Stress is a natural part of life, and how we choose to manage it is critical to our wellbeing. Knowing how and when to practice relaxation can help you manage stress in a healthy way.
The Stress/Relaxation Relationship
Sometimes there are interruptions in life, or adjustments we have to make, that cause stress. Our body is built to handle stress and produces physical, emotional, and mental responses to the event. Stressors can serve a positive function, such as helping you stay alert to give an important presentation at work. However, continual stress without relaxation or relief takes its toll on our physical and mental health.
Our body’s reaction to stress is called the "fight or flight" response. Hormones are released when we encounter stressors, and energy pumps to our heart and muscles to take action. While short-term stress can increase productivity and performance, having a constant or hyper-normal stress response to life can wear down the body. Balancing our alertness to life and its challenges with activities of relaxation can improve our health and our minds.
Relaxation techniques are intentional practices used to produce the body’s natural relaxation response. These skills slow breathing rate, lower blood pressure, reduce headaches and insomnia, and improve overall health. These activities are tools that will improve our quality of life if we set aside time to practice them.
Stress Symptoms and Relaxation Benefits
When the stress response is constantly activated in our bodies, a number of medical issues can occur. Stress is a contributing factor to high blood pressure, irritable bowel conditions, hypertension, and even strokes, so working on reducing stress is a valuable investment to your future health.
Engaging and practicing our relaxation response results in limitless advantages. Some measureable benefits include better concentration, lower heart and breathing rates, and reduction in chronic pain. You also might experience less fatigue, irritability, and muscle tension.
Types of Relaxation Techniques
To reduce chronic stress in your life, consider incorporating one or more of these relaxation techniques into your daily routine:
- Autogenic relaxation - Paying attention to your body is a great way to reduce stress. People who practice this form of relaxation focus on peaceful images or words while tuning into their breathing, heart rate, and physical sensations.
- Progressive muscle relaxation - With this technique, you slowly tense and relax individual muscles. Start with your feet and work up to your head. This practice teaches awareness of muscle tension when you are stressed.
- Biofeedback - Biofeedback- There are electronic devices you can use to measure physical responses to stress. With instant feedback, you can take notes on what exercises relax you the most.
- Guided imagery - Begin by replacing negative images with positive, peaceful ones. For example, you might envision a day at the beach or relaxing in a hammock under the shade.
- Music - Believe it or not, listening to music can lower your heart rate and blood pressure. Focus on the music and sing out loud if possible.
- Laughter - Watching your favorite funny movie or catching up with a witty friend can be just what the doctor ordered, so to speak. Laughter lowers cortisol, your body’s stress hormone, and promotes brain chemicals called endorphins to lift your mood.
- Gratitude - There is much to say for approaching life with a positive attitude and good perspective. Writing down things we are grateful for or even sending a thank you note to someone can help remind us of what is truly important.
- Be present - Focus on what’s in front of you by using your senses. Practice being present in your relationships, at work, and by yourself. Push aside thoughts about your to-do list, future events, and things in the past. Try keeping your thoughts on the here-and-now.
These exercises can be done alone or with the help of another person. If you’re not sure where to start, programs and classes in your community may offer activities that practice many of these techniques, such as yoga, meditation, and art therapy. Consider downloading an app or searching for guided exercises online. Different exercises work for different people, so keep trying until you find a technique that works best for you.
Relaxation techniques are most effective when they are combined with other tools for healthy living. Proper rest, a healthy diet, and exercise can all contribute to reducing stress. Consider asking a loved one or counselor for support. Relaxation techniques are not a substitute for medical treatment in the event of an illness. Seek medical attention when necessary and implement these helpful strategies to prevent and reduce the amount of stress in your life.
While relaxation techniques won’t eliminate the stress in your life, they will aid in managing your stress-load. Regardless of where you land on the stress spectrum, from feeling overwhelmed to managing your stress well, these activities will reduce the effects of stress on your mind and body. Relaxation techniques are low-cost, low-risk for injury, and can be performed almost anywhere. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain.