Stress, anxiety, and tension can be regulated by changing your perspective on forthcoming events or using techniques such as mental imagery or meditation, but they can also be controlled by what you physically do with your body. Techniques such as muscle relaxation, relaxed breathing, and exercise can all be used to decrease the impact of your stress response.
Relax your muscles: You’ve probably noticed that stress, anxiety, and worry can cause you to tense up in certain parts of your body, such as your upper shoulders. Have you also noticed that relaxing your muscles can reduce stress, anxiety, and worry? This works like a two-way street in that your mind can influence what your muscles do, but your muscles can also influence what your mind does. So in order to calm your mind more effectively, one of the key skills is muscle relaxation.
Try sitting or lying comfortably and consciously relaxing each of your muscle groups (e.g., starting at the head and working down the body). Pay special attention to common trouble spots, such as the forehead, jaw muscles, and shoulders. Smooth your forehead, unclench your jaw, put a slight smile on the corners of your mouth, and let your shoulders relax and drop into a more comfortable position.
Helpful guides for muscle relaxation and other stress management techniques are readily available on YouTube. Try a few out until you find some you like and then practice regularly.
Muscle relaxation instructions often tell you to first deliberately tense your muscles and then relax them. While this seems paradoxical, the tense-relax technique is actually very helpful at producing deep relaxation, perhaps deeper than you’ve ever felt before. However, if you have a medical condition that makes it unhealthy or impossible to follow the tension instructions, just ignore those and follow the instructions to relax your muscles.
Relax your breathing: Under high levels of stress, your body’s “fight or flight” response is activated, often leading to more rapid, shallow breathing. By learning to regulate your breathing, you can gain some control over this stress response.
Many people have heard that taking deep breaths can help decrease stress and anxiety, and that’s true. However, most people haven’t been taught how to do it in the most helpful way.
The secret to relaxed breathing is to push your stomach outward as you inhale. This allows you to inflate your lungs more fully so you can breathe more slowly. Instead of breathing about 14 times a minute like most people, or about 18 times a minute like someone who’s anxious, work toward a slower, more relaxed breathing rhythm of six to ten times per minute.
Try to spend a little longer blowing the air out, as this is the most relaxing part of the breath cycle. Breathing in this way will turn down your body’s fight-or-flight response system and allow you to relax more fully and let go of some tension.
Smartphone users can find helpful training apps for relaxed breathing. Free relaxed-breathing audio training is also available via numerous Internet sites.
Relax with physical exercise: Regular exercise has been reliably shown in research to be an effective way to reduce anxiety and tension and seems to work by relaxing both the body and the mind, as well as by increasing confidence. To use this stress reduction technique, plan and implement a program of regular exercise with the guidance of your healthcare providers.
Even if you don’t exercise regularly, getting out and walking or doing some other physical activity can help you relax during times of extra stress.
Regular practice of these physical techniques, and/or previously mentioned techniques that focused on personal perspectives and the mind, will help you gain a sense of control over your personal experience of stress, anxiety, and tension. With these under better control, you’ll have more energy and focus for making other positive changes in your life.
Keep in mind that these self-management techniques work better the more you practice them. Also be aware that it’s best to practice these techniques during less stressful times until you become skilled enough to use them during times of high stress.
Featured image credit: ASSOS CAMP in Healdsburg, bicycle ride mornings and wine in the afternoon by Adrian Flores. Public domain via Unsplash.