Emotional Intelligence Toolkit Step 2: Master the Skill of Quick Stress Relief

Learn to Use Your Senses to Stay Calm in Stressful Situations

Stress isn’t always bad. In manageable doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when you’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind, body, and relationships pay the price. Learn how to recognize when you’re overly stressed and quickly bring yourself back into balance.

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How do I know when I’m stressed?

That may sound like a strange question, but many of us spend so much time overly stressed, worn down by relentless daily challenges, that we hardly realize there’s a problem at all. Being stressed out feels normal.

When you’re tired, your eyes feel heavy and you want to rest your head on your hands. When you’re happy, you smile and laugh easily. And when you’re stressed, your body lets you know that, too; you just have to pay attention to your body’s clues. Are you holding your breath? Is your breathing shallow? Are your muscles tense?

Not only can your overly stressed state lead to serious mental and physical health problems, it can also take a toll on your relationships, at home, work, and school. Other clues that you’re overly stressed include:

Mental Clues Emotional Clues
  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgment
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability or short temper
  • Agitation, inability to relax
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Sense of loneliness and isolation
  • Depression or general unhappiness
Physical Clues Behavioral Clues
  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds
  • Eating more or less
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
  • Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)

What clues is your body giving you? How is stress affecting your mind, body, emotions, and behavior?

What is your stress response?

Being able to manage and relieve stress quickly is the key to staying balanced, focused, and in control, no matter what challenges you face in life. As well as helping you cope with day-to-day stressors, employing quick stress relief techniques will also help you bring your nervous system into balance when practicing the meditation part of this toolkit.

So what’s the best way to quickly relieve stress? That depends on your stress response—how you react externally when you’re stressed. The latest research into the brain shows that, as mammals, we have three ways of regulating our nervous system and responding to stress:

  • Social engagement or social communication is our most evolved strategy for keeping ourselves feeling calm and safe. Since the face and heart are wired together in the brain, socially interacting with another person—making eye contact, listening in an attentive way, talking—can calm you down and put the brakes on defensive responses like “fight-or-flight”. When using social engagement, involuntary body functions such as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and digestion continue to work uninterrupted.
  • Mobilization, otherwise known as the fight-or-flight response. When social engagement isn’t an appropriate response and we need (or think we need) to either defend ourselves or run away from danger, the body prepares for mobilization. A flood of stress hormones rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises—preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand. At the same time, body functions not needed for fight or flight—such as the digestive and immune systems—stop working. While fight-or-flight can protect you from danger, the body does a poor job of distinguishing between life-threatening experiences and minor, daily stressors. If you’re stressed over a traffic jam or a mountain of bills, your body reacts just as if you were facing a life-or-death event. When you repeatedly experience this stress response in your daily life, it can take a serious toll on your health.
  • Immobilization. This is used by the body only when social engagement and mobilization have failed. Immobilization can result from instances of trauma, where you find yourself “stuck”—reflexively enraged or panic-stricken—and unable to move on. You become frozen, your nervous system shuts down, and you can’t do anything. In life-threatening situations, you may even faint or lose consciousness, enabling you to survive high levels of physical pain.

How do you act when stressed?

When it comes to managing and reducing stress quickly in the middle of a heated situation, it’s important to be familiar with your specific fight-or-flight stress response.

  • Overexcited or “fight” 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 or “flight” 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 that energize your nervous system.

If you experience the immobilization or “frozen” stress response

Immobilization is associated with people who have experienced trauma and find themselves stuck in a reflexively enraged, panicked, or otherwise dysfunctional state, unable to move on. Your challenge is to find safety and stimulation to help you “reboot” your system and rouse your body to a “fight-or-flight” stress response so you can employ stress relief techniques. To do this, try physical activity 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 how it feels as you’re exercising. Adding this mindfulness element can help your nervous system become “unstuck” and move on.

Not sure what your stress response is? Ask a close friend or loved one how your mood changes when you’re stressed.

What is quick stress relief?

Quick Stress Relief

There are countless techniques for dealing with stress. Talking to an understanding friend, exercise, yoga, and meditation, for example, can all work wonders for relieving stress. But it may not be practical (or even possible) to go for a run or meditate when you’re frazzled by your morning commute, stuck in a stressful meeting at work, or fried from another argument with your spouse. For situations like these, you need something more accessible. That’s where quick stress relief comes in.

