Relaxation Tips for Stress

iStock_000009910758 The busy holiday season is coming! Do you find yourself already feeling the pressure of planning for the holidays, working to wrap-up your 2013 work year, planning for 2014, and all the other events of your life? What would it be worth to learn relaxation techniques that are good for you and will help you deal with stress? Sound good? Let's get started.

How do you relax at the end of a stressful day? What do you do that helps you wind down, unwind and become calm? Many of us relax by zoning out in front of the TV. Sound familiar? Actually this does very little to reduce the effects of stress on our bodies and mind. To effectively reduce stress, we need to activate our body's natural relaxation response. Yes, we do have natural responses! In a nutshell, you can do this by practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga. These activities can greatly reduce everyday stress and boost your energy and mood.

Stress is necessary for life! We all need some stress for our productivity, creativity, learning, and our survival. Stress is only harmful when it becomes overwhelming and interrupts our healthy equilibrium our nervous system needs for balance. Unfortunately, overwhelming stress has become increasingly part of our everyday lives, especially during the upcoming busy holiday season. When stress has thrown your nervous system out of balance, relaxation techniques can bring it back into a balanced state by producing the relaxation response. This is the state of deep calmness.

When you experience too much stress it overwhelms your nervous system and your body produces chemicals that prepare you for "flight or fight".  Now this is good if you are in an emergency situation where you need to act immediately. But it wears your body down when constantly activated by the stressors of everyday life. This is where the relaxation response slows down that heightened state of readiness and brings your body and mind back into a state of equilibrium.

Contrary to what you may think...the relaxation response is not lying on the couch, sleeping, or self-medicating yourself. It is a mentally active process that leaves your body and mind relaxed, calm, and focused. Learning how to do relaxation techniques is easy, but it does take practice. Many stress experts recommend setting aside 10-20 minutes a day for your relaxation practice. If you want even more stress relief, set aside 30-60 minutes. That may sound like a daunting commitment...don't stress out! Many of these techniques can be incorporated into your daily schedule, practiced at your desk, over lunch, or as part of your daily morning routine. Even doing these techniques for 5 minutes can help you achieve a relaxed state.

There is no single relaxation technique that is best for everyone. When choosing a technique consider your own needs, preferences, fitness level, and commitment to doing the practice. Here are different techniques to choose from or combine to fit your needs and preferences.

Technique 1:  Breathing Meditation 

Deep breathing is the simplest technique to learn and can be done anywhere, anytime. It is a very powerful relaxing technique, and provides a quick way to get your stress levels down. Deep breathing is an important part of many other practices as well, and can be combined with other relaxing elements.

The key to deep breathing is to breathe deeply from the abdomen, getting in as much air as possible in your lungs. You should feel your abdomen rising when you are breathing deeply. The more oxygen you get, the less tense, less anxious, and more relaxed you feel.

  • 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 will rise. The hand on your chest should not move much.
  • Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach will move in as you exhale.
  • Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough to make your stomach rise and fall. Count slowly as you inhale and exhale.

Technique 2:  Progressive Muscle Relaxation 

This technique is a two-step process where you will tense and relax different muscle groups in the body. With regular practice, progressive muscle relaxation helps you learn what tension, as well as complete relaxation, feels like in different parts of your body. This awareness is very useful in sensing the first signs of tension and stress. As your body relaxes, so does your mind! Try combining deep breathing with progressive muscle relaxation for even more stress relief.

Progressive muscle relaxation starts at the feet and works up to the face. For the sequence of muscle groups, see below:

Progressive Muscle Relaxation Sequence

1. Right foot*                                6. Left thigh                            11. Right arm and hand

2. Left foot                                    7. Hips and buttocks             12. Left arm and hand

3. Right calf                                  8. Stomach                              13. Neck and shoulders

4. Left calf                                    9. Chest                                    14. Face

5. Right thigh                             10. Back

*If you are left-handed you may want to start with your left foot.

  • 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 are relaxed, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to focus on the way it feels.
  • Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
  • Relax your right foot. focus on the tension flowing away and the way your foot feels as it becomes loose.
  • Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
  • When you are ready, shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same pattern of muscle tension and release.
  • Move slowly up your body, contracting and relaxing the muscle groups as you go.

Technique 3:  Body Scan Meditation 

This is very similar to progressive muscle relaxation,  only instead of tensing and relaxing muscles, simply focus on the sensations in each part of your body.

  • Lie on your back, legs uncrossed, arms relaxed at your sides, with your eyes closed. Focus on your breathing, allowing your stomach to rise with each inhale and fall as you exhale. Breathe deeply for two minutes to begin feeling comfortable and relaxed.
  • Focus on the toes of your right foot. Notice any sensations you feel while continuing to focus on your breathing. Image each deep breath flowing to your toes. Remain focused on this area for one to two minutes.
  • Move your focus to the sole of your right foot. Notice any sensations you feel in that part of your body and imagine each breath flowing from the sole of your foot. Continue to focus on your right foot for one to two minutes. Now move your focus to your right ankle and repeat. Move to your calf, knee, thigh, hip, and repeat this sequence on your left leg. Follow that by moving up the torso, through the lower back and abdomen, the upper back and chest, and the shoulders. Pay particular attention to any area of the body that you feel pain or discomfort. You may want to focus on those areas a bit longer.
  • Focus now on the fingers of your right hand and then move up to the wrist, forearm, elbow, upper arm, and shoulder. Repeat for your left arm. Now move through the neck and throat, and all areas of your face, the back of the head, and the top of the head. Pay close attention to your jaw, chin, lips, tongue, nose, cheeks, eyes, forehead, temples and scalp. When you reach the very top of your head, imagine your breath reaching out beyond your body and imagine yourself hovering above you.
  • Spend some time in silence and stillness, noting how your body feels. Open your eyes slowly and stretch.

