When you need to get through a high-stress situation—it might be a job interview, it might be the holidays with your family—a few instantly calming, in-the-moment body moves right where you’re standing might be the solution. That’s the practical application of a branch of psychology called somatic therapy (somatic means of or pertaining to the body). The scientific underpinnings on the connection between our breath, our parasympathetic nervous system and our mood are explored in depth in books like The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk and When the Body Says No by Gabor Maté, but when you are standing between a fridge full of uncooked food and an army of extended family asking if you made their stuffing recipe, you need a tool kit full of fast fixes. So when we found a breathwork teacher who is all about instant relief, we had to share her easy-to-implement moves. Think of them as your mind-body medical cabinet—an Advil for your attitude if you will.
Dreading Holiday Family Stress? Here Are 3 Easy, Stress-Relieving Body Moves to Make You Immediately Calmer
Meet the Expert
Ashley Neese is a trauma informed breathwork practitioner whose most recent book is Permission to Rest: Revolutionary Practices for Healing, Empowerment, and Collective Care, a practical and philosophical guide for self-care in the age of burnout. Her previous book, How to Breathe: 25 Simple Practices for Calm, Joy, and Resilience, is an introduction to breathwork and its research-backed benefits. She lives in California with her partner and their three children.
1. Focus on Simple In-Out Breathwork
Neese has learned from working with clients that somatic therapy isn’t one-size-fits-all. The ongoing goal of helping people to move out of their stressful thoughts and into a real-time perception of how their body is feeling requires customization. “Too much instruction for some people gets them out of the moment,” she says. “One quick practice…is a simple two inhales in nose and exhale out of mouth. That’s a micro-practice for something in their back pocket.” Alternatively, she recommends inhaling through the nose, then lengthening the exhale. “Do a few rounds at a time and then stop, and you won’t get dizzy,” she advises.
“When you start a breathwork practice you are getting used to taking in more oxygen,” so Neese says to take it slowly.
2. Create a ‘Rest Box’
Is someone really annoying you? Do you have a recurring worry? Are other intrusive thoughts ruining your flow? Neese suggests creating a ‘rest box,’ a practice she borrows from the recovery community, in which a small physical action creates a means to interrupt obsessive thinking. Take a shoe box or similarly sized container, and before you engage in a rest practice—whether that’s time with your family or a secular Sabbath or a short walk—Neese writes in her book, “feel free to put anything in the box that you don’t want to take into rest with you, such as a smartphone or an obsessive thought you can’t shake written on a piece of paper…” This physical act is a way of distancing yourself from dysregulating thoughts and behaviors, even for a few moments. Added bonus activity: When you open the box and take out your phone and look at your “overdue gas bill” and “overbearing uncle” notes, observe how your body responds to reintroducing these concepts into your consciousness.
3. Focus on the Horizon
inhales we devolve into during a stressful or busy day. And while you’re walking (phones in pockets, please), fix your gaze on the horizon line. “It has to do with your vision and the central nervous system—you want to look as far away as possible, because you are widening your field of perception as you are taking more in,” Neese advises. Why is this calming, though? “When we are stressed, it gets really narrow just seeing the one thing that worries us.” Looking toward the horizon “shifts every system in our body [so] we are able to see beyond the immediate concern.” TLDR: Look toward the big picture and don’t sweat the small stuff.