Four Ways to Manage Stress on The Spot

The most harmful thing about stress is your negative perception of it. A study by Keller et al. (2012) assessed 28,753 people’s feelings and attitudes towards stress and correlated this to death records. The study shows it isn’t stress that kills people, but rather the belief that stress is harmful. The people who were found most likely to die were more stressed, but also believed stress was harmful. People who were highly stressed but didn’t believe it was harmful were least likely to die. A quote about stress that has always stuck with me was when Kelly McGonigal said at her TED Talk, “When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.”

The fact is that stress prepares you. The “fight or flight” response by the sympathetic nervous system is designed to prepare you for danger. In the body, the manifestation of stress doesn’t discriminate. Whether you’re being chased by a lion or preparing for a final exam, the physiological response is the same. Your heart rate increases, you start breathing faster your palms get sweaty, and your pupils dilate… you’d think these are signs that you’re not coping well. But the reality is that your body is preparing you for a challenge. How you think and how you act can change your experience of stress. The next time you are stressed, think about it as your body preparing you for the challenge.

These four techniques are used by police officers, Navy SEALs, Athletes, Nurses, and the likes to relieve stress and improve mood and concentration immediately. They work by acting directly on the vagus nerve. The main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which oversees a vast array of crucial bodily functions, including control of mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate (Breit et al., 2018).

Way Number One: Box Breathing

The slow exhale and holding of breath create a buildup of CO2 in the blood. This buildup causes a cardio-inhibitory response by the vagus nerve, slowing heart rate and relaxing the lungs. For best results, box breathing must be deep and slow, diaphragmatic, and performed through the nose.

Way Number Two: Diaphragmatic Breathing

A report on diaphragmatic breathing (Ma et al., 2017) said that it “could improve sustained attention, effect, and cortisol levels. A different report also highlighted that “slow abdominal breathing can reduce sympathetic activity (stress response) and meanwhile could enhance vagus nerve activity (relaxation response.)”

Way Number Three: Deep and Slow Breathing

A medical report (Gerritsen & Band, 2018) provided a neurophysiological model “in which slow respiration and extended exhalation stimulate the vagal nerve.”

Way Number Four: Nasal Breathing

A clinical review (Ruth, 2016) on nasal breathing revealed that it “warms, moistens and filters the air, facilitates inhalation of nitric oxide – a vasodilator and bronchodilator that increases oxygen transport, slows airflow because of the nose’s intricate structures, facilitates correct action of the diaphragm, promotes activity of the parasympathetic nervous system.”

There certainly is a learning curve to these techniques without a doubt, but with some practice, you may just get to see why they’re used by some of the world’s most highly stressed professionals to achieve an instant state of calm focus. You can think about the underlying physiological mechanisms of action to act like the opposite of a panic attack in the body. This is just another example of how physiological awareness is the ultimate tool for day-to-day healthy decision making! If you have any questions about stress management or have any techniques you’d like to share, feel free to drop a comment below.



Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9, 1.

Gerritsen, R. J. S., & Band, G. P. H. (2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12, 1.

Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677–684.

Ma, X., Yue, Z.-Q., Gong, Z.-Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N.-Y., Shi, Y.-T., Wei, G.-X., & Li, Y.-F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1.

Ruth, A. R. (2016). The health benefits of nose breathing. Irish Health Repository.

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