I was halfway through my overpriced airplane chardonnay when, two rows in front of me, someone began screaming for help: “We need a flight attendant! This woman is unconscious!”
The next few moments were terrifying, as the passengers around the unresponsive woman sprung into action. Thankfully, she woke up on her own by the time we landed — but for weeks after I got off the plane, my body felt like it was still stuck in panic mode. To calm down, I tried yoga, deep breathing, hot baths, more chardonnay. Nothing helped. Something acutely stressful had turned chronic, and I had no idea how to make it go away.
The fight-or-flight response, a cascade of physiological reactions to danger, is the body’s way of helping us survive in times of stress. As our senses perceive a threat, the amygdala, the brain’s “alarm center,” sends distress signals to the hypothalamus, the “command center,” which activates the autonomic nervous system to prime us for danger. Increased heart rate and quickened breathing fill the body with oxygen to increase alertness, blood mobilizes in the muscles to make us faster, and sweaty palms cool the body — all ideal conditions for fighting or fleeing.
“In more primitive societies, humans could easily fight off stressors or flee from them, which is a really effective way of removing stress chemicals from our bodies,” explains Michelle Pearce, assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Modern life doesn’t offer the same opportunity to off-load stress by physically responding to it — which means that in some cases, there’s no clear signal to the body to pump the brakes on that physical response, leading to an extended state of chronic stress and the health problems that come with it.
“Young children are often very good at expressing their big, raw feelings, and parents help redirect some of that energy without even thinking about it.”
And in those cases, trying to calm down may not be the right approach at all. Instead, some experts recommend “calming up”: the idea that the best way to let go of stress isn’t to melt it, but to burn it up.
In the 1970s, psychologist Peter Levine, a trauma specialist, began researching why animals can shake off life-or-death experiences in the wild without any long-term effects. He argued that the physical nature of animal stress — the trembling with fear, the running from danger — allows them to “discharge” it, helping them shift seamlessly out of a hyper-aroused state. Based on this theory, Levine developed a form of therapy called “somatic experiencing,” which encourages people to focus on their bodily sensations to metabolize pent-up stress.
Part of this therapy is forcing yourself to re-create the physical sensations of stress in a non-stressful environment. During my bout of prolonged anxiety, my therapist suggested Trauma Release Exercises (TRE), a set of movements created by trauma expert David Berceli to help the body release “deep muscular patterns of stress, tension, and trauma.” TRE focuses on exhausting certain muscle groups through extended wall-sitting exercises, which induces physical shaking.
Berceli believes that these tremors, much like those seen in an animal in the wild after an attack, can release tension created by chronic stress or acute trauma. And there’s research to support the idea: In one study, for example, participants who followed a regular routine of self-induced tremors reported that they experienced “more frequent positive emotions toward themselves and greater confidence in their ability to deal with adversity.”
Shanna Donhauser, a Seattle-based psychotherapist who specializes in young children and new parents, says that more mundane activities can also help us process stress like yelling, or punching a pillow. She recommends that her adult clients take a cue from her younger ones and allow themselves to physically match what they’re feeling. “Young children are often very good at expressing their big, raw feelings, and parents help redirect some of that energy without even thinking about it,” Donhauser says. “When a parent suggests hitting a pillow, screaming into a pillow, or encourages a child… to get their energy out on the playground, they are tapping into our instincts of releasing energy in another way.”
Doing something scary in a controlled environment — whether that’s a more physical thrill, like riding a roller coaster, or something mental, like watching a horror movie — can be another way to constructively work through your stress. Research has shown that doing something risky can help you process the emotion by reframing it as something positive. Releasing adrenaline in a controlled environment helps you see for yourself that despite negative physical sensations, you are, in fact, safe.
To get the most out of calming up, Donhauser suggests remembering your original intention: “The point is to process stress, not just to experience adrenaline,” she says. “To intentionally do this, it helps to be thinking first of the thing that is stressing you out for a moment, experience the stimulating activity, and then actively work on calming down afterward by taking deep breaths, grounding yourself physically and emotionally, and reminding yourself you’re safe.” And then, hopefully, you can leave the lingering stress behind.