Ways to calm down after an adrenaline response?
May 18, 2024 3:36 PM   Subscribe

Are there physiological ways to relax after a fight-or-flight type experience? Details inside

Today I had a run-in with an employee at an event that was extremely aggressive and hostile when I questioned them about a scheduling mixup. I wasn’t at all expecting an immediately aggro heightened response and it totally threw me off. I find conflicts like this really triggering and had basically an adrenaline, heart-pounding response to it, even though ultimately it wasn’t that big of a deal. Once I got yelled at by a total stranger on public transit for inscrutable reasons and it rattled me in the same way. When that happens it can really bring down my mood for the rest of the day disproportionate to whatever the actual thing was, which is a bummer! And it seems like it’s mainly because I got hit with the Bad Hormones.

So if I get yelled at by a stranger on the street, or have some minor argument with someone that for some reason triggers me in this way, are there things I can do to help my body kind of ‘reset’? I feel like because this is a chemical fight-or-flight type thing there must be things I can to do help myself realize that hours later everything is actually fine and I’m not about to get chomped by a sabertooth tiger.
posted by throwitawayurthegarbageman to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
One approach is progressive relaxation, ending by tensing and holding all your muscles, then releasing. It's meant to mimic the fight/flight and resolution of those stimulants. If you need a faster intervention, just doing the full-body tense and release a few times can help, too.
posted by EvaDestruction at 3:51 PM on May 18 [4 favorites]

-- "square" breathing.
Breathe in slowly for a count of 4.
Hold for 4.
Breathe out for 4.
Hold for 4.

(Slowing your breath will slow your heart rate which interrupts the autonomic panic response)

Give your brain a quiet methodical task. Count by threes. Go backwards through the alphabet. If you don't get math anxiety, try going through times tables, or squares and cubes up to 10. Mentally list the planets and moons of the solar system.

-- play Tetris as soon as you can, they did a couple of studies that showed that traumatised people had fewer intrusive thoughts after playing Tetris.

This evening, watch a favourite movie from childhood. Nothing scary or angsty. Something familiar and reassuring that you've seen many times before.

You're going to be OK.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:55 PM on May 18 [9 favorites]

Oh and: for dinner, cook or eat something nice and familiar. Really enjoy it and pay attention to it.

Remember to drink water. I'd avoid caffeine or alcohol till you feel calmer, but maybe a cool lemonade or warm herbal tea.

Treat yourself as you would treat a friend who's feeling the same thing.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:04 PM on May 18

Complete the stress cycle. See also the source material, the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

- Heal Your Nervous System: The 5–Stage Plan to Reverse Nervous System Dysregulation
- The Resilience Workbook: Essential Skills to Recover from Stress, Trauma, and Adversity

- Therapy in a Nutshell, especially her Anxiety Course she's just done
- Kati Morton, lots of videos on dysregulation/regulation

Mammalian Dive Reflex. I use this to cut off panic attacks. The correct method is to dunk your face in ice water while holding your breath, in 30-second rounds. I can't make all that happen when I'm having a panic attack, I often can't stand very well and certainly cannot get a bowl and ice, so if I'm alone I just take off as many clothes as I can and get in a cold-only shower. I can usually only hold my breath for 10 seconds at a time, but I keep doing it until I can get enough carbon dioxide backed up in my blood to make my adrenal glands settle down. It rarely takes more than 4-6 rounds with breaks in between.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:08 PM on May 18 [19 favorites]

If you like animals: picture, in your mind, a nervous little animal. Some sort of creature that makes you want to protect it. It's very scared right now.

Soothe the little animal. Mentally, pet it, hold it in your two hands, keep it warm. Tell it it's safe now, nothing will harm it, nothing bad will happen to it. Keep doing this, it may take a while. Notice when the little animal relaxes and starts to trust you.

Picture in your mind a warm, secure nest for the little animal, just under your solar plexus. Lined with fur or feathers or soft grass or whatever it likes best. Invite the animal to curl up there, close its eyes and drift off to sleep. It's safe.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:13 PM on May 18 [9 favorites]

Trauma release exercises are one option - but if not familiar with them today may not be the time to experiment. Here’s a free course. I have found TRE to be extremely helpful for past and present trauma.

What helps me most is redirecting my thoughts to everything I did RIGHT during the upsetting situation.

