Five Exercises To Calm Our Body's Stress Response and Restore Resilience

One of the most exciting discoveries of modern neurobiology has been the role of oxytocin—the hormone released through warmth, touch, and movement—in generating feelings of deep connection and well-being. Oxytocin is the brain’s naturally occurring neurotransmitter of “calm and connect.” Oxytocin is what spurs us to “tend and befriend” rather than fight, flee, or freeze when we’re stressed. Oxytocin acts as a rapid down-regulator of our body’s stress response; it is the brain’s direct and immediate antidote to the stress hormone cortisol and it is the neurochemical foundation of trust and connection.   

The fastest way to release oxytocin and come into a state of calm, connection, trust, and belonging is through warm, safe touch. Any warm, loving touch—hugs, snuggles, holding hands, partner dancing, cuddles with a pet, massage, or bodywork—can trigger the release of oxytocin and bring the body back into a state of calm and peacefulness. Even our own touch, as a reminder of the touch of others, can have this result.

Researchers have demonstrated that a single exposure to oxytocin can create a lifelong change in the brain. The exercises below offer ways to use touch to intentionally activate the release of this neurochemical balm and bring our nervous system back into equilibrium, back into our range of resilience.

“Oxytocin has a short half-life in the brain—it’s gone in just a matter of minutes,” writes Daniel Goleman in Social Intelligence. “But every hug, friendly touch, and affectionate moment may prime this neurochemical balm a bit.”

Exercise 1: Head Rubs

One fun way to trigger oxytocin release is a gentle, two-minute head rub. You can massage your own head, of course, and you can easily practice this exercise with a partner, friend, or coworker, using touch that is sensual without being sexual. Use your fingers to gently massage the scalp, forehead, nose, jaws, and ears. The touch, warmth, and movement release the oxytocin in your brain, lowering your blood pressure and calming your racing thoughts. These brief moments of safe and loving touch give you a few moments’ respite from stress and pressure, priming you to cope more resiliently with the next stressor that comes along.

Exercise 2: Massaging the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve, loaded with oxytocin receptors, resides in the brain stem. You can locate that region by placing your fingers at the back of your skull, where the top of your neck nestles into the skull. A gentle massage to that part of the neck (you can easily do this yourself) can be a potent trigger for the release of oxytocin, increasing feelings of well-being throughout the day.

Exercise 3: Hugs

Stan Tatkin at UCLA has found that when people feel safe with one another, a 20-second, full-body hug is enough to release oxytocin in both men and women.Twenty seconds is about the time it takes to take three long, deep breaths, easy for you and your “hug-ee” to time on your own. Try changing head positions with each breath. 

Most of us don’t feel comfortable with a full-body hug with anyone except a partner, immediate family, or closest friends. We do the A-frame hug of arms around the shoulders at best. The closeness of a full-body hug maximizes the effectiveness, so exchange a full-body hug with somebody you’re comfortable with as often as you can. Identify people or pets in your life that you would feel comfortable asking for a hug. (I have borrowed my neighbor’s dog on more than one occasion.)

A warm hug may not be a new practice for you, but sometimes we forget to remember the power of a hug to soothe our jangled nerves. Remember, the brain learns new patterns when we practice “little and often.” Repeat, repeat, repeat your hugs, with as many different people and pets as you feel comfortable with, as many times a day as you remember to.

Exercise 4: Energize Your Heart Center

Neural cells (brain cells) are part of the structure of your heart. Warm, safe touch activates those neurons; your brain then activates messages of comfort and calm that are sent throughout the body.

  1. Ask someone you feel safe with to sit near you, side by side.
  2. As you place your hand on your heart, ask this person to gently place their hand on the middle of your back, corresponding to where you placed your hand on the front of your body. (You can also experience the energy shift of this exercise by leaning your back into a cushion while sitting on a firm couch or chair.)
  3. Breathe gently in and out. Feel the sense of stable energy in the center of your torso. Relax into the ease and comfort of an engaged social connection system.
  4. After a minute or two, switch roles with your partner if you wish.

Exercise 5: Hand on the Heart

  1. Place your own hand on your own heart, so that you feel the warm touch of your hand on your heart center.
  2. Breathe gently, softly, deeply into your heart center. 
  3. If you wish, breathe in a sense of ease or safety or goodness into your heart center. 
  4. Then remember one moment, just one moment, when you felt safe, loved, and cherished by another human being. Not the entire relationship, just one moment. This could be a partner or child, a friend or therapist or teacher; it could be a spiritual figure; it could be a pet. 
  5. As you remember this moment of feeling safe and loved and cherished, let yourself feel the feeling of that moment. Let the feeling wash through your body, and let yourself stay there for 20 or 30 seconds.
  6. Notice any shifts in your sense of relaxation and calm.

Linda Graham, MFT, is a psychotherapist, mindful self-compassion teacher, and author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being.

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