The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Need a quick stress-reliever? Try one of these surprising science-based strategies.

(Daria Kirpach for The Washington Post)

There is a saying in the Balkans, where I was born and raised, that loosely translates to: “There is nothing worse than finally seeing the light, only to be plunged again into darkness.” As a psychologist, I have observed my patients’ extraordinary levels of stress and anxiety start to ease, only to be replaced by anger, disappointment and despair as coronavirus cases have resurged and the promise of the pandemic’s end has become more elusive.

The widespread return to in-person school and the uneven return to offices this fall are further contributing to the sense of being pushed to the limit. This has led many of my patients to ask what they can do in the moment when they feel frazzled, overwhelmed, panicked or tunnel-visioned. Although tried-and-true self-help strategies, such as exercise, good sleep, socializing, mindfulness, positive reframing and self-compassion, are still the best prescription for lowering stress overall, sometimes a practical solution that can provide immediate relief is what’s needed.

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

Spur your mammalian diving reflex

One of the most effective stress resets involves submerging your face in ice-cold 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, toward the heart and other vital organs. These physiological changes have been shown to decrease anxiety.

If a bowl or a bucket with icy water is not at your disposal, you can press ice packs against your eyes, upper cheeks and temples while leaning over and holding your breath. 

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

Sheri Van Dijk, a psychotherapist in Newmarket, Ontario, and the author of “Calming the Emotional Storm,” warns that people with low blood pressure, heart problems or eating disorders should get clearance from their doctor before attempting this strategy.

We share the diving reflex with other air-breathing vertebrates. Think of activating your diving reflex as a way of channeling your inner dolphin.

Distract yourself with strong sensations or mental games

When we are very stressed or anxious, our attention narrows and only focuses on the negatives. If you are having a hard time objectively looking at a situation and making decisions, or if you feel mentally stuck or paralyzed, a quick distraction can allow you to reset.

Although repeatedly avoiding your negative feelings and escaping through Netflix, video games or alcohol can lead to more distress in the long run, occasionally distracting yourself by using strong sensory input or engaging in mental games can offer a respite from acute stress.

“This gives you a chance to take a psychological break, widen the lens to see the big picture and gain courage for the next step,” said Kelly Koerner, clinical psychologist, chief executive 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 pungent cheese to briefly shift your attention away 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 favorite tips is to suck on a lemon, or imagine doing it. You’ll start to salivate, engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, which leads to relaxation,” Van Dijk said.

Look at fractal shapes in nature or art

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, shapes that repeat on finer and finer scales, are often found in nature. (Consider chambered nautilus shells, snowflakes, cones, tree branches or leaf veins.) They seem particularly pleasing to the human eye, and looking at them has been found to reduce physical signs of acute stress.

Branka Spehar, a psychology professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and her collaborators found that Jackson Pollock’s iconic paintings are also fractals. “This helps explain the immense popularity of these and similar art and architecture over the years. Humans prefer lines that are neither straight nor smooth, with [a] moderate level of complexity,” she said.

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Our affinity for fractals probably came through evolution, because there are no perfect shapes or straight lines in the natural world. “Everything you see in nature has some imperfection,” 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.

Whenever possible, spend time in nature to reduce stress. Short of that, mimic natural effects by looking at perfectly imperfect fractals. As singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen put it: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Speak to yourself in the third person

In the middle of an emotional storm, we often become fused with the catastrophizing, critical or hopeless voice in our head. Everything appears bad, now and in the future. The more we try to think our way out of it, the more we get mired in the quicksand of negativity.

To stop the spiral, change how you talk to yourself. “When you use third-person pronouns and your name to refer to yourself, you zoom out and get some distance from the current situation,” said Ethan Kross, a 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.” “Your perspective shifts from being overwhelmed to seeing the problem as a challenge, from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can.’ ”

Studies by Kross and others show that talking to yourself in the third person takes the edge off stress and defuses it, often quite quickly. Even if it seems silly or contrived, try advising or coaching yourself the way you would talk to someone you care about the next time you get stressed. Doing so silently will work, but you might want to experiment with saying the words aloud if your environment allows for it. Emulating how children talk to themselves in the third person can ensure that you do not slip into self-criticism.

Chew gum

The earliest 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 found that chewing gum can reduce anxiety, stress and cortisol while increasing alertness.

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

Act the opposite of the way you feel

Each emotion is associated with certain bodily postures, facial expressions and behavioral urges. For example, when you get angry, you probably tend to have an erect posture, frown and speak loudly or yell. If you find yourself getting angry when stressed, try intentionally changing your posture to a nonaggressive one, relaxing your expression into a smile and speaking very softly. Research suggests that this technique, called “opposite action,” reduces the intensity of the original emotion.

A recent review showed that even just changing your facial expression can change how you feel. For example, participants in a 2012 study reported more positive affect and had lower heart rates during stress recovery after they smiled.  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, a dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University and the author of “The Face of Emotion: How Botox Affects Our Moods and Relationships.” “This happens without conscious awareness. For example, when you see a snake, your face shows a fearful expression in 40 milliseconds, before you become consciously aware of your fear.”

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

Make yourself yawn

Research led by Andrew C. Gallup, associate professor of psychology at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, suggests that yawning has a brain-cooling function in vertebrates, including humans. “Brain temperature rises during times of stress and anxiety,” Gallup said. “And yawning naturally occurs before and during stressful situations, promoting relaxation and better cognitive functioning. It has nothing to do with boredom.”

Although there is no experimental evidence that cooling the brain by inducing yawning — by, for example, watching videos of people yawning — results in stress reduction, Gallup believes the effect is likely and would be consistent with the existing findings. For now, yawn away. Who knows? Perhaps you’ll trigger yawns in others and reduce their stress, too.

Kecmanovic is the founding director of the Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute and an adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University. Find her @DrKpsychologist.

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