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  • Devika Bhushan, M.D.,

Stress and Health: How to Turn Off the Stress Response

Techniques to help you and your loved one's de-stress when you need it most.

Stress and Health: How to Turn Off the Stress Response

Our stress response gets activated all the time, and it can make us feel and act in ways we would rather not.

  • A strongly activated stress response flips the "thinking brain," and the "emotional brain" takes over.

  • There are 10 key tools we can use to turn off the stress response in the moment and regain rationality.

  • The tools can be useful for children or adults — and the more we practice, the better we get at using them.

Our stress response systems get activated in small and big ways all the time. While this can be helpful, it can also make us feel and act in ways we would rather not — whether that’s losing our cool or feeling paralyzed by what’s ahead.

Knowing that there are strategies at our disposal to actually help us turn off the biological stress response and regain rationality, balance, and cognitive flexibility can be empowering.

These techniques can be helpful for any of us, from very young children to adults. Certain strategies are particularly useful for supporting a child or other loved one through an activated moment.

Stress and Health: How to Turn Off the Stress Response Therapy Appointment

When emotions take over: "Flipping your lid"

Here's the hand model of the brain: The fingers, folded over the thumb, represent the prefrontal cortex — the upper or thinking part of the brain. The thumb represents the limbic system, including the amygdala or "emotional brain," which controls the freeze or fight-or-flight stress responses.

A strongly activated stress response can make it so the "emotional brain" flips the "thinking brain" out of the way and takes over.

Signs we’ve "flipped our lids" include freezing, "spacing out," or being irritable. Kids may ignore, cry, hit, or kick.

We can bring our "thinking brains" back in control if we have the skills to manage the situation and calm the stress response. The more we practice, the better we get.

Special notes on supporting children:

Particularly after stressful events, children will often communicate their needs to us through their behaviors instead of words. They don't yet have the language or tools to tell us exactly what is going on. When a child is "acting out," there’s a good chance they’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed and don't yet have the skills to manage the situation or their stress response. Their behaviors give us clues about which skills kids may still need to learn, and then we can help them to do so.

The brain processes information from the bottom up—from basic to more complex functions. This means that the regulatory (automatic functions such as heart rate) and relational parts of our brains are the first to process and respond to what we experience.

Stress and Health: How to Turn Off the Stress Response In Person Therapy Appointment

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To most effectively reach anyone who is stressed (child or adult), use neuroscientist Dr. Bruce Perry's 3 Rs framework, Regulate, Relate, Reason, to tap into brain functions in the order in which they are activated.

A. Regulate: First, we have to regulate or calm our stress response (and/or your loved one's).

B. Relate: Then, if supporting someone, relate to how they’re feeling.

C. Reason: Once there’s safety and understanding, process what happened through reason.

A. Regulate: Calm the stress response

When possible, reassure yourself (and/or the person you’re supporting) that you are safe in the here and now. Use the techniques below to help return the stress response to baseline.

1. Grounding mindfulness practices

Feel your feet on the floor, on a wall, or arm on a chair.

Use your five senses:​ Notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you touch, 2 things you smell, 1 thing you taste.

2. Breathing techniques

  • 4-7-8 breathing

  • Put your hand on your chest and abdomen to focus on breathing.

  • Children can try belly breathing with Elmo or with Rosita

3. Sensory techniques

Rhythmic, sensory activities soothe our stress systems:

  • Drink water (sucking and swallowing is innately calming)

  • Rock back and forth

  • Listen to music

  • Massage your hand or body

  • Try tapping techniques: like patting your hands on thighs

  • Cuddle or hug a loved one

4. Movement

Moving our bodies helps release stress energy or rev up a system that may be depressed. Try:

  • Walking or jogging

  • Jumping jacks

  • Dancing

  • Stretching or yoga

5. Resourcing

When you’re in a calm place, think of a person, place, thing, or memory that makes you feel calm, strong, or happy. Practice visualizing that person, place, thing, or memory. The more specific the sensory details, the better this works.

Then, when you’re having a rough moment, you can connect with that resource, either in your mind or if possible, in real life.

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To help regulate a loved one, try these strategies:

6. Be the calm they need

If you’re supporting a loved one through these skills, first, use the strategies below to reach a place of calm yourself.

7. Parallel activities

Ever notice how kids seem more talkative in the backseat or when you’re walking side-by-side? Eye contact or face-to-face interactions can be particularly stressful when we are feeling activated.

Consider positioning yourself to the side or lower than your loved one to decrease their activation. And consider parallel activities to calm the stress response, such as:

  • Coloring or making art

  • Playing with toys

  • Washing dishes or cooking

  • A drive or walk

B. Relate: Connect

If supporting someone, try these techniques to relate to their experiences, after they've regulated their stress response. These also work nicely solo — often with a journal or other tool.

8. “Connect, then redirect”

Empathize with your loved one's situation, be curious, and ask questions to help them feel seen and heard. Knowing we are attuned to their emotional needs enables them to feel safer.

Once they feel seen and heard, if needed, we can then redirect the conversation to next steps, like safety planning or practicing coping skills.

If working on your own, hold space to validate however you’re feeling — and recall that feeling activated by a threat is natural.

9. “Name it to tame it”

Give yourself space to figure out what you’re feeling now that your stress response is less activated: Maybe take a walk, write, or talk with a trusted other.

Naming our emotions helps tap into how we’re really feeling, to feel more in control with those emotions, and to know how to proceed.

If you’re supporting someone else, naming what you think you see can help — say something like, "You seem really frustrated or angry right now. Is that right?" This can work for all ages, toddlers to adults!

Stress and Health: How to Turn Off the Stress Response Therapy Appointment

C. Reason

10. Process and plan

Once you’re feeling safe, regulated, and understood, you can use higher-order thinking to problem-solve and build longer-term skills to cope with stress now and in the future.

Consider these questions:

  • What were the triggers that led to the stress behaviors?

  • What helped you feel better?

  • What strengths could you draw on next time to cope?

  • What supports do you need to feel safe?

  • What skills might you learn to better cope with a similar experience next time?

Devika Bhushan, M.D., - Website -


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