Technique 4:  Mindfulness 

Mindfulness is about "being" in the moment, fully aware of how you feel and your experience both internally and externally. Most of us are so busy "doing" that we are seldom in the present moment. This means we are missing a huge part of life! We are often thinking about the past, especially blaming and judging ourselves, or we are worrying about the future. This type of thinking can lead to stress. However by staying calm and aware of the present moment, we can bring our nervous system back into balance. You can incorporate mindfulness while you walk, eat, exercise or meditate. Mindfulness has long been used to reduce stress, pain and illness.

Key Points of Practicing Mindfulness

  • Quiet environment. Choose a quiet place in your home, office, garden, or outdoors where you can relax without distractions or interruptions.
  • Comfortable position. Get comfortable sitting in a chair or on the floor. Avoid lying down so you don't fall asleep. Sit with your spine straight, feet on the floor. Or sit cross-legged or in lotus position.
  • Focus point. This point can be internal, a feeling or an imaginary scene. Or it can be something external, such as a flame or a meaningful word or phrase you repeat throughout your meditation. You can either close your eyes or softly gaze downwards. To help your concentration, you may find it helpful to focus on an object.
  • Observant, noncritical attitude. This is so important to remember as you practice mindfulness. Don't worry about distracting thoughts that may show up in your mind or worry if you are doing it "right". If and when those thoughts pop up, don't judge them or yourself, accept it, and turn your attention back to your point of focus.

Technique 5:  Visualization

Visualization, or guided imagery, is a variation on traditional meditation that allows you to use all your senses - vision, sound, touch, taste, and smell. This typically involves imaging a place/scene where you feel at peace, free to let go of all tension and anxiety.

Choose whatever setting is most calming to you. It may be a quiet forest, a mountain, a beach, or a favorite childhood spot. Visualization can be done in silence, while listening to soothing music, or with a recording of a guided imagery session. You could even download sounds to match your chosen place.

Practicing Visualization

Find a quiet, peaceful place and sit in a comfortable position. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, feeling yourself becoming more relaxed with each breath. Now picture your calming place. "See" this place as vividly as possible in your mind. Picture everything you can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. Visualization works best if you incorporate as many sensory details as possible. Try to use at least three of your senses as you practice. Choose images that appeal to you or are special to you.

Example: Walking along a forest path

  • Walk slowly along the path and notice the colors and textures around you.
  • Spend time exploring each of your senses.
  • See the trees, their leaves, bushes, flowers and any animals that may be around.
  • Hear the birds singing, the breeze in the trees.
  • Smell the pine trees and flowers.
  • Feel the breeze in your hair and on your skin.
  • Taste the fresh, clean air.

Enjoy the tranquil feeling that comes over you as you slowly explore your chosen place. When you are ready, gently open your eyes and come back to the present. Don't worry if you zone out or lose track of where you are during a visualization session. You may even experience some stiffness or heaviness in your limbs, involuntary muscle movements, or yawn. These are all normal responses.

Other Techniques:  Yoga and Tai Chi

Perhaps you will find that you would get more benefits from practicing stress relief in a class with a group of people. Then either yoga or tai chi may be your best choice!

Yoga involves moving and stationary poses combined with deep breathing and meditation. It not only reduces stress and anxiety, it can also improve flexibility, strength, balance and stamina.

Tai chi is a self-paced series of slow, flowing body movements. These movements emphasize concentration, relaxation, and the conscious circulation of vital energy throughout the body. It is a way of calming your mind, reducing stress, and conditioning your body.

Tips for Making Relation Techniques a Part of Daily Life

The best way to start and maintain a relaxation practice is to make it a part of your daily routine. Before you tell yourself that you can't squeeze in one more thing into your busy life...please read these tips, give them a try, and know that many can be practiced while you are doing other things!

  • If possible, schedule a set time to practice each day. Set aside one or two short periods each day to practice. I have found that it is easier for me to practice first thing in the morning before all the other responsibilities of the day get in the way. Plus it starts your day in a relaxed, peaceful state of mind that makes your day better!
  • Practice relaxation techniques while you are doing other things. Try deep breathing anytime during your day while working, doing dishes, laundry or working outside. Mindfulness can be done while walking your dog, walking, waiting in line, or eating. If you commute to work, you may want to try meditating.
  • If you exercise, improve the relaxation benefits by adopting mindfulness. Instead of zoning out to music or staring at a TV as you exercise, try focusing your attention on your body. While exercising focus on coordinating your breathing with your movements and become aware of how your body feels as you go through each exercise.
  • Avoid practicing when you are sleepy. These techniques can be so relaxing that they can make you very sleepy, especially if done at the end of the day.  You will get the most benefit if you practice when you're awake and alert. It's also not a good idea to practice after eating a heavy meal or while using drugs or alcohol.
  • Expect ups and downs. Don't be discouraged if you skip a few days or even a few weeks. It happens. Don't judge yourself negatively. Just get started again and build up your momentum.

Contact me if you have any questions or would like to schedule a call!