The best way to reduce stress quickly and reliably is by taking a deep breath and using your senses—what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch—or soothing movement. By viewing a favorite photo, smelling a specific scent, listening to a favorite piece of music, tasting a piece of gum, or hugging a pet, for example, you can quickly relax and focus yourself.

When you’re stressed, you can use your senses to soothe, comfort, and invigorate yourself quickly—in just a few minutes—and feel in control again. Of course, not everyone responds to each sensory experience in the same way. The key to quick stress relief is to discover the unique sensory experiences that work best for you.

Do you already use quick stress relief? A lot of people do without thinking about it. Maybe you stroke your hair during an argument with your spouse to help you cool down? Or reach for a stick of gum when the traffic grinds to a halt on your commute?

Be a stress-busting detective

Everyone responds to sensory experiences a little differently. What some people find soothing and relaxing may be unpleasant or even stressful to others. For example, certain kinds of music may relax and calm one person but do nothing but irritate someone else. So, in order to master quick stress relief techniques, you need to first become a “stress-busting detective,” and track down the sensory experiences that quickly make you calm and alert.

Stress Busting Detective

There is a difference between sensory experiences that are pleasant and sensory experiences that are intense and enjoyable enough to quickly make you feel both calm and alert. In the time it takes you to stroke a small smooth stone that you keep in your pocket, recall a few bars of music that move you, or the taste sensation of biting into a piece of dark chocolate, for example, you should feel your stress begin to ease, your head start to clear, and your sense of control returning. If it takes you six cups of tea and several hours to regain your balance, then try something else. If the effect is too subtle, keep investigating.


  • If you get heated up or agitated under stress… look for activities that quiet you down.
  • If you space out or shut down under stress… look for activities that are energizing.
  • If you get stuck or freeze… try to get moving in a mindful way.

Think back to what you did as a child to calm down. If you had a blanket or stuffed toy, for example, you might benefit from tactile stimulation.

Experimenting with your senses

Each time you feel stressed, try a different sensory experience and note how long it takes for your stress levels drop. Remember: you’re looking for something that works almost immediately.

As you experiment, be as precise as possible. What is the most perfect image, 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 a phrase or a tune that instantly makes you feel more in control of yourself—just by thinking of it.

Use the examples listed below as a jumping-off point. Give your imagination free reign and come up with additional sensory experiences to try.


Girl looking at flowers

If you’re a visual person, try to relieve stress by surrounding yourself with soothing and uplifting images. If there’s nothing visual within reach, try closing your eyes, taking a deep breath, and imagining a soothing image.

  • Keep a cherished photo on your phone or in your wallet—of your child, pet, a fun night out with friends—or a postcard from a memorable vacation.
  • Watch a relaxing desktop screensaver with a soothing uplifting image.
  • If you have a pleasant view from your window, spend a few moments gazing outside.
  • If movement relaxes you, choose chairs that are movable like a rocking chair.


Listening to sea shell

Are you a music lover? Or a nature lover? Experiment with the following:

  • The right music can lower your blood pressure and help you relax. Keep the music that works for you on your phone, computer, iPod, or play it in the car when traffic has you stressed.
  • No music at hand? Trying singing or humming a favorite tune.
  • Tune in to a soundtrack of nature, such as crashing waves, wind rustling the trees, birds singing. If the real thing is on your doorstep, even better.
  • Buy a small fountain, so you can enjoy the soothing sound of running water in your home or office. When stress hits, close your eyes and take a few minutes to focus on the calming trickle.
  • Keep the recorded voice of a loved one on your mobile phone. Just the sound of someone special’s voice can help ease tension.

Vocal toning

Vocal toning can be a speedy way to use your breath and voice to relieve stress—even if you can’t sing or consider yourself “tone-deaf.” Try sitting up straight and simply making “mmmm” sounds with your lips together and teeth slightly apart, listening intently. Experiment by changing the pitch and volume until you experience a pleasant vibration in your face and, eventually, your heart and stomach.

Vocal toning can have two interesting effects. Firstly, it can help 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.

Secondly, vocal toning exercises the tiny muscles of the inner ear (the smallest in the body). While this might not seem like a big deal, these muscles help you detect the higher frequencies of human speech that impart emotion and tell you what someone is really trying to say. So 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.


Smelling a flower

Scent can be a powerful memory trigger. The smell of freshly cut grass might remind you of your childhood or a particular perfume might remind you of a romantic partner. If the memory is a pleasant, reassuring one, you can use it to help calm or invigorate you.

