Last March, I remember hearing rumblings of some kind of a potential pandemic in China. I also remember taking a yoga class that week to alleviate some of my totally non-pandemic related stress because, quite frankly, I didn't think what was happening in China was going to affect me much. 


Spoiler alert: I was wrong. We are entering one year of pandemic life, and our lives are all forever changed. We're working from home and teaching our kids...also from home. We're destressing when we can...yep...from home again. Women have been disproportionately impacted as they leave the workforce in droves to keep their families fed and cared for. I'm not breaking any news by saying that the stress levels we're currently experiencing are unprecedented. If anything, it feels like a cliche at this point to even mention it.

But it's true, and it's important to take this time and space to talk about how to calm down and not completely lose our sense of humor...and our minds while doing so. 

Before We Start, Let's Be Totally Clear

Before I list some ways to naturally destress, I want to make some things clear.

  1. If you can, find a therapist to talk to.
  2. I know we're more isolated than we've ever been, but it's important that you maintain your support system. Reach out and stay connected to friends and family.
  3. If your stress levels seem overwhelming or impossible and you're considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Line

I know that seems dark, but if we're ever going to improve our mental health and prevent suicide, we have to talk about it. So there you have it. Safe space. 

Now, if we're talking about tips and tricks to naturally manage stress levels throughout the day, that's where I come in. You've got your support system and are talking to a professional, but you want some added fun ways for how to destress throughout your day? Keep reading.

Who Am I? What's Play Your Way Sane?


Almost a decade ago (yes, I'm old enough to measure time in decades...yay!), I researched and wrote an academic book describing how awesome improv comedy is mentally. It helps improvisers be less anxious and in their heads and more in the moment. However, knowing these brainy things was not helping me be more present and mentally healthy in my everyday life. Boo. 

So I spent over five years adapting all my improv research to everyday life. I created 12 lessons and 120 improv-inspired exercises to help me (and you) calm down, overthink less, and enjoy the moment more. 

Lesson 2 is called Calm the Hell Down. Before a performance, improvisers warm-up. They practice connecting with each other and listening. They play games to get their brains working and to get their energy up, but they also take some deep breaths and stretch their bodies. Why?

Simple really. When we're relaxed, we aren't in flight or flight mode, which means we are actually able to listen to each other and respond more logically (and calmly) to situations as they arise. In improv, this means scenes make more sense and are funnier and more awesome. In real life, this means we don't have to scream at our children...or husband...or postal carrier. It means we can better maintain a sense of calm throughout the day, even when the going gets rough. And let's face it, the going got rough 12 months ago. Period. 

So how to calm down? That's the question. What can we learn from improv about how to destress without Xanax or a cocktail or running away from home forever? 

I'm glad you asked, friend. 

How to Calm Down (but like, make it fun)

There are many ways to destress, but I have a list of ten natural tips and tricks to destress when I'm worked up and overwhelmed.

1. Breathing Exercises

Breathing deeply and intentionally has been shown to decrease blood pressure and increase energy levels, so it's a great idea to stop what you're doing and complete a couple rounds of calming breaths when you're feeling stressed. 

There are definitely options when it comes to breathing exercises. I like a yoga-inspired exercise I call Nostril Party. Hold your finger and thumb over your nostrils and alternate breathing in and out of one nostril at a time. 

You can also try Birthday-Cake Hands. That's where you hold up one hand and pretend your fingers are birthday candles. Blow out one finger-candle at a time until you've extinguished all five. 

Finally, there's an exercise I call Trace Your Hand. Trace your hand with your opposite pointer finger. When you trace up your thumb, breathe in. Then breathe out when you trace down the other side of your thumb. Repeat for your four fingers. 

These breathing exercises help you calm down and stop your body's fight or flight stress response. This reduces your cortisol levels and helps you approach your life with a cooler head.

2. Visualization Exercises

You can also imagine you're somewhere else to reduce stress. I love to use all five senses to imagine I'm on a beach. This way I don't have to flee the country to destress. I can stay right where I am and still reduce stress and give myself a much needed pretend-vacation. 


3. Flight

Another option is to for real get away from whatever it is that's stressing you out. I have a favorite spot outside I walk to when I'm feeling stressed out. I've conditioned myself to take slow, steady breaths and marvel at the beauty of nature when I'm in that special spot. 

Of course, you could also lock yourself in the bathroom and take a cliche 1980's commercial bubble bath to destress. 


4. Play Pretend

If you can't pretend to be somewhere else, why not pretend to be someone else? I love pretending to be some kind of California surfer dude or pot head-type when I want to stay cool under pressure. Instead of snapping, I throw out a lot of "Cool, mans" and "Totally, dudes." This helps me embody a stress-free presence. I mean, if you can't be stress-free, why not pretend to be someone who is stress-free?


5. Gamify It

Another "how to calm down" category is to turn it into a game. There's one exercise in Play Your Way Sane called Relaxathon that I love for helping me calm down and destress. All you have to do is find someone who's super chill and secretly try to be more chill than them. That's it! That's the game. 

Turn relaxation into a competition. That way you're focusing on relaxation instead of on whatever it is that's stressing you out. 

6. Change Your Focus

Your conscious brain can only focus on one-ish thing at a time, so if you're stressing out, change your focus. I know this is easier said than done, but if you can focus on nature or unicorns or funny cat videos, you'll be giving yourself a much needed vacation from stress. This will allow your relaxation mode to kick in, if only for a moment. 

7. Exercise

Exercise is another great natural stress reliever. If you really get your body moving and sweat it out, you'll be releasing endorphins and regulating your breathing, both great ways to feel less stressed and more relaxed and calm. 

8. Go Outside 

Communing with nature is a great way to reduce stress. You'll get some fresh air and some much needed Vitamin D. Plus, it's a great way to remove yourself from what's stressing you out and calm yourself down. 

Added bonus is that you can scream into the abyss if you're feeling really stressed out. 

9. Make a Change

The penultimate tip for reducing stress is to make a change if it's possible. If your life is too jam packed with stress, take an inventory to see if there's a way to remove a stressor or two. 

Think of it as Marie Kondoing your stress-life. If it's not adding something to your life and it's possible to chuck it, then say good bye to some of the things that overwhelm you. 

10. Ask for Help

I'm a Midwesterner, so this means it's usually tough for me to ask for help. That's not great when we're talking stress reduction. If you need some help, ask for it! If you're stressed out and overwhelmed, there's no shame in asking someone to lend a hand to get you through your difficult moment. 

What About Holiday Stress?

The same rules apply for reducing holiday stress. When extended family members are involved, household chores become more elaborate and expectations for a good time are way too high. High stress levels and total meltdowns are natural consequences. 

So come prepared. Take a break when you need to. Have your breathing and visualization exercises ready. Try some mindfulness exercises. And try gratitude. I find the occasional reminder of what I love and admire about my family and the holiday season is a great way to prime myself to be more positive and remember why I'm going through all the holiday shenanigans in the first place.  

Final Thoughts on How to Calm Down

If you take anything away from this article, I hope it's that there are tons of fun, easy ways to pause what you're doing and destress. None of these tips and tricks will permanently cure you of all stresses for all of eternity, but having some fun solutions will hopefully encourage and inspire you to more consistently and more actively handle your stress head-on, instead of letting it accumulate and overwhelm you.