Discover how to switch from stress to relaxation in just one minute

How to turn of stress in just one minute

Annemie leaving the ice-bath

This weekend I participated in my first Iceman workshop. If you experience stress in your life, this article is for you. Stepping into an bath full of ice triggers a stress response!

Stress can take a heavy toll on your health. We are not designed to live under chronic stress. Just like a zebra is not born to be chased day and night by a lion, just once in a while.

We are the same. We thrive with temporary acute stress like a deadline for a project or exam, catching a bus, an argument with your partner, a mistake at work, etc. This is actually good for us. Our bodies are designed for drive and recovery. Our brain and body need training to respond well for future stress situations.

Polyvagal theory

Our health is a reflection of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). Physiologist Stephen Porges, Ph.D. formulated the POLYVAGAL THEORY.
Our ANS consists of three branches (and not two as they always teach you).


2. THE DORSAL VAGAL BRANCH (of the parasympathetic branch)

If your body slows down, whether it is a low blood pressure, digestion, unrelenting fatigue, depression, … think dorsal freeze. Our body give hints, we just have to listen to it.

3. THE SOCIAL NERVOUS SYSTEM (This is the other branch of our parasympathetic nervous system). This is all about connection and communication.

With this information you can observe whether  or not your nervous system is working optimally. Maybe you’re anxious for no reason, is your heart pounding when startled, do you have difficulty falling asleep, do you feel tired and wired, …

How does our body react to an emergency or ACUTE STRESS? (Like stepping into an ice bath)

  • The sympathetic nervous system branch takes control of your system.
  • Osteocalcin, adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol flood the body and give you an energy boost.*
  • Adrenaline boosts glucose production and is used to give you energy. High intensity sport does the same!
  • Your energy stores are depleted from glucose and fat. If it takes too long, you feel drained and exhausted.
  • Your immune system becomes suppressed in anticipation of a fight. Let this one sink in!
  • Your heart rate goes up.
  • You’ll go into chest breathing to take in more oxygen.
  • This will tense the muscles in your shoulders and neck. That explains the stiff neck once in a while!
  • Your blood will flow to your extremities like legs and arms, to run and be strong. Zebras need to run now!
  • You are unable to digest and assimilate your food at this time. Eating a veggie salad in between 2 stressful meetings isn’t the best idea. You need to relax first. How? Keep on reading!
  • You might not be able to think rationally but emotionally and less logical. Your primitive brain gets in control. The activity of the more developed frontal lobe where decisions are taken, decreases. Did I say you have trouble concentrating?

Three types of reactions can happen:

Fight – Flight – Freeze

  1. Fight: These people stay calm. They will assess the situation, make a plan and act accordingly.
  2. Flight: Most people are overwhelmed and unable to think clearly. They will fall back in reflexive or automatic behavior. That’s where regular fire drills come in handy.
  3. Freeze: a minority of people of people will be showing counter-effective behavior that can actually make things worse. Anxiety and panicking is typical for a freeze reaction.

How do we switch our autonomous nervous system from a Fight-Flight-Freeze reaction to a safe Rest and Digest modus?

We can train ourselves to switch our body from a Fight-Flight-Freeze reaction to a safe Rest and Digest modus. This is a wonderful and very efficient exercise to reset your nervous system into the safe mode when you are :

  • getting your kids ready for school in the morning
  • getting back to sleep at night
  • irritated by the snoring of your loved one
  • stuck in the traffic jam
  • stressed at work
  • flying in between different timezones
  • running to your next appointment
  • having lunch

How do I train my nervous system to reset in the safe mode?

The die-hards step into an ice bath to trigger an acute stress response and focus on their breathing to calm down.

You don’t need to step into an ice bath to trigger an acute stress response. You can have a cold shower in the morning and learn how to control your breathing. Taking a cold shower will train your nervous system to reset in the safe mode. This is a perfect exercise to kickstart the day and feel relaxed and energized at the same time.

During the day, whenever stress accumulates, take a short break and just focus on your breathing. Or you can set your timer every hour and do some focused breathing for 2 minutes.

  •  If you are hyperventilating, you can hold your breath for 15 seconds.  Inhale, exhale and hold your breath again 15 seconds.
  • If you are not hyperventilating, you can belly breath slowly 10 times. Inhale count till 4, hold 2 and exhale 8 counts.

Why is it important to train our nervous system to reset in the safe mode?

When stress happens too often, it becomes EPISODIC ACUTE STRESS.

Behavior can reflect when people undergo frequent stress situations. They’ll become irritable, short tempered, anxious. You’ll see this kind of behavior in traffic. They tend to take on more work than they can handle and physical symptoms start to appear. Stressed people are often focused on the negative first. Unless their life circumstances change, they won’t change their outlook on life easily. Professional help is often needed.

Physical symptoms are:

  • Migraine
  • Hypertension
  • Heart disease

CHRONIC STRESS appears when situations in life take a heavy toll on our wellbeing. Chronic stress is a pathway to chronic disease or burnout (or worse a nervous breakdown). The nervous system will not be able to switch into the rest and digest mode when danger has passed. Metabolic changes start to appear. The chronic release of catabolic hormones will wear and tear your body. You become prone to chronic illness and you’ll age more quickly. 

Outside factors:

  • Too much responsibility in your job
  • A dysfunctional family
  • Being bullied
  • Divorce
  • Chronic illness
  • Poverty
  • Taking care of a family member
  • Traumatic event(s)

Internal factors:

  • Fear and uncertainty – Can I pay the bills? 
  • Attitudes and perception – I feel like an imposter.
  • Unrealistic expectations – Perfectionism is the ultimate form of procrastination. 

People can be more resilient to chronic stress even when confronted with trauma and life’s inevitable challenges. How? We need support and connection. Our nervous system is designed to recover when we are surrounded by highly available supportive, safe and nurturing peopleWe need time to be able to resource ourselves. Don’t forget to hug your loved ones and friends when you come home tonight! And practice to breath consciously to tell your brain you are safe. More tips to come in our coming newsletters! 

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