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The Four Elements Tool for Stress Reduction

Let’s talk about stress. No matter the source, we all experience it. Some stress is okay, too much stress can negatively impact your physical and mental health. It is essential to find ways to help reduce stress to maintain a healthy lifestyle. One important process that occurs in therapy is creating a toolkit of coping skills or resources that you can effectively utilize in times of stress. One of my favorite tools that I often teach in session is called The Four Elements Tool for Stress Reduction. This technique was created by Elan Shapiro in his work with EMDR (Eye Movement and Desensitization and Reprocessing). Shapiro combined various self-soothing stress management exercises into a four-step, easy-to-practice-anywhere tool. The four steps are as follows (the sequence of the Four Elements is meant to be completed in the order below):


1. EARTH: Grounding for safety in the present moment. Place your feet on the ground and notice the connection of your feet to the ground. Notice the chair supporting you. Now bring your awareness to the present moment by utilizing the 5-4-3-2-1 techniques with your senses. What are five things you can see? What are four things you can hear? What are three things you can touch/feel? What are two things you can smell? What is one thing you can taste?


2. AIR: Breathing for centering. Bring your awareness to your breath. When we are feeling stressed our breath is rapid and shallow. Consequently, this sends messages to our brain that we are in flight-or-flight mode. By slowing and deepening our breath, we come back to centeredness and our body relaxes. Here you can do your favorite breathing exercise. I like to breathe in for the count of 4, hold for 2, breathe out for 4, hold for 2. Continue breathing slowly and deeply for at least ten additional breaths.


3. WATER: Making saliva to feel calm and controlled and to turn on the relaxation response. This one might sound odd but it works - and of course, there is science behind it! Ever notice how when someone is upset a common (intuitive) response is to get them a glass of water? Here’s why - when we are feeling anxious or stressed (again in flight-or-fight mode) our body’s natural survival response is to turn off systems that are not necessary, this includes the digestive system. When we make saliva, or drink water, we switch on the relaxation response. Our brain says: ‘Okay, everything must be okay. If you were in danger, you wouldn’t be able to sit around and drink water or salivate.’


4. FIRE: Fire up your imagination. Use your imagination to take yourself to a calm, peaceful place. This can be real or imagined. Once you visualize this place, notice with your senses what it is like to be there. Notice what you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. Notice your thoughts, emotions, and the sensations in your body when you are there.


One of the reasons I enjoy this tool so much is because you can practice/utilize it anywhere. No one has to know that you are doing it. You can perform each step sitting in your car, waiting at the airport, in a meeting at work, etc. Additionally, this tool is great because it is effective for children as well as adults.

It is important as with any newly acquired coping skill that you practice this skill during times of calm so that you are able to effectively utilize it in times of stress. Coping skills are like muscles, we have to exercise them (i.e. practice) in order for them to strengthen. The more you practice, the easier it will be to use this tool in times that are difficult.

Adapted from: Shaprio, E. (2012). 4 elements exercises for stress reduction. http://emdrresearchfoundation.org/toolkit/four-elements.pdf



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