9 Best Stress Relief Techniques
We all face stressful situations throughout our lives, ranging from minor annoyances like traffic jams to more serious worries, such as a loved one's grave illness. No matter what the cause, stress floods your body with hormones. Your heart pounds, your breathing speeds up, and your muscles tense. This so-called “stress response” is a normal reaction to threatening situations, honed in our prehistory to help us survive threats like an animal attack or a flood.
Today, we rarely face these physical dangers, but challenging situations in daily life can set off the stress response. We can't avoid all sources of stress in our lives, nor would we want to. But we can develop healthier ways of responding to them. The relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response. It's a state of profound rest that can be elicited in many ways. With regular practice, you create a well of calm to dip into as the need arises.
1. Breath Focus
The simplest way to start breathing into the relaxation response is to simply focus on your breath, at the exhale. Inhale in through your nose, drawing your breath into a chest just above your belly button, then hold your breath, gently squeezing the air through your lips to prevent the air from escaping. Exhale through your mouth, allowing the air to gently flow out through your lips. Breathing this way may seem odd at first, but it's important.
A 2014 review found that this simple breathing technique could significantly reduce anxiety in patients undergoing chemotherapy. Other ways to focus on breathing include creating a soothing, familiar environment, like sitting quietly with your eyes closed and adopting specific muscle relaxations. All mammals breathe—it's a primal reflex that helps us stay alive.
So it makes sense that learning to focus on your breath can relax you. In the relaxation response, your attention is focused on your breath, either as you inhale and exhale it, or as your mind wanders during the exhalation. Even with the best breathing technique, you can't force air into your lungs when you're tense. In the relaxation response, you'll naturally become more aware of your body, relaxed muscles, and gentle heart rate. Meditation is a particularly effective way of increasing your awareness of your breathing.
By focusing on your breath and moving slowly through your day, you'll be able to better take in the positive energy of your surroundings. Deep breathing allows you to focus on the air moving in and out of your lungs. This allows you to quiet the parts of your brain that are associated with distracting thoughts and worries. Breathing deeply relaxes the muscles in your body, including your neck and shoulders, arms and chest. Breathing slowly brings more oxygen to your brain, giving you a sharper focus on what's really important.
2. Body Scan
One of the most effective ways of inducing the relaxation response is through a body scan, in which you focus on moving your awareness from top to bottom and back again, starting with your toes and working your way up through your limbs. In a body scan, you focus on something in your direct field of vision, which could be a tree, a door, a person, or an object. If it isn't moving, you're not sensing it.
You focus on the movement, without analyzing it or trying to change it. If you're breathing slowly and deeply, it becomes natural to let your attention linger on a moving object. Focus on your breathing: Inhale slowly, through your nose. Exhale slowly, through your mouth. Don't force the breath. Let it come naturally. Breathe slowly, with attention to the sensation of your breath.
The body scan is one of the simplest techniques to help you achieve relaxation. You focus on one part of your body – for example, your toes or an arm. Then, you note any physical sensations that arise – a slight rise in your heart rate, tightening in your chest, shakiness in your limbs. You continue to scan your body, focusing on any physical sensations that arise.
Slowly, you note your level of relaxation. When you feel that familiar feeling of fading out of consciousness, you return to a state of mindful alertness. The body scan can be used to help you learn to relax. It can also be used as a tool to learn how to let go of difficult emotional experiences. The body scan is also a good way to get a sense of your current emotional state. The most basic way of creating a sense of relaxation is to simply allow your body to become still and quiet.
This can be accomplished by going through a body scan, where you scan every part of your body from the soles of your feet to your nose, deliberately noticing each part and concentrating on how it feels. The purpose of body scan is to calm your entire nervous system.
Since the nervous system governs almost every other bodily function, including your heart rate, breathing, digestion, and circulation, keeping it calm is essential to maintaining your overall well-being. When we stretch, our arms typically go back and forth. But this exercise can be customized to suit your needs and help you get in touch with your lower body.
3. Guided Imagery
One simple technique is called “guided imagery.” In this exercise, you imagine yourself at a peaceful place – a beach, a mountain top, a meditation retreat. Close your eyes and imagine yourself breathing in the cool, fresh air of the place you're imagining, imagining yourself walking on the beach, imagining yourself sitting under a tree. Relax and let your worries drift away.
This technique is often taught to beginners and accomplished practitioners. Typically, people start by imagining themselves in a warm, comfortable setting, like sitting in a deck chair, watching the waves in the ocean, feeling the sun on their face. Gradually, you train your mind to develop the ability to visit the peaceful places you imagine. At first, this may take concentration.
When you're stressed, your body's stress response gets out of balance. Some of the stress hormones enter your bloodstream, creating a “fight or flight” response. Your heart races, your muscles tense, and your breathing is shallow. Your mind starts racing. Your breathing slows down. You start to think in generalities. You might feel sick or even faint. Often the best way to ease your stress is to consciously change your thinking. We're all familiar with techniques that do this.
