4 Techniques to Reduce Acute Stress

February 03rd 2021

Here are 4 tips to use when anxiety is running high and your body has gone into that fight or flight mode.


There are two forms of stress:

– the one that is created by being in a situation that you can’t easily get out of, such as a pandemic, or a job or relationship that you cannot end easily.  This is the stress that is ever present but you can tune out of it sometimes. (And for techniques to help here, click here.)

– the other is acute stress – times where you can think about nothing else but the source of the stress and it is all consuming, but is not typically ongoing.  Examples of this may be a hospital procedure, a presentation at work, a school exam.

In these situations, there is an end in sight and so the techniques below are all about getting you through to that other side.  (And you can read on or watch a video here.)

1. Breathing

Ok, so it may seem obvious as we are all breathing, but this is a different type of breath.  When in high levels of anxiety or stress, breathing becomes more rapid and shallower which stimulates the release of hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol taking your body into ‘fight or flight’ mode.

However there is a manual over-ride to this and it starts with taking conscious control of your breathing.

There are many breathing techniques available and from the many I have tried, here is the one I find easiest AND very effective.

And it is simply a case of controlling each outbreath.  Every time you breathe out, breathe out for longer until you have emptied your lungs.  You will then find you breathe in more deeply and as you are ready to breathe out once more, take up that conscious control again.

I find it helps to imagine breathing on a candle flame with the intention of just making it flicker rather than blow it out.  And keep making it flicker until you cannot breathe out any more.

This will put the nervous system back into parasympathetic mode (the rest and relax setting) and take you out of that really acute anxiety to a level where you can then bring in technique 2.

2. Physiology

How we hold our bodies will support or inhibit certain emotions.  Have a go at this little exercise:

Imagine you are depressed and allow your body to reflect that.  You will probably lower your head, round your shoulders etc.  And now holding that position, try to think about positive things.

Now stand up and stand strong – feet planted and wide, shoulders back, head up…and holding that position, try to have depressive thoughts.

Notice what your body tries to do as you engage the thinking.  How hard was it to be depressed when standing strong?

One of the best ways to change how you are feeling is to change your physical state and something as moving, or even dancing around your kitchen (even if its only half hearted) can hugely impact on your anxiety levels.

Which leads us on to technique 3

3. Music

Our hearing is our first sense to engage and our last to disengage.  It is a very powerful sense in relation to triggering memories.  Just think about how hearing a tune from your teenage school disco days can take you back there in a flash.

We can use this association in a proactive way.

I highly recommend you create a playlist on your phone of a select number of songs that you associate with positivity.  They can be songs that trigger happy times, songs that have lyrics that are particularly powerful to you, or songs that just make you tap your toes and want to boogie!

By listening to the playlist, the association you have with this music will change your mental processes and have an impact on reducing anxiety.   For more on this tip, go here

4. Hugs

Accepting that when I write this we are restricted by Covid regulations, getting hugs is important.  The physical contact with others releases two other chemicals – serotonin and dopamine and these are known as the happy drugs.

If you are feeling anxious, do your best to go and get a hug: a partner, a child, even cuddling a pet will all help you to reduce the stress hormones and replace them with the ‘good’ ones resulting in lower stress levels.

... and do it in order

These 4 steps work best when done in that order.  As the intensity of your anxiety comes down, come down the list.

You can however also use them in reverse to prevent anxiety building. If you know a presentation is coming up have more hugs, and spend more time listening to your play list.  This will also help slow down the escalation of anxiety.

One thing I love to ask when sharing these tips (and perhaps it is because I am nosy…) is what is the first tune you think to put on your playlist?

Mine was the Time Warp from Rocky Horror.  Just thinking about it puts a smile on my face and yes, it also changes your posture significantly when you start doing it!!

What about you?  Please share with me in the comments box below what you would have at the top of your anti-anxiety playlist?

Caroline Cavanagh is an anxiety specialist  and hypnotherapist in Salisbury, Wiltshire.  She is an author and public speaker and would love to talk to you if you would like to know more about her work

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2 responses to “4 Techniques to Reduce Acute Stress”

  1. Liz dore says:

    Blinding lights by the weeknd is the first time that comes to.mind for me. Love me again by john newman is a close second. Am feeling inspired to create a playlist, thanks Caroline !

    • Anxiety_Specialist says:

      Blinding lights is a great tune – the other one doesnt immediately spring to mind but I suspect I would recognise it when I heard it. All I can say is react to the inspiration and get your playlist started – you can always keep adding to it….

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