating. If you tend to become overly agitated under stress, look for scents that are comforting and calming.

  • Spritz on your favorite perfume or cologne.
  • Light a scented candle or burn some incense.
  • Lie down in sheets scented with lavender.
  • Breathe in the smell of freshly brewed coffee or tea.
  • Smell the roses or another type of flower.
  • Enjoy the clean, fresh air in the great outdoors.

Taste for quick stress relief
Slowly savoring a favorite treat can be very relaxing, but mindless stress 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:

  • Drink a refreshing cold beverage.
  • Chew a piece of sugarless gum.
  • Indulge in a small piece of dark chocolate.
  • Sip a steaming cup of tea.
  • Enjoy a perfectly ripe piece of fruit.
  • Savor a healthy, crunchy snack like celery, carrots, or trail mix.

Incorporating stress-relieving skills into your life

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 lesson—you 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.

Managing stress is one of the five key skills of emotional intelligence

The Five Skills of Emotional Intelligence
Skill 1: Quick Stress Relief
Skill 2: Emotional Awareness
Skill 3: Nonverbal Communication
Skill 4: Playful Communication
Skill 5: Conflict Resolution

The ability to quickly relieve stress is the first of five essential emotional intelligence skills. Together, the five skills of emotional intelligence help you build strong relationships, overcome challenges, and succeed at work and in life.

The second key skill of emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and manage your emotions. When you are aware and in control of your emotions, you can think clearly and creatively; manage stress and challenges; communicate well with others; and display trust, empathy, and confidence.


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