Being told to “calm down” or “just breathe” can be absolutely infuriating and make the situation worse.  This is because it completely invalidates what you’re feeling right now, when in fact, your feelings are perfectly valid (even though your thoughts might not be rational).

Often, calming down isn’t the best option right away. Maybe you’ve just had a stressful encounter with a co-worker, and you’ve built up some nervous energy.  Maybe now you want to scream and punch things.  You’re not a bad person, you just need an outlet for all that pent up stressful energy.  What can you do, that won’t involve you getting injured or arrested?  Read on.

In the wild, when animals are attacked or threatened, they go into an automatic stress response pattern.  If you’ve ever watched a dog in the house during a thunderstorm, you’ll observe something:

They shake and tremble during the stressful encounter, then, as soon as it’s over, spontaneously recover as if nothing happened. Their nervous system is able to discharge that nervous energy through movement and muscular contraction.We humans have the same response, though we don’t use it as often. And therein lies the problem.  We have been socially conditioned to believe that this response makes us “weak”, when in fact, it’s a biologically hardwired mechanism for discharging stress.

What happens when we don’t complete the stress sequence is that we stay stuck in a state of arrested arousal (constant stress).  We can never seem to fully relax.  Thinking back to that stressful encounter with a co-worker, what can you do, so that the rest of your day isn’t ruined by a lack of focus or a constant replaying of the encounter?

Well, instead of starting with relaxation (“Just Breathe” …), let’s use the opposite:

Move.  Discharge the energy (Maybe without injuring yourself by punching a solid immovable object). This is something you can practice even while seated.  Here’s a sequence you can use:

a) Start by clenching and opening fists. Open-close. Open-close. Get a good rhythm going.

b) Move the contraction up the forearms, to the arms, to the shoulders, each open-close using a little more of the upper body musculature.

c) Work up to clenching and releasing the whole upper body, including the face and neck.

d) Now get the feet involved. Start tapping and fidgeting them, as if running in place. Keep clenching and releasing the upper body.

e) Add the legs to the clench-release. Crunch hard. Let it go. Crunch and contract hard. Let it go.
Repeat this final step for about 20 seconds, really putting lots of energy and enthusiasm into it.

Then relax.

You can do this in small ways to release stress in any situation: squeezing and relaxing your leg muscles under a table, or while standing in line; clenching-releasing fists/arms while sitting at your desk, etc.

If you want to do a full body contract-release sequence, perhaps you can sneak into the bathroom for a couple of minutes.  Remember that to the brain, imagining things is the same as doing them. (Think about a dream that made your heart race, or break out in a cold sweat)

Well, this sequence mimics some of the movements of the fight-flight response, especially the running feet. (You can even imagine you’re running. It sounds wacky, but this works — it’s a common trick used by trauma therapists.)

You can follow this step up with belly breathing once the muscular contractions have calmed the situation a bit.  This is something that, with some practice, can become second nature.  You can even turn this into a one minute sequence, followed by 1 minute of breathing, for a quick “stress dump”.

​So, there you have it.  Release the stress without injury or arrest.  Sounds like a win win to me!