We practice “The Power of Now,” where you notice your breath and the sensations in your body and try to “look without eyes.” We imagine our worries as clouds floating across the sky, and we try to “see” the sunshine when the clouds part. Because our minds often go over-complicated or repetitive thoughts, guided imagery can help bring the part of our brain responsible for decision-making under control.
This technique works because visualizing the present moment can help reduce preoccupation and induce a “flow state.” You might choose to visualize a tranquil scene, such as a beach or a sunset, when you feel the stress response coming on. You might picture your thoughts and feelings floating like tiny rainbows around you. Or, you could imagine flowing like water through clear, cool streams, like a stream-walker on a crystal-clear lake.
4. Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is one of the most accessible and effective methods for balancing and adapting to daily stresses. But mindfully practicing mindfulness may also promote relaxation, helping you: relax your body and mind during exercise or a workout, calm your heart rate during a stressful situation, soothe a tense body by walking in nature, calm your nervous system with muscle-relaxing yoga and tai chi, reduce your blood pressure, drop your blood sugar, relax your muscles and joints, regulate your hormones, increase your attention and focus, look more deeply into life.
The benefits of regular mindfulness practice extend well beyond stress relief. Mindfulness meditation is a common form of stress relief, but one that is easy to miss. Developed in the 1980s, it involves being aware of the present moment and letting go of worries, worries, and more worries. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve immune function, blood pressure, and quality of sleep, and it may also reduce anxiety. Tantric Buddhism, which uses religious practice to draw a person closer to nature and one's true self, is also a common form of mindfulness practice.
These practices can help us integrate self-care into our busy lives, and practice a broader, more philosophical perspective of life. The simplest technique for creating a calming effect is to perform a simple breathing meditation. Many techniques are used by individuals as well as therapists, including breathing exercises, specific visualizations and mantras.
Most people can breathe well and easily, so practicing simple meditation techniques will get you breathing deeply and regularly. You can learn breathing techniques from a trained practitioner, or you can practice by yourself. Breathe deeply into your belly for four counts. When the four counts are done, hold your breath and let it out. Take four more inhalations and four more exhales. Begin breathing normally, maintaining a controlled rate and a steady breath volume.
5. Yoga, Tai Chi, And Qigong
Yoga is an ancient body-mind practice that originated with Hindu philosophy. There are hundreds of variations, but the main idea is to focus on your own physical, mental, and emotional health. This type of exercise is often described as “restorative,” which can be a helpful contrast to the standard modern view of exercise as a way to burn calories, get stronger, and improve your health.
Most of the relaxation methods that have been clinically studied over the past 50 years have their origins in Chinese and Indian medicine. The general principle is that you induce relaxation by engaging different parts of your nervous system through different physical exercises. One of the most familiar methods is known as the “body scan,” also called “meditation in motion.” Lie on the floor with your arms spread out, fingers gently touching.
Focus your attention on your breathing, which slows down and becomes rhythmic. Now imagine that your body is a pool of clear water. You are part of the water. So slowly move your arms from side to side, leaving the water untouched. Yoga is an ancient practice that's been practiced for more than 2,000 years. It has roots in the Sanskrit word “Yuj,” which means “to merge,” “to unite,” or “to unite one's energy.”
Yoga is a slow-moving practice that is often done standing up, but you can do it lying down, sitting up, or even while riding in a car. Yoga in particular emphasizes learning to relax your body and mind as you move. It emphasizes the importance of letting go of tension through slow, controlled breathing and allowing your body to be still. The aim is to make your body as stable and comfortable as possible and to move as slowly as possible.
6. Repetitive Prayer
Praying isn't the sort of thing that will help you relax at your lowest point. Yet you can learn to use prayer to your advantage when you're stressed out. If you're feeling anxious or overwhelmed, start with one minute of repeating a simple phrase in your mind, such as “help me feel better.” Then listen to your favourite audio or read a book. With practice, you can do this for five minutes at a time, then 10. Keep going until you've established a daily routine that enables you to access this soothing resource when needed.
The more you do this, the stronger the relaxation response will become. After each of your stress responses, there's a period of reflection and reorganization of your mental resources. In some religious traditions, the idea is that regular prayers can train the body and mind to relax. When we pray, our minds relax, and that allows us to better observe our surroundings and hear our inner voice. Prayer can be visual or auditory, repeated or unspoken.
It can be in the form of thought (prayer as meditation), word (prayer as a conversation with God) or emotion (prayer as self-reflection). Practicing “prayer as self-care” can help those of us who experience a stressful life achieve a state of peace and rest. Using words that are meaningful to us, keeping our bodies and minds healthy, and caring for ourselves are great ways to build self-compassion. Self-compassion is the foundation of self-care.
7. Reduce Your Caffeine Intake
Research on the link between caffeine and stress has confirmed a negative correlation. Caffeine intake raises cortisol levels and impairs the brain's ability to manage stress. One study showed a decrease in brain activity in areas that are critical for learning and memory in caffeine-takers. So how can you prevent caffeine from causing stress? A diet of few but regular caffeine-free days may be all you need. But you can also reduce your intake gradually. If you really need your coffee or energy drink, try reducing the frequency and amount you drink it.
