Managing stressful moments: Breathe deep and create calm

Published on Tuesday, 13 July 2021
Last updated on Monday, 12 July 2021

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Life as an early educator is demanding and the work can be physically and mentally exhausting. But what about when a stressful event and fatigue leads to feelings of frustration or anger, and you need to manage your emotions and calm down quickly?

Fortunately, there are some simple and fast-acting strategies for tapping into a calmer state of mind.

Stress is a normal response to the demands of work. It can put the body into “fight or flight” mode – an evolutionary tactic that releases hormones designed to get you ready to either fight or run from danger. When triggered in moments of stress, the emotional centre of the brain, the limbic system, perceives a threat and overrides the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for executive functions such as managing emotional reactions and focusing).

When this occurs, people lose the balance and regulation that helps them stay calm, flexible, and attuned.

But not all stress is bad, it can be beneficial in short bursts, helping you stay alert and perform at your best. A stress response can be triggered by a range of events; from small daily issues to major changes and it can come in many forms. It can build up gradually over time or occur in a moment and be gone.

Experiencing prolonged stress in the workplace or at home can be damaging to mental health. Stress can contribute to the development of anxiety and may cause an existing condition to worsen. If you’re dealing with chronic stress, it’s important to implement positive practices to manage stress over the long term or to talk to a mental health professional.

The first step to controlling a stress response is to recognise the tell-tale symptoms of rising stress such as a heart rate increases, muscles tightening, and irritability.

If you start your morning feeling stressed or you are having a stressful day, acknowledge it. Start a conversation by talking to your colleagues about how you’re feeling, discuss support strategies and share stories on how to manage stress.

To discover what works for you, here are some options to help lower your cortisol levels and calm down quickly.


Breathing is a powerful way to regulate emotions. Pay attention to your breathing, and make an effort to start taking slow, deep breaths. Be aware that inhaling deeply may not always calm you down. Taking in a deep breath links to the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the “fight-or-flight” response. But exhaling is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, which influences the body’s ability to relax and calm down.

Taking too many deep breaths too quickly can actually cause you to hyperventilate. Hyperventilation decreases the amount of oxygen-rich blood that flows to your brain.

When we feel anxious or under stress, it’s easier to breathe too much and end up hyperventilating — even if we’re trying to do the opposite. This technique can be done in any position:

  1. Before you take a big, deep breath, try a thorough exhale instead. Push all the air out of your lungs, then simply let your lungs do their work inhaling air.
  2. Next, try spending a little bit longer exhaling than you do inhaling. For example, try inhaling for four seconds, then exhale for six.
  3. Try doing this for two to five minutes.

Check your thoughts

When your thoughts start to spin out of control during a stressful moment, stop and reframe your thinking. Sometimes we intensify our experience of stressful situations by the way we look at them. If you look at your situation differently, you may be able to put it into a framework that causes you less stress. For example, don’t take bad behaviour personally. There is always a reason why children are acting out, focus on finding out the ‘why’ behind the behaviour. Or take some time to reconnect with why you became an educator to reignite positive feelings about your work.

Positive self-talk

Have a mantra ready to use in critical situations. Quietly repeat a phrase that helps refocus your mind. These are similar to affirmations, which are positive phrases or statements used to challenge negative or unhelpful thoughts. To practice, all you need to do is pick a phrase and repeat it to yourself. The practice and popularity of positive affirmations are based on widely accepted and well-established psychological theory. Create a phrase that helps you deal with feelings of stress such as: ‘I am calm,’ or ‘Everything is okay’ or ‘This will pass.’

Get some fresh air

When it is safe to do so and the children are supervised, go outside, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Research has shown that being outside activates the calming part of the nervous system, and quiets the “fight or flight” stress response. You can often feel this effect with the first breath you take outside. Relax your shoulders, clear your mind, and breathe deep. We can take our stress with us when we’re outside, of course, but it’s easier to let it go. Focus on your senses – the smells, the temperature and what you can see – or on an activity, rather than trying to change your mood, and see what happens.

Find a calm space

Unlike most other professions, early educators can’t always leave the workplace when it becomes too stressful. Regulations requiring minimum supervision ratios make it difficult to find a precious calm space. However, if there is an opportunity to spend some time in a quiet spot during breaks, take it.

Perhaps set up a yoga space with easy poses on display that you could go to with the children. A number of studies have shown that yoga may help reduce stress and anxiety as well as enhancing your mood and overall sense of well-being. Try  calming yoga poses to shake off the stress and show the children some easy but beneficial moves.


The mindfulness practice of paying attention to the present moment can help to control the racing, repetitive, and non-productive thoughts that lead to stress. It allows emotional self-regulation. Mindfulness can allow you to be aware of your thoughts and then to step back from them, so your stress response is not initiated in the first place. Mindfulness is a type of meditation that needs to be learnt. It involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.

During high-stress situations there’s no time to go for a jog, write in a journal or take a nap. Instead, it’s important to learn strategies that can calm you down quickly so you can cope with any challenging situation.

References and further reading Work can be stressful: Self-care 101

The Sector: Keeping your cool when working in ECEC

The Healthy: 15 5-Second Strategies for Shutting Down Stress ASAP

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