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Simple Tools for Relieving Stress

By Lauren Maher, LMFT, C-IAYT:

It’s no secret that we are living in intense times. It’s only natural for us to experience feelings that overwhelm us as we manage our reactions to a global pandemic, the brutality of systemic racism, seemingly unending political strife, the ravages of climate change, and the steady drumbeat of the 24-hour news cycle. Now more than ever, we need to understand how our nervous system responds to stress and to build a practical toolkit to help us manage our various emotional states.

Our nervous system has three primary ways of coping with stress:

1) Social engagement can be a healthy strategy for keeping ourselves feeling calm and connected. Interacting with someone who feels safe and receptive to our needs can put the brakes on some of our stress responses. A simple touch, eye contact, and attentive listening can go a long way in soothing our nervous system.

2) When we feel the need to defend ourselves, our primal “fight or flight” response kicks into high gear. We mobilize, and our body prepares to protect itself. Our sympathetic nervous system releases a flood of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. Our heart beats faster, our muscles tense, and our breath quickens. All of these changes are intended to increase our strength and stamina, increase our reaction time, and enhance our focus.

3) Immobilization, sometimes called the “freeze” response, is considered to be the most primitive response to stress. It occurs when we determine (consciously or unconsciously) that social engagement and mobilization are not an option. We can freeze, dissociate, or essentially “leave” the body to protect ourselves from extreme stress or danger. Think of the animal that “plays dead” to protect itself from a predator.

In a typical day, we may move through variations of any of these three states.

We may start the day feeling calm and socially engaged as we hug our spouse and children, but minutes later can find ourselves startled, scared, and angry when someone cuts us off in traffic. Later on in the day, after we’ve calmed down from our traffic debacle, we may start “doomscrolling” through the news and social media and become overwhelmed and depressed by what we see and feel disconnected, dejected, and powerless. And on the cycles go!

So, what can we do?

Here are a few basic tools to help you work with your nervous system in moments of stress.

If you feel activated/triggered/angry/anxious:

Left nostril breathing:

Left nostril breathing connects us to the right hemisphere of the brain and can help us calm down and relax.

How to do it:

Block of your right nostril and breathe long, slow, and deep through the left nostril for 1–3 minutes.

Grounding exercise:

Grounding exercises help bring us into the present moment and can help calm a racing mind.

How to do it:

This exercise is sometimes called the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Work backward from 5, using your senses to notice what is around you. For instance, pick five objects you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

Sitali Pranayam:

Sitali Pranayam is a breathing technique that can help us alleviate anger and frustration.

How to do it:

Stick out your tongue and curl your tongue. If you cannot curl your tongue (it’s genetic, so don’t worry if you can’t!), simply round your mouth as though you are sipping through a straw. Inhale through a curled tongue and exhale through your nose. Continue 1–3 minutes.

If you feel depressed/lonely/apathetic/unfocused:

Right nostril breathing:

Right nostril breathing connects us to the left hemisphere of the brain and may give us a boost of energy as well as aid in our ability to focus.

How to do it:

Block off your left nostril and breathe long, slow, and deep through the right nostril for 1–3 minutes.

Breath of Joy:

Breath of Joy is a simple, yoga-inspired exercise that is designed to invigorate your entire body.

How to do it:

1. Stand tall with your feet shoulder-distance apart and parallel. Soften your knees so that they are slightly bent. 2. Inhale one-third of your lung capacity and swing your arms up to shoulder height, with your palms facing up. 3. Continue inhaling to two-thirds capacity and swing your arms out to the side in a “T” shape, keeping the arms at shoulder level. 4. Inhale to full lung capacity and swing your arms parallel and above your head (palms facing each other). 5. Exhale completely with a “haaaaa” sound. As you do so, bend your knees, fold over your legs, and let the arms swing slightly back behind you.

Repeat several times without strain—please listen to what feels appropriate for your body.

4-7-8 Breath

The 4-7-8 breath is a simple exercise that helps us relax and relieve stress.

How to do it:

Inhale through your nose for a count of 4. Hold your breath in for a count of 7. Exhale through your mouth, making a whooshing sound, for 8 counts. Repeat this cycle 4–5 times.


Lauren Maher (LMFT, C-IAYT) is a licensed psychotherapist and certified yoga therapist who is passionate about helping people heal, transform, and thrive. To find out more about her practice, please visit these websites:




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