Oh and self compassion meditation - here are some good free resources.
posted by hilaryjade at 5:39 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

even though ultimately it wasn’t that big of a deal
It IS a big deal. How horrible. No need to minimize it. I'm sorry that happened to you.
posted by Glinn at 5:50 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]

I find it helpful to just matter-of-factly narrate my situation, ideally aloud. "I am feeling very agitated. Earlier I thought I was just asking a question, but Coworker reacted very hostilely and it really surprised me. I associate reactions like theirs with danger, both immediate physical danger and more abstract social danger. It also reminds me of [Formative Experience] where [angry people were unsafe]."

Why precisely this helps, I don't know: I've written comments like this a couple of times and it always seems like too little, too bland to actually be regulating. And maybe it isn't for others. But something about articulating the things allows me to let go of them, especially if I can pinpoint a more specific trigger that's "really" why I'm so upset. Sometimes I also gently affirm to myself that the other person was the problem and clearly define the limits of my own culpability, if any. Now is not the time to speculate about how mental health struggles can lead to yelling at strangers in public or that maybe you inadvertently were the last straw on a terrible day: now it's all "That person was wrong to yell at me and shouldn't have hurt me like this. I did [wrong them somehow] but that still wasn't the way to treat me in return."
posted by teremala at 6:44 PM on May 18 [9 favorites]

even though ultimately it wasn’t that big of a deal

It IS a big deal. How horrible. No need to minimize it. I'm sorry that happened to you.

posted by Glinn at 8:50 PM on May 18 [+] [⚑]

All the suggestions are great, but I'll suggest a different tack.

As I read it, this was an employee of yours who was extremely aggressive and hostile when you questioned them about a scheduling mixup. And you don't feel you can do anything about it, like having them fired or disciplined. And you feel compelled to say out loud that this behavior of your employee was "not that big a deal."

No wonder you're upset, you're utterly powerless and being abused in your workplace. You shouldn't have to do breathing exercises or take anxiolytics just do do your job. Take action. That will make you feel better.
posted by JimN2TAW at 6:53 PM on May 18

Burn it off by running away from the tiger. Running up a flight of stairs is probably the easiest way to fire your big muscles a bunch of times.

And if the employee was a co-worker, consider reporting them. Sounds abusive!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 7:29 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]

Yeah I need to make my muscles work when this happens, annoyingly enough. Bodyweight squats, standing jacks, arm raises. Three sets of ten each, minute break and see how I feel, repeat if still pissed. Use the squats to pace my breathing, out when I go down, in when I stand back up. Adjust for your abilities and safety, but try to work your largest muscles like your thighs, butt, shoulders and chest. I’m supposed to stretch and jog in place a bit to warm up and cool down but when I’m in my feels I never bother. Stop if there is any pain or shortness of breath.
posted by Mizu at 7:42 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

Whether or not you have Rejection Sensitivity , this article explains how to deal with this kind of reaction. https://neurodivergentinsights.com/blog/how-to-deal-with-rejection-sensitive-dysphoria

It offers some good, practical advice.
posted by Zumbador at 8:30 PM on May 18

Response by poster: To clarify, no, it was not my employee! I apologize for that confusion as I see how you could read it that way. It was a staff member working an event I attended, a complete stranger to me. I was trying to resolve what appeared to be a scheduling error on their part that caused us to miss something we’d paid for and was expecting to have a simple customer service type interaction and did not think would be remotely a hostile interaction. When I said it ultimately wasn’t a big deal, I mean long story short this person’s boss stepped in and super politely handled the issue we’d had in a split second, which is what I expected when initially approaching a staff member. I’m sure I’ll never see this person who got so hostile again. But also thank you for saying so Glinn.

Thank you for all the answers so far, they are all so helpful!
posted by throwitawayurthegarbageman at 9:04 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

Even better! Write an absolutely scathing complaint mail, get it all out , really put them on blast. And then tomorrow, give it a bit of an edit to sound a little more stable and totally send it. They need to be given different tasks and you need to be given a refund.
posted by Iteki at 1:09 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]

Vagus nerve reset:

- face plunge as noted above
- run Ice cold water over wrists for one minute.
posted by j_curiouser at 1:13 AM on May 19 [2 favorites]

What you are describing sounds like the phase when the heightened stress hormone levels drop back to the normal range and you are left feeling drained and exhausted. A somatic "hangover" that includes psychological and emotional components as well.