  • Experiment with essential oils. Many people find lavender, tea tree, or orange blossom relaxing. Simply put a few drops in your palm or on a tissue and inhale.
  • Light a scented candle or burn some incense.
  • Keep plants or fresh flowers in your home or workspace.
  • Reach for a fruit basket. Sniffing citrus fruit, such as orange or lemon, can help ease tension.
  • Spritz on a favorite perfume or cologne, or one that reminds you of someone special.


Touching a sheet

Experiment with your sense of touch, playing with different tactile sensations.

  • Try curling your toes.
  • Pet a dog or cat, or hug a friend. It can lower your blood pressure and dissolve stress.
  • Squeeze a stress ball.
  • Squeeze your fingers.
  • A piece of ice is handy. Hold it for a second. Cool sensations can help calm your whole body.
  • Wear clothing that feels soft or silky against your skin.


Girl tasting melon

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. Eat slowly, focusing on the feel of the food in your mouth and the taste on your tongue.

  • Chewing a piece of gum can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Indulge in a small piece of dark chocolate.
  • Take a bite of a ripe piece of fruit, like a mango or pineapple for a taste of the tropics.
  • Swallow a few mouthfuls of your favorite tea or coffee.
  • Keep crunchy snacks like celery, carrots, or trail mix nearby.


Hand squeezing ball

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.

  • Briefly step outside, walk around the block, savor the sunshine…or the rain.
  • Repetitive motions like brushing your hair or knitting can help you relax.
  • Bounce or tap your heels.
  • Stretch or roll your head in circles.
  • Sit on something you can bounce on.

Need more help finding what works for you? Ask people you know what they do to stay focused under pressure—it could work for you too.

Using quick stress relief in your daily life

Quick stress relief at home

  • Kitchen. Cool the kitchen commotion by breathing in the scent of every ingredient you use—even if you’re just opening cans. Play lively music. Light candles.
  • Sleep. Too stressed to snooze? Try using a noise machine for a background sound of ocean waves or a waterfall. Or use a humidifier with a diffuser to deliver a light scent in the air.
  • Children and relationships. Prevent losing your cool during a spousal spat by taking deep breaths or squeezing the tips of your thumb and forefinger together. When your toddler has a tantrum, rub lotion into your hands and then breathe in the scent.
  • Create a sanctuary. If clutter is upsetting, take 10 minutes each day to tidy and organize. Paint the walls with a fresh coat of your favorite calming color. Display photos and images that make you feel happy. Throw open the curtains and let in natural light whenever possible.

Quick stress relief at work

  • On the computer. Stretch or do knee-bends in 10-minute intervals. Wrap a soft scarf around your neck. Suck on a peppermint. Play soothing background music.
  • Meetings. During stressful sessions, stay connected to your breath. Massage the tips of your fingers. Wiggle your toes. Sip tea or coffee.
  • On the phone. Inhale something energizing, like lemon, ginger, peppermint or coffee beans. While talking, stand up or pace back and forth to burn off excess energy. Conduct phone business outside whenever possible.
  • Lunch breaks. Take a walk around the block or in the parking lot. Watch a relaxing or funny video online. Have a quick chat with someone you love.
  • Your workspace. Place family photos on your desk and display images and mementos that remind you of your life outside the office.

Where are your stress hotspots—your daily commute, visiting family? Which quick stress relief techniques can help you cope?

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—and lots of practice—calling upon your senses when you’re stressed will become second nature.

Learning to use your senses to quickly manage stress is a little like learning to drive or play golf. You don’t master the skill in one lesson; you have to practice. Once you have a variety of sensory tools you can depend on, you’ll be able to handle even the toughest of situations. Here are tips to help you make quick stress relief a habit:

  • 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 particular stressor with quick stress relief every time. After a few weeks, target a second stressor. After a few weeks more, target a third stressor and so on.
  • Test-drive sensory input. Experiment with as much sensory input as possible. For example, 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 then try sucking a mint the next day.
  • Don’t force it. If something doesn’t work, move on until you find your best fit.
  • Talk about it. Verbalizing your quick stress relief experiments will help you integrate it into your life. It’s bound to start a fascinating conversation—everyone relates to the topic of stress.

Try using this simple stress-busting diary to keep track of your progress.

Step 3: Harness the Power of Emotions »