Stress! It’s a feeling that most people can relate to and it happens more often than we would like. Not only does stress cause us to think negatively, but it can make us feel physically uncomfortable too. Coping with stress effectively, before you feel overwhelmed, can help to prevent longer-term negative physical and mental health consequences.
The Mind-Body Connection
It’s easy to forget that our mind and body are in constant communication. Our mind is continuously sending and receiving messages to and from our body to help us adjust to our environment. Consequently, people often experience stress as both mental (racing thoughts, pressure to complete tasks quickly, feeling overwhelmed) and physical (muscle tension, headaches, racing heart, fatigue). In fact, this connection is so strong that research has demonstrated that people with higher levels of stress tend to be ill more often and take a longer period of time to recover from illness.
Practicing relaxation exercises on a regular basis can help decrease stress and improve overall mood and productivity. As there is such a strong mind-body connection, it’s important that relaxation exercises target both body and mind. As your mind relaxes, it sends signals to your body to relax and vice versa. Try a couple of the exercises below the next time you’re feeling stressed.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Find a private and quiet location. You should sit or lie down somewhere comfortable. The idea of this technique is to intentionally tense each muscle and then to release the tension.
- Tense the muscles in your toes by curling them into your foot. Notice how it feels when your foot is tense. Hold the tension for 5 seconds
- Release the tension from your toes. Let them relax. Notice how your toes feel differently after you release the tension
- Tense the muscles all throughout your calf. Hold it for 5 seconds. Notice how the feeling of tension in your leg
- Release the tension from your calf and notice how the feeling of relaxation differs
Follow this pattern of tensing and releasing tension all throughout your body. After you finish with your feet and legs, move up through your torso, arms, hands, neck and head.
*For an audio progressive muscle relaxation exercise, click here*
Belly (or diaphragmatic) breathing engages your diaphragm and helps to regulate the amount of oxygen in your system. Having the right amount of oxygen can decrease how hard your body needs to work and reduces physical stress.
- Begin by sitting as comfortably as possible in a chair or by lying down and close your eyes
- Place one hand on your abdomen right beneath your rib cage and one hand on your chest near your collar bone
- Inhale deeply and slowly, send the air as low and deep into your lungs as possible – as if you’re trying to move the air to your stomach
- If you are breathing from your abdomen, you should feel the hand on your stomach rise, rather than the hand on your chest
- When you have taken a full breath, hold it for 4 seconds before exhaling
- As you slowly exhale, imagine all of the tension draining out of your body
- Complete 10 slow belly breaths by inhaling slowly, holding your breath to the count of 4 and exhaling slowly
Imagery—Take a Mental Vacation
Positive imagery, even for just a moment or two, can help to evoke positive thoughts, emotions and memories. This can reduce mental stress. You can build a scene in your mind about anything you find positive – the face of a loved one, your favorite vacation spot, the way it feels to lay in bed on a drizzly morning. Any image that you find enjoyable can be used. The goal is to pull in all of your senses as you generate this image.
- Close your eyes while sitting or lying comfortably and think of your positive image. For this example, let’s think of a Caribbean beach
- First think about what the ocean might look like, clear blue water with frothy waves gently lapping onto the white, sandy shore
- Picture the clear sky, the sun shining brightly, white clouds scattered throughout
- Imagine the sounds you would hear, the waves crashing, the sounds of birds overhead, the rustle of an ocean breeze in the trees
- What does the sun feel like on your skin? Imagine the warmth of the sun and the cool breeze coming off the ocean
- Can you smell the salty air? Maybe you can even taste the saltiness of the ocean air as you continue to imagine your beach.
- Hold this image for as long as you like and notice if positive feelings occur or if stress diminishes
If you find no relief after practicing these relaxation exercises, you might benefit from talking with a therapist. Your therapist can help you identify the stressors in your life and assist you in how to manage stress and relax your body.