Cortisol and adrenaline are hormone that circulate in your bloodstream. They get cleared out by getting metabolized. Mild to moderate exercise/physical activity helps your body metabolize them. Vigorous exercise can cause them to continue being produced at higher than baseline levels. So, sometimes physical activity to burn up those hormones works better/faster than calming/relaxation response activities.

TLDR: play around with different ways to aid your body in processing the stress response: evoking a relaxation response and/or smoothing out the spike-then-dip of hormones with physical activity, to find the combinations that bring you the most ease.

Bonus info, from the Mayo: "Adrenaline makes the heart beat faster, causes blood pressure to go up and gives you more energy. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugar, also called glucose, in the bloodstream, enhances the brain's use of glucose and increases the availability of substances in the body that repair tissues." More good info there, in case learning more about that physiological response might be helpful: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037

The description of glucose fluctuations has me wondering if a snack of fat/protein might also help smooth out the physiological "roller coaster ride". And maybe a good drink of water as well.
posted by concinnity at 5:56 AM on May 19 [3 favorites]

I use the Tetris effect on myself, but substitute other engrossing activities on my phone. Sometimes a similarly twitchy phone game, sometimes a few chapters of whatever lightweight book I’m reading.
posted by itesser at 7:11 AM on May 19

What teremala suggests is similar to RAIN which I find helpful for deeper exploration and can be done quickly when needed. For me acknowledging the emotion and taking the time to feel it helps it pass more easily, more than just breathing to calm down.
posted by ch1x0r at 11:38 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]

I have found sitting for ten minutes and doing nothing to be helpful lately.

Like really nothing. No phone. No meditation. No breathing exercises. No paging through a magazine. No writing about it, no talking about it. Think whatever I want.

Find a chair, sit in it, with a ten minute timer on my phone. It's so boring, I can't even, but it helps. I think it's just that the energy has to dissipate because there is no where for it to go, like if you strike a match and let it burn, in the end, no fire, unless you light something else.

The ice water face thing helps too. Cold showers also. Things that make the brain and body reconnect are helpful.

I made a mental health box in my study that has a list of things that work for me in it. It also has incense and mala beads (I meditate, but also chant. Chanting helps more when I'm really dysregulated. I think the physicality of it is helpful.) And it has a lot of notes to myself like 'you think this won't pass but it actually will' and 'if you want to go do a vodka shot (etc.-pick your poison), go nuts, but set a timer and wait thirty minutes'. And that's kind of comforting too because it means I don't have to come up with self-control or self-discipline when I'm dysregulated and wanting to act out. I have permission to do anything I want, it's just a matter sometimes of giving myself space for a 'ok but is that really what you want to do, or would you like a few minutes to think it over?'

I forget what else is in the box, I write stuff on index cards and throw them in there and then when I'm in a state I go through and do whatever works in that moment and if something works repeatedly I put a little star by it.

I was surprised, really surprised, by the ten minute do-nothing thing. I really felt 'that isn't going to work AT ALL' but it does work for me, as implausible as it is.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:43 AM on May 19 [2 favorites]

Personally I found it very helpful to say to it: oh no. You do NOT get to set the tone for my day, or the narrative for my life. Then I went out and did something amazing for myself. Taking charge like that channeled my fight or flight into fight + action and it felt soooo good.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:19 PM on May 19

Adrenaline makes you want to fight or flee, literally. It's a powerful chemical and your body will take time to process it. Consciously assess the danger, tell yourself you're safe. Sounds silly, but telling your brain things are manageable is effective. Run or do other vigorous movent to help your body process the adrenaline in your tissues. Vagus stimulation helps with calming. Methods include cold water on your face, a really cold washcloth, or the Valsalva maneuver. Drink water. Concinnity, Lyn Never, Glinn have useful comments.

Adrenaline is a short term physical response to perceived crisis. Long-term, it's stress, a genuine health risk, and meditation, regular exercise and other recommendations are effective.
posted by theora55 at 10:10 PM on May 19

I've found that one of the best ways to calm down my fight-or-flight response is to run/jog. Doesn't seem to matter if I'm actually covering any distance or am just on a treadmill. It's like my body goes "okay we ran away from the threat, we're safe now" and stops flooding me with adrenaline.

I've also found that magnesium supplements at bedtime help my brain stop being agitated. I got that tip off /r/anger.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:22 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

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