Top 3 Tools to Activate the Relaxation Response.

CPTSD Foundation
4 min readJun 3, 2024

Trauma can cast a long shadow on our lives, affecting our emotional well-being and overall health. While it’s important to seek professional help for trauma recovery, there are also practical tools you can incorporate into your daily routine to manage trauma-related symptoms. The relaxation response was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson in the 1970s. Dr. Benson defined it as “a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress and is opposite of the fight-or-flight response.”

In this blog, we’ll explore three powerful techniques for activating the relaxation response and aiding in your healing journey: cold exposure, controlled breathing, and bilateral movement.

Tool 1: Cold Exposure for Relaxation

Cold exposure might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of relaxation, but it can be surprisingly effective. Exposing your body to cold can reduce anxiety and promote calmness. A simple way to incorporate cold exposure into your daily routine is by splashing cold water on your face. This jolt of cold water activates your relaxation response, helping you to feel more grounded and less anxious.

You can also try placing an ice pack on the back of your neck for a few minutes, which can slow your heart rate and calm your mind. While it might sound uncomfortable, the results can be incredibly effective.

Tool 2: Controlled Breathing

Breathing is one of the most accessible and effective tools for managing stress and trauma symptoms. Controlled breathing can help regulate your nervous system and bring a sense of calm. It’s simple: take 1–3 controlled breaths. Breathe in deeply for a count of four and then exhale for a count of four or six. A longer exhale is effective for relaxation. This controlled breathing pattern can help you stay present and reduce feelings of panic or anxiety.

Studies have shown that controlled breathing can significantly lower stress levels, making it an invaluable tool in your trauma recovery journey. The best part is that you can practice it anywhere, anytime and it is free. I used to overcomlicate breathing, but now I recognize the importance of a basic inhale and exhale.

Tool 3: Bilateral Movement

Bilateral movement is another technique that can help regulate emotions and reduce stress. One simple exercise involves crisscrossing your arms and tapping your shoulders alternately (right hand tapping left shoulder and left hand tapping right shoulder). This bilateral movement can synchronize the two hemispheres of your brain, which can be especially helpful in trauma recovery. It can promote a sense of calm and balance, helping you to cope with emotional distress.

Many people have found success with bilateral movement and tapping, and some therapists use it in trauma-focused therapies. It’s a practice you can easily incorporate into your daily routine. This is my favorite tool when I am activated.

The Power of Daily Practice

While each of these tools on its own can be effective, the real power lies in making them a daily practice. Consistency is key when it comes to managing trauma-related stress. By incorporating these techniques into your daily routine, you can gradually build resilience and promote your healing process. The cumulative benefits of daily activation of the relaxation response are worth the effort. Over time, you’ll likely notice a reduction in anxiety, better emotional regulation, and an overall improved sense of well-being.

Trauma recovery is a journey that requires patience and self-compassion. You can empower yourself with simple yet effective tools to manage stress and promote relaxation. Cold exposure, controlled breathing, and bilateral movement are just a few techniques that can make a difference in your life. By making them a daily practice, you’ll be taking a proactive step toward healing and well-being.

These tools are not only meant to complement professional guidance and support, but they can also be valuable additions to your self-care routine.

As you embark on your healing journey, consider giving these tools a try, and feel free to share your experiences with others. Your path to recovery can inspire and help others on their journey to healing as well.

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Benson, H., & Klipper, M. Z. (1975). The relaxation response. New York, Avon.

Photo by Bob Osias on Unsplash

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