Two ways to relax when you’re stressed

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What is stress?

Stress is completely normal and necessary for life. We need stress for creativity, learning, and our very survival.

Stress is only harmful when it becomes overwhelming and unmanageable.

When stressors throw your nervous system out of balance, relaxation techniques can bring it back into a balanced state by producing the relaxation response, a state of calmness that is the opposite of the stress response.

That’s why it’s important to pay attention to your stress levels, and using the below relaxation technique, you will be able to catch a small stressful emotion before it turns into a more overwhelming emotion.

What is the relaxation response?

When stress overwhelms your nervous system, your body is flooded with chemicals that prepare you for “fight or flight”. While the stress response can be lifesaving in emergency situations where you need to act quickly, it wears your body down when constantly activated by the stresses of everyday life.

The relaxation response puts the brakes on this heightened state of readiness and brings your body back into a calmed state.

There are a variety of different relaxation techniques that can help to bring your nervous system back into balance by producing the relaxation response.

The relaxation response is not lying on the couch or sleeping, but a mentally active process that leaves the body relaxed, calm and focused. Learning the basics of these relaxation techniques isn’t difficult, but it does take some practice.

Most stress experts recommend setting aside at least 10 to 20 minutes a day for your relaxation practice. If you’d like to get even more stress relief, aim for 30 minutes to an hour.

If that sounds like a daunting commitment, remember that many of these techniques can be included into your existing daily schedule - practiced at your desk over lunch or on the bus during your morning commute.

There is no single relaxation technique that is best for everyone. When choosing a relaxation technique, consider your specific needs, preferences, fitness level, and the way you tend to react to stress.

The right relaxation technique is the one that resonates with you, fits your lifestyle, and can focus your mind and interrupt your everyday thoughts in order to bring on the relaxation response.

In many cases, you may find that alternating or combining different techniques will keep you motivated and provide you with the best results.

Relaxation is a skill, and as such often needs to be learnt and practiced. There are many ways in which individuals relax, including deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, tai chi and yoga.

Relaxation techniques that help

There are two main techniques that will help produce the relaxation response - deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.

Deep breathing

With its focus on full cleansing breaths, deep breathing is a simple, yet powerful relaxation technique. It’s easy to learn, can be practiced almost anywhere, and provides a quick way to get your stress levels in check.

Deep breathing is the cornerstone of many other relaxation practices and can be combined with other relaxing elements such as aromatherapy and music. All you really need is a few minutes and a place to stretch out.

The key to deep breathing is to breathe deeply from the abdomen, getting as much fresh air as possible in your lungs. When you take deep breaths from the abdomen, rather than shallow breaths from your upper chest, you inhale more oxygen. The more oxygen you get, the less tense, short of breath, and anxious you feel.

How to do deep breathing

  • Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  • Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
  • Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
  • Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.

If you find it difficult breathing from your abdomen while sitting up, try lying on the floor. Put a small book on your stomach and try to breathe so that the book rises as you inhale and falls as you exhale.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation involves a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body.

With regular practice, progressive muscle relaxation gives you an intimate familiarity with what tension, as well as complete relaxation, feels like in different parts of the body. This awareness helps you spot and counteract the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies stress. And as your body relaxes, so will your mind. You can combine deep breathing with progressive muscle relaxation for an additional level of stress relief.

Before practicing progressive muscle relaxation, consult with your doctor if you have a history of muscle spasms, back problems, or other serious injuries that may be aggravated by tensing muscles.

Most progressive muscle relaxation practitioners start at the feet and work their way up to the face. The most popular sequence is as follows:

  1. Right foot
  2. Left foot
  3. Right calf
  4. Left calf
  5. Right thigh
  6. Left thigh
  7. Hips and buttocks
  8. Stomach
  9. Back
  10. Chest
  11. Right arm and hand
  12. Left arm and hand
  13. Neck and shoulders
  14. Face.

How to do progressive muscle relaxation:

  • Loosen your clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable
  • Take a few minutes to relax, breathing in and out in slow, deep breaths
  • When you’re relaxed and ready to start, shift your attention to your right foot and take a moment to focus on the way it feels
  • Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can, and hold for a count of 10
  • Relax your right foot and focus on the tension flowing away and the way your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose
  • Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly
  • When you’re ready, shift your attention to your left foot and follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release
  • Move slowly up through your body, contracting and relaxing the muscle groups as you go
  • It may take some practice at first, but try not to tense muscles other than those intended.

Helpful relaxation techniques

If possible, schedule a set time to practice each day. Set aside one or two periods each day. You may find that it’s easier to stick with your practice if you do it first thing in the morning, before other tasks and responsibilities get in the way.

Practice relaxation techniques while you’re doing other things. Meditate while commuting to work on a bus or train or waiting for a dentist appointment. Try deep breathing while you’re doing housework or mowing the lawn. Once you’ve learned techniques, you can practice them in your home, office or in the park at lunchtime.

Expect ups and downs. Don’t be discouraged if you skip a few days or even a few weeks. It happens. Just get started again and slowly build up to your old momentum.

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