Practice Makes Perfect: Learning to Calm Your Stress Response

Woman surveys the view from atop a hill.What can you do to calm a stress response that triggers too often or lingers too long? The good news is that it is possible to re-calibrate your stress response—to both decrease how often the stress response spikes and to calm it more quickly.

As with most things in life, being able to slow down the proverbial stress train requires practice, practice, and more practice. Specifically, you want to practice triggering your body’s calming response, which is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system. Thoughts, emotions, and your physical state can all be used to increase your calming response.

The trick to learning how to increase your calming response is to practice while you are calm. Many people forget this basic component and expect calming strategies to work when they are in a state of moderate to high stress. But when you consider learning a skill, any skill, it becomes obvious that this common approach will not work. Think about a pitcher practicing his pitch during a key game or even the World Series. Seems laughable, right? Well, just like baseball players practice during the off season and during Spring Training, you and I need to practice our calming skills in times of no to low stress so we can efficiently utilize them in times of greater stress.

Staying with our baseball analogy, there are many different pitches, there are variations on each pitch, and every pitcher has his own arsenal of pitches—so, too, with calming strategies. There is not one perfect strategy that will work for every person in every situation, meaning that you will need to practice and explore which calming strategy is most effective for you. To help you with this, I have included a calming exercise that has been adapted from Davis, Robbins Eshelman & McKay (2000). As with any activity involving your body, use care and caution, and consult your medical provider if need be. Enjoy, and remember: practice, practice, practice.

  • Take a long, slow breath in through your nose and breathe deeply into your back. As you breathe in, slowly inflate your lungs, as if they are balloons. Feel your lungs expand into your back and sides. Exhale slowly through your mouth. Take three slow breaths and continue breathing in this manner throughout the exercise.
  • Picture a peaceful place or aspect of nature, such as a mountain meadow, a tropical beach, a snowflake, or a hawk gliding in the sky, etc. What sights do you see? What colors? Is there a smell? Is there anything to touch? How does it feel? Soft, rough, sharp? Are there any sounds? Are you alone? Imagine this place or part of nature in as much detail as possible.
  • Take a slow breath, breathe into your back, and hold it. Curl your toes downwards, tense your legs, and push your heels into the ground for a count of five. Squeeze your calf and thigh muscles harder and tighter. Exhale and let go of the tension in your legs. Note the difference between tense and relaxed, and let your legs relax. Relax for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat.
  • Imagine your scene from nature. Focus attention on your back and take a deep breath. Hold your breath and arch your back, but do not strain. Let the rest of your body relax while you tense all the muscles in your back. Hold this tension for five seconds. Exhale and let the air rush out of you. Relax your back and notice the tension departing from you. Relax for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat.
  • Take a long slow breath and hold it while tensing the muscles in your arms. Make two fists and bend them back at the wrists. Clench them tighter and tighter and hold for a count of five. Exhale and relax the muscles in your arms, let your arms drop and relax. Take a moment to notice the difference between tense and calm arms. Relax for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat.
  • Breathe into your back and hold the breath. Tense your chest muscles for five seconds. Exhale and relax. Feel the difference and remain relaxed, continue to imagine the place in nature—focusing on the sights, sounds, and textures. Relax for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat.
  • Take a deep breath and hold it. Press your tongue to the roof of your mouth and squeeze your lips together but do not clamp your teeth together. Wrinkle your forehead and nose. Squeeze and hold for a count of five, noticing the tension in your scalp and forehead. Exhale after the fourth count, allowing your tongue, mouth, and forehead to relax; remain relaxed and pay attention to the differences between a tensed and wrinkled face, and a calm and smooth face. Relax for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat.
  • Now re-focus on your scene from nature. Use all of your senses and your imagination to make the scene vivid. Take a deep breath of the clean air from your scene and imagine that air traveling to your legs, bringing the serenity of your scene with it. Exhale any remaining tension from your legs. Repeat this in and out breath, breathing the air into your back, arms, chest, and face. As you exhale, expel any last bit of tension or tightness. As you inhale, notice your stress-free muscles feel smooth and light. Relish this feeling of peace and relaxation, of a calm and rested body. Continue to breathe slowly and deeply. When you are ready to re-orient to the present moment, do so by hearing the sounds in the room, smelling any scents, feeling your body as it touches the chair or object you are sitting on, and shifting your gaze over the various items and colors that fill the room you’re in.

As with all of my articles, this article is intended for informational purposes and does not provide or constitute psychological services. Learning to calm one’s stress (particularly traumatic stress) is a worthy undertaking.

If at any time you need assistance in this process, do not hesitate to reach out to a trained therapist, who will be able to help guide you through this learning curve.

© Copyright 2010 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Marco C.

    April 6th, 2010 at 2:47 PM

    I am currently in college and I remember my math teacher in school always telling us – Practice your math in the class and at home or you will end up practicing in the examination and we know how that would be. This advice of his has helped me a lot in motivating me to do the preparation and practicing math problems.

    When i read the article’s beginning I was thinking of my math teacher. Also, stress is something that often gets to me when exams are just around the corner. i shall now take up your relaxing techniques mentioned herein and hopefully I will be able to handle stress better and in a more appropriate manner.

  • cara

    April 6th, 2010 at 6:29 PM

    breathing techniques have been known to help a lot for people under stress and it has been used for gaes now…yoga also involves several breathing techniques!

  • Nikki

    April 7th, 2010 at 5:17 AM

    Thank you for reminding me that relieving stress and the methods for doing this do not happen overnight. I try to be mindful of ways to control stress and in the moment I will try to take a step back and breathe and many times this does not help. Why? Because it is a spur of the moment decision to do this instead of something that I work at and practice. I used to take the time to meditate on this and practice releasing stress but I have not made time for that in the past few years. Now with this reminder I know that this is something that I need to do which will ultimately make my life a whole lot better.

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