When you’re caught in a whirlwind of activity, minimize stress by learning how to relax.
Daily life is filled with stress: Ringing phones, crying children, traffic jams, crowded stores, malfunctioning technology, over-scheduled weekends and evenings – sounds, obligations, disruptions and energy bombard us constantly. It affects our bodies as well as our minds, moods and emotions. We don’t have to drown in the chaos, though. A few simple techniques will help you find calm in the eye of the storm. But first, it’s helpful to understand the storm and what it can do to you.
Stress and Your Body
You’re probably already familiar with the direct impact that stress has on your body. Your breathing becomes faster and shallower, your pulse increases and you feel a general sense of nervousness. These involuntary responses reflect the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which sends out adrenaline and other stimulating hormones that accelerate your blood pressure, heart rate and metabolism.
“But that’s how life is,” you might say. Challenges, disruptions and irritations can’t be avoided, and neither can the needs of people who live with or depend on us. Besides, a lot of people thrive on stress, and sometimes it can be exhilarating. It motivates you, gets your juices running, and makes life feel exciting.
It’s true that sometimes the physical changes that stress induces can be beneficial. They can provide the extra oomph needed to perform an extraordinary physical act, such as completing a marathon, running from an attacker or even rescuing someone. Researchers have dubbed this the fight-or-flight syndrome, because it helped our early ancestors escape sudden danger.
But not all side effects of stress are necessarily so immediate or desirable. Most modern situations don’t call for the heroic energy that stress can trigger. If you don’t have an outlet for venting it, the physical effects of stress will stay with you. Over time, that can cause problems.
Repeated stress can wreak havoc with your body. It can wear down your resistance to disease, encourage high blood pressure and lead to hardening of the arteries, heart attacks and strokes. Just thinking about its possible side effects is enough to put you on edge. But you don’t have to stay at risk for any of them.
Rather than worrying about stress or succumbing to it, you can actively reduce its influence. In fact, with a little effort you can actually make your body relax.
Try this simple technique: Shut your eyes and take a deep breath. Hold it for a few seconds, then let it out. Take another breath and hold it longer than the first one. Let it out fully. Take a third breath and hold it even longer.
Now deliberately slow down your breathing rate. Exhale and inhale more fully, but at a leisurely pace. Let your breathing return to a natural rhythm. Notice how you feel. Odds are you’re calmer now than when you began the exercise.
Like stress, this exercise targets the sympathetic nervous system, but with dramatically different and healthier results. By slowing down your breathing rate, you set off a ripple effect in your body. Your pulse and metabolism return to a more leisurely pace because you’re quieting your involuntary reactions. In other words, you’re experiencing the relaxation response.
Triggering that response is easy, even on the first try. You’ll find that with practice your body will learn to slip quickly into relaxation.
Relaxation Made Easy
Although the best antidote for stress may be a month-long vacation in a tropical paradise, chances are that’s not a realistic option. If you’re one of those people who can’t remember the last vacation you took, relaxation doesn’t have to be something you just dream about. You can achieve and maintain a sense of calm by practicing a number of techniques. All are surprisingly quick and simple, and you can even do some in your car, at your desk or in the kitchen.
If you have five minutes to spare, try some of the following techniques. And if your schedule is so crowded that you can’t imagine taking a few moments to relax, stop and think of how many times a day you get a cup of coffee or a cold drink. Any of these exercises can be done in that amount of time. Use them as a general preventative, or to prepare when you anticipate stress, such as before accepting a difficult phone call or attending an anxiety-provoking meeting.
To shore up your inner reserves, take a relaxation break. Concentrate on a reference point, such as your breathing. This technique works best when you’re alone (barricaded in the bathroom, if need be), but you can also try it when you have the illusion of seclusion – when you’re at your desk, for example. Concentrate on your breathing, without interfering with its natural rhythm. Notice what it feels like to breathe in and to breathe out. Tell yourself that tension and distracting thoughts are disappearing with each breath out.
If you have trouble calming your thoughts, try focusing on a mantra, which is simply a specific thought for focusing, such as “relax” or “I am at peace.” Think the words as you inhale and exhale.
For an extended break, let your imagination run wild. Play with images that make you feel relaxed or refreshed. Envision yourself floating on water, lying on warm sand at the beach or visiting a favorite outdoor place.
Go further: Create a private, mental sanctuary that you can retreat to at will. Imagine it exactly as you would like it to be, filled with features and items that make you feel calm, secure and confident. It can be a real place or one that exists only in your mind. Picture it in as much detail as you can. If you have trouble “seeing” it, just think about what it would be like. See yourself visiting this retreat, exploring it and feeling recharged.
You can bring your sanctuary into the real world by choosing a tangible symbol of it. If your sanctuary is a beach, get a shell, a rock or a photo of a seashore and keep it on your work station as a reminder. Every time you look at it, you’ll conjure up calming thoughts.
Consciously, progressively relaxing your muscles will make both your mind and your body unwind. With a little practice, you’ll be able to do this anywhere – when you’re stopped at a traffic light, when someone puts you on hold, or even when you’re in an elevator or subway. At first, try it where you can be alone and shut out distractions.
Begin by focusing on your feet. Imagine a pair of invisible hands massaging them gently and releasing all the tension locked in your muscles. Then consciously relax your feet.
Using the same technique, move your concentration systematically up your body. Spend extra time with any especially tense part. (Shoulders are a prime candidate.)
When a crisis disrupts your sense of well-being, take action as soon as possible to regain balance. Physically remove yourself from a disturbing situation. Inhale deeply, hold your breath, exhale and repeat, holding your breath for increasingly longer periods, until the adrenalin slows. Take a walk, too, at least around the building. If possible, go outside and circle the block. Since your goal is to get stimulants out of your system, avoid reaching for coffee or a caffeine-laden soft drink when you’re really worked up. When you’re returned to a state of control, approach the situation anew.
Create a Calm Environment
Isolated flare-ups aren’t the only sources of stress in a normal day. Our environments continuously bombard us with potentially irritating sensory stimulation.
In most workplaces, the bustle of normal activity – the telephones, printers and conversations that penetrate walls and barriers – creates a constant background of clatter. Homes are often less than tranquil, too, especially when TVs, computers and video games are in use. You can’t control what occurs around you, but you