To help your body adapt to less caffeine, find an alternative to stimulants that don't interfere with your ability to learn and think. Caffeine is a stimulant that hinders the relaxation response. It can even shut down nerve connections that respond to natural hormones like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. The average American drinks 2 to 3 cups of coffee per day. In fact, caffeine is the top source of caffeine intake in the US, second only to sodas. One cup of coffee contains 95 milligrams of caffeine; four cups contain 379.2 milligrams.
Two cups of caffeinated tea contain about the same amount of caffeine, plus half a cup of sugar. It also contains B vitamins, calcium, and magnesium, plus antioxidants and polyphenols that may reduce your risk of cancer. But caffeine is not the only culprit; sugar and other sweeteners also contribute to your caffeine buzz. Caffeine is a stimulant. The body builds up a tolerance to the stimulant over time.
Most people start to feel its effects within 30 minutes to two hours. As the coffee cup goes from half full to nearly empty, your heart rate speeds up, your breathing becomes more shallow and you can feel jittery. Your fingers, mouth and feet become cold and tingly.
But caffeine's most powerful effects come later in the day. At 5 p.m. or 7 p.m. you may feel a sense of drowsiness or mental fog, even when you haven't had any caffeine. After a few days of coffee drinking, you may be slower, unable to think as clearly, and you may feel tired in the morning. The caffeine may also trigger mental and physical cravings, which in turn may produce a stress response. Enjoy a cup of tea in the afternoon instead.
8. Deep Breathing
The relaxation response is practiced at such times as when you're getting ready to go to sleep at night or right after a stressful event. You're likely to be less bothered by a recent medical test, for instance, if you had an easy, pleasant experience before the test. In a similar way, if you have a relaxing vacation planned, it's easier to settle into that relaxed state of mind on the plane or in the hotel room, even if your day hasn't been especially stressful. In those moments, your breathing slows down and your mind clears of all thoughts.
The breath becomes long and slow and rhythmic. You may find yourself staring out the window and letting your thoughts drift away. You can spend hours in this restful state, and then awaken to a refreshed day. Deep breathing has a direct effect on your nervous system. When you inhale, you push air into your lungs. When you exhale, you let it go. Pushing air out of your lungs causes your rib cage to expand and your lungs to fill with air. Pushing air in sends signals to your brain, telling it that you're okay.
By breathing slowly, deliberately and deeply – the opposite of gasping for breath and hyperventilating – you trigger the relaxation response. It works because when you breathe slowly, the diaphragm relaxes, the muscles of the abdomen relax, and your shoulders drop. As you exhale, your stomach muscles drop and your shoulders come back down. You'll find that when you take slow, deep breaths, you begin to feel better. Your chest begins to descend as your shoulders come up.
9. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a simple and inexpensive way to improve your mental and physical well-being. Research shows that PMR is the simplest form of relaxation technique, and yet it helps people with many different medical conditions, from depression to diabetes. Begin by finding your safest comfortable place. Next, simply relax your body by fully relaxing each of your muscles, one at a time.
Start with your jaw and face, and work your way down your body. Take deep, long breaths. Relax your eyes, ears, and all of your senses. Just be mindful of your body, your breathing, and your thoughts. If you find yourself using your mind to overthink your breathing, just notice your body and how it feels. The relaxation response feels like a state of deep relaxation. As you start to relax, your body becomes motionless.
Your pulse slows, your breathing evens out, and your muscles become pliable and supple. If this relaxation response were a shape, it would be a bell. Your body becomes calm and heavy. When you take a deep breath, it's as if you are holding an enormous bell in your lungs and exhaling slowly. There is no conscious decision to relax. In fact, you're not even aware that you're doing it. Instead, you simply do it on autopilot.
A useful and well-known practice is progressive muscle relaxation or PMR. This procedure involves consciously relaxing each muscle group individually, one at a time, for 20 seconds each. You might find it helpful to do this exercise right before you sleep. At the end of the 20-second session, take a deep breath and relax each muscle group again. Keep doing it this way until you are lying in a comfortable position, breathing normally.
A little stress can help us perform better and maintain good health. However, chronic stress can have disastrous consequences, such as higher blood pressure and heart disease, depression, and some forms of cancer. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to ease the symptoms of stress, enabling us to return to the present and live a full, healthy life. Now that you understand some of the inner workings of the stress response, you can use it to avoid or better manage everyday problems.
Noticing, naming, and changing your reactions and responses to stress is a good start. Keep in mind that your stress response doesn't have to be a momentary thing: The response can last for hours, days, or even weeks. Don't let your stress response throw you off track.
Think of it as a flexible response, built to adapt to your changing situation. The good news is that you can train your body to respond to stress in more positive ways. By becoming better at self-awareness and self-care, you can turn what seems like an unstoppable wave of stress into calm and peace.
I trust you enjoyed this article about the 9 Best Stress Relief Techniques. Please stay tuned for more blog posts to come shortly.
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