Whether it’s the “physiological sigh” popularized by podcaster Andrew Huberman or the New York Times advising people to “plunge your face into a bowl with ice water for 15 to 30 seconds,” quick and concrete tactics for managing stress and anxiety are all over the internet. And the truth is, they work.
Plenty of research shows that modulating your breathing and extreme cold water on your face can help reset your nervous system.
But, then again, as Steve recently pointed out on Twitter, lots of things work:
It’s hard to go shopping every day, and few would suggest that doing so promotes a highly fulfilled life. It’s also hard (and unrealistic) to physiologically sigh ninety times a day or repeatedly dunk your head in an ice bucket. At best, these are short-term interventions for extremely high-stress situations. At worst, they get in the way of what we’re really after: calm, equanimity, and the ability to perform well under distress.
Decades of research shows that there are two primary ways to manage stress and anxiety, which tend to be most effective when undertaken together:
- Learn to sit with and accept the emotions.
- Take action to change the situation that is giving rise to the stress and anxiety.
Meanwhile, guess what is bound to make anxiety and stress (along with someone’s ability to deal with them) worse over the long haul: labeling these emotions as unequivocally bad and always trying to make them go away. This, of course, is precisely what we are doing with quick-fix strategies like those mentioned in the opening of this piece.
“Ahh! Stress! Anxiety!! This is BAD! I better breathe weird or dunk my head out of it!!”
The New York Times dunking your head into an ice-bucket example was in an article about how to deal with election night nerves. It may feel good for a few minutes, but it does nothing to fundamentally change the situation. That would require taking action to protect democracy, learning to sit with discomfort and uncertainty on something about which you care deeply, or deciding to opt out of following election night altogether.
(The irony is that the same newspaper also publishes the election night prediction arrow, which is essentially a rigorously engineered stress and anxiety machine.)
Meanwhile, if you are freaking out on the start line of a race or before giving a presentation, sure, take a physiological sigh and hopefully you’ll benefit from it! (But be careful, research out of Harvard shows that trying to calm down and failing sends already high levels of stress and anxiety skyrocketing. It’s often better not to judge the feelings as bad or something to make go away and instead re-label them as excitement or normal given the circumstances.)
If you are having an acute panic attack and feel like you are dying then it’s totally fine to hop into a freezing shower to jolt your nervous system. But don’t let these escape mechanisms become the solution—because they are a solution that, over time, exacerbates the underlying problem(s).
Better is to focus on learning how to non-judgmentally accept and sit with feelings of stress and anxiety and/or take productive actions to change the stressful and angst-provoking situations. This, of course, requires patience, discomfort, and oftentimes, the help and support of others.
Perhaps far more important than physiologically sighing or dunking our heads in cold water repeatedly is building building better institutions and communities and improving our own lifestyles and emotional flexibility. Unfortunately, it’s kind of a zero-sum game. The more we rely on physiological and psychological hacks to escape discomfort, the less we learn how to sit with discomfort and the less likely we are to do something productive about it.
I’ve got nothing against physiological sighing, cold water, or many of the other bright and shiny hacks out there. But we should realize their limitations and use them sparingly.
Everyone wants a quick fix. It’s as old as time. But quick fixes tend to lose their efficacy, well, quite quickly.
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