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What can we do when acute stress makes us see red with anger or shake with anxiety? When feelings are very strong, we often cannot think clearly.Experienced psychotherapists even quantify this effect: They say that when you experience about 70 per cent of the maximum possible emotional stress, you can no longer control your feelings.Therefore, it makes sense to use helpful counterstrategies to calm down again. 

Get a change of perspective

Here is a method you can use even when you are less stressed out: distance yourself through your thoughts. Ask yourself, for example, how you will feel in a year or ten years from now about the situation you are experiencing as stressful. If you are in a conflict, ask yourself what a sympathetic observer would think about it, looking at the situation from an outside perspective. This creates distance and can calm your emotions.  

Strategies for tense times

If you are so stressed out that you cannot control your emotions, the following strategies can help you keep a clear head and allow you to self-distance. Try them out to see which strategy is right for you. Or create new ones yourself. 

Strategy 1: Strong stimulus for the senses

Strong stimuli demand us to focus our attention and trigger physical reactions that change the body chemistry and calm us down. 

Use cold water, for example.Put a cool compress over your eyes or upper cheeks. Take a cold shower. Or immerse your face in cold water for 15 to 30 seconds. These techniques can help lower your heart rate. However, the water should not be colder than 10 degrees Celsius. 

Taste or olfactory (smell) stimuli can also help:

  • Eat a little spicy wasabi paste or a bite of chili pepper.
  • Cut open a lemon and smell it.
  • Sniff a fragrance oil or a few crushed cloves. 

Or distract yourself with bodily sensations. Some examples: tickle yourself with a feather. Roll a massage roller over your body or snap a rubber band against your wrist. Apply lotion to your whole body or walk barefoot in the grass, sand or pebbles. Whatever you do, the principle is: the important thing is that it should be something which helps you in the short term, but does not harm you in the long run. 

First aid, not troubleshooting

These methods are not suitable to use as a long-term strategy, because their basic principle is distraction. If you used these methods continuously, you would risk not being able to address and eliminate the causes of your stress.  

Strategy 2: Take your mind off things

Challenging tasks will put your brain on a different track:

  • For example, immerse yourself in a picture and describe it in every detail.
  • Solve a difficult puzzle or say words backwards.
  • Read a complicated technical or scientific article and look up any words you don’t know.
  • Learn a poem or other written piece by heart.

Or do something you have been putting off for a while. Tidy up your desk, redecorate your living space, polish your silverware, or repair that broken bicycle.

Strategy 3: Get moving

The third strategy is to be active. Get moving. Juggle a few balls for a while. Do strength training or other fitness exercises. Run up and down some stairs. Ride a bike, jog or Nordic walk - just a short session will make a difference. If you are not used to exercising, please don’t overdo it.

More first aid tips for stress

Breathe slowly and mindfully

You can use this slow breathing technique anywhere. Breathe deeply into your stomach. Consciously pay attention to how the air flows into your lungs and how your abdomen expands. Slow your breathing down to about five to seven breaths per minute. Breathe out for longer than you breathe in. For example, inhale for five seconds, exhale for seven seconds. After you do a few of these slow breaths, return to your natural breathing.  

Short muscle relaxation exercise

This shorter version of progressive muscle relaxation, a proven relaxation technique, is certain to calm you down. First, take a deep breath and tense your muscles - but not so tightly that they cramp up. Feel the tension in your body. The next time you exhale, say 'relax' to yourself and release the tension. While you are doing this, feel the difference in your body. Repeat the exercise several times if you want.