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Stress Relief in the Moment

Using Your Senses to Quickly Change Your Response to Stress

Stretching hands

Ever wish a stress superhero could save you from traffic jams, chaotic meetings, or a toddler’s tantrums? Well, you can be your own stress-busting superhero. Everybody has the power to reduce the impact of stress as it’s happening and stay in control when the pressure builds. Like any skill, learning stress relief in the moment takes time, experimentation, and practice. But changing your response to stress can help you stay alert, productive, and focused, no matter what life throws at you.

What you can do

  1. Find something to gaze on that makes you feel calm and alert
  2. Sing or hum a tune that energizes you
  3. Run your fingers or hands over something that feels relaxing to you
  4. Breathe in a scent that you find invigorating
  5. Sip something that soothes and relaxes you
  6. While seated, stretch or move slowly in a way that both soothes and stimulates you

How can you tell if you are under too much stress?

Recognizing stress is the first step to relieving it. Many of us spend so much time in a stressed state, we have forgotten what it feels like to be fully relaxed and alert. You can see that “just right” inner balance in the smile of a happy baby. In adulthood, being balanced means maintaining a calm state of energy, alertness, and focus. If you don’t feel calm, alert, productive, and focused most of the time, then you may be experiencing stress overload.

How to recognize stress

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.

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.

Identify your stress response

Internally, we all respond to the “fight-or-flight” stress response the same: blood pressure rises, the heart pumps faster, and muscles constrict. Our bodies work hard and drain our immune system. Externally, however, people respond to stress in different ways.

The best way to quickly relieve stress often relates to 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.

Underexcited 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 energize your nervous system.

The immobilization or “frozen” stress response

Immobilization is associated with people who have experienced trauma and find themselves “stuck”—in an enraged, panic-stricken or otherwise dysfunctional state—and unable to move on. Your challenge is to help you “reboot” your system and rouse you from a “frozen” to “fight-or-flight” stress response. Choose a form of movement that engages both your arms and legs, such as walking, swimming, running, dancing, climbing, or tai chi. As you move, instead of continuing to focus on your thoughts, focus on your body and the sensations you feel in your limbs. This mindfulness element can help your nervous system become “unstuck” and move on.

The basics of quick stress relief

There are countless techniques for preventing stress. Yoga and mindfulness meditation work wonders for improving 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.

  • The fastest way to relieve stress is by engaging one or more of your senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement.
  •  Since everyone responds differently, to practice quick stress relief you need to discover the sensory input that works for you.

Talking face to face: a rapid stress reducer

Social engagement is our most evolved strategy for regulating the nervous system. Talking face-to-face with a relaxed listener can help quickly relieve stress. Although it’s not always realistic to have a pal close by to lean on, maintaining a network of close friends is important for your mental health. Between quick stress relief and good listeners, you’ll have your bases covered.

Bring your senses to the rescue

The following exercises can help you identify the sensory experiences that work to quickly relieve stress for you. As you experiment, note how quickly your stress levels drop. And be as precise as possible. What is the specific kind of sound or type of movement that affects you the most? For example, if you’re a music lover, listen to many different artists and types of music until you find the song that instantly lifts and relaxes you.

The examples listed below are intended to be a jumping-off point. It’s up to you to hone in on them and come up with additional things to try.

Sights

Sights
  • Look at a cherished photo or a favorite memento.
  • Use a plant or 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.
  • Close your eyes and picture a place that feels peaceful and rejuvenating.

Sound

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

Vocal toning

Vocal toning can:

  • Reduce the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, making it an effective means of stress relief. Try sneaking off to a quiet place to spend a few minutes toning before a meeting with your boss and see how much more relaxed and focused you feel.
  • Exercise the tiny muscles of the inner ear that help you detect the higher frequencies of human speech that impart emotion and tell you what someone is really trying to say. Not only will you feel more relaxed in that meeting with your boss, you’ll also be better able to understand what he’s trying to communicate.

How to tone

Sit up straight and simply make “mmmm” sounds with your lips together and teeth slightly apart. Experiment by changing the pitch and volume until you experience a pleasant vibration in your face and, eventually, your heart and stomach.

Smell and scents

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

Touch

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

Taste

Taste

Slowly savoring a favorite treat can be very relaxing, but mindless eating will only add to your stress and your waistline. The key is to indulge your sense of taste mindfully and in moderation.

  • Chew a piece of sugarless gum.
  • Indulge in a small piece of dark chocolate.
  • Sip a steaming cup of coffee or tea or a refreshing cold drink.
  • Eat a perfectly ripe piece of fruit.
  • Enjoy a healthy, crunchy snack (celery, carrots, or trail mix).

Movement

Movement

If you tend to shut down when you’re under stress or have experienced trauma, stress-relieving activities that get you moving may be particularly helpful.

  • Run in place or jump up and down.
  • Dance around.
  • Stretch or roll your head in circles.
  • Go for a short walk.
  • Squeeze a rubbery stress ball.

The power of imagination

After drawing upon your sensory toolbox becomes habit, try simply imagining vivid sensations when stress strikes. The memory of your baby’s face will have the same calming or energizing effects on your brain as seeing her photo. When you can recall a strong sensation, you’ll never be without a quick stress relief tool.

Find sensory inspiration

Explore a variety of sensations so that no matter where you are you’ll always have something you can do to relax yourself.

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 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.

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?

Take a break from technology

Taking a short hiatus from the television, computer, and cell phone will give you insight on what your senses respond to best.

  • 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 email while waiting for a meeting, take a few deep breaths, look out the window, or sip some tea.
  • While waiting for an appointment, resist the urge to text and give yourself a hand massage instead.

Make quick stress relief a habit

It’s not easy to remember to use your 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. But with time, calling upon your senses will become second nature. Think of it as like learning to drive or play golf. You don’t master the skill in one lesson; you have to practice until it becomes second nature.

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 stressor with quick stress relief every time. After a few weeks, target a second stressor and so on.

Test-drive sensory input. 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.

Have fun with the process. 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.

Quick acting stress-busting tips

The best part of quick stress relief is the awareness that you can put quick stress relief within arm's reach, wherever your stress hotspot may be.

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.

Kitchen. Ease kitchen stress by breathing in the scent of every ingredient. 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 squeezing the tips of your thumb and forefinger together. When your toddler has a tantrum, rub lotion into your hands and 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. Display photos and images that make you feel happy. Throw open the curtains and let in natural light.

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. While talking, stand up or pace back and forth to burn off excess energy, or take calls 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. Chat to a colleague.

Your workspace. Place family photos on your desk or mementos that remind you of your life outside the office.


If you need powerful social and emotional skills that effectively reduce stress, read FEELING LOVED.

Learn more »

More help for stress

Resources and references

General information about managing and coping with stress

Managing Stress: A Guide for College Students – Offers a total wellness lifestyle plan for managing, reducing, and coping with stress. (University Health Center, University of Georgia)

Stress Management: Examine Your Stress Reaction – Evaluate the way you react to stress and learn how to transform your negative responses. (Mayo Clinic)

The Road to Resilience – Learn how to increase your resilience, the trait that allows you to bounce back from adversity and stress. (American Psychological Association)

Managing Stress for a Healthy Family – Tips for dealing with stress in the family better and modeling healthy behavior to your kids. (American Psychological Association)

Stress management strategies

Assert Yourself – Self-help modules designed to help you reduce stress, depression, and anxiety by improving your assertiveness. (Centre for Clinical Interventions)

Put Off Procrastinating – Work your way through a self-help series on how to stop procrastination problems. (Centre for Clinical Interventions)

Stress – Learn all about stress, including stress reduction suggestions, including diet, exercise, herbal remedies, and cognitive-behavioral techniques. (University of Maryland Medical Center)

Download Meditations – Download or stream a dozen free meditation recordings to help you cope with life's inevitable hurdles. Comes with handouts. (Sitting Together)

Exercise Fuels the Brain's Stress Buffers – Explains how regular exercise helps reduce and manage stress levels. (American Psychological Association)

From our readers:

“Your guide to stress relief is outstanding . . . I’ve read newspaper, magazine, and online articles, pamphlets, trusted scholarly journals, and books…no advice has been as to the point and helpful as yours. Thank you, for suggesting realistic solutions that can cross-relate with anything and anyone.” ~ Kansas

Authors: Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Melinda Smith, M.A., and Lawrence Robinson. Last updated: December 2016.