Our bodies aren’t designed to feel stressed and anxious all the time. Chronic stress can affect your heart, muscles, nervous system, digestion, and sexual functioning. It’s important to learn healthy ways to cope with stress and anxiety when we can’t calm down. In addition to the mindful awareness exercises I outlined in a previous blog, the following relaxation exercises can help:
Abdominal Breathing. Breath is the first step in any relaxation process. Breathing deeply and slowly into the belly helps to calm down the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and activates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). Focusing on the breath can turn the parasympathetic nervous system on and allow the sympathetic nervous system to step down.
First, place a hand on your belly so you can make sure you are breathing into the lower part of the diaphragm. Start with a complete exhale, pushing all of the air out of your lungs. Notice that the next inhale will be naturally slower and deeper than you would normally breath. Continue to breath just a little more slowly and a little more deeply than you normally would. As you do, feel your hand rise and fall on the abdomen. Breathe like this for about three minutes.
Muscle Relaxation With a Cue Word. Choose a word or phrase for yourself that you associate with peace, calm and relaxation to serve as a cue word. This can be anything – a word like “relax,” a color you find soothing like “blue,” something you find peaceful like “mountain lake,” or a mantra like “Om.’
Then observe each of five muscle groups, one at a time. Start with the face and the jaw. Notice any tension. Take a deep, slow breath into the belly. At the top of your inhale, silently repeat your cue word or phrase. As you exhale, exhale all tension from that muscle group.
Do this same process with each of these five muscle groups – just notice any tension, take a deep breath, silently repeat your cue word, and as you exhale let all the tension in that muscle group release along with the exhale:
- Face and jaw
- Neck and shoulders
- Arms and hands
- Chest, back and abdomen
- Thighs, buttocks, legs, calves and feet
Quick Relaxation Using a Cue Word. Use the same cue word from the previous exercise. Take a deep belly breath. At the top of the inhale, say the cue word. As you exhale, relax away any tension in your whole body, all at once, and let your body slump forward as you exhale. Repeat five to ten times.
Five Sense Exercise. Notice with awareness each of your five senses. Just allow yourself to be present whatever you notice through your senses, without judging.
-Notice 5 things you can hear, both nearby and further away.
-Notice 5 things you can see. Notice color, texture, light and shadow.
-Notice 5 things you can feel, both inside your body and on the surface of the skin.
-Notice what you can smell
-Notice if there are any tastes lingering in your mouth.
Pleasant Memory. Remember a time when you were calm or happy. Now put your hand on your chest and let those good feelings and positive sensations expand throughout your body. Allow your attention to focus on those good feelings and sensations for as long as you like. If you become distracted, bring yourself back to the happy and calm feelings you are having.
While very simple, these relaxation exercises can go a long way in helping you to calm down if you become stressed and anxious. Small practices repeated consistently over time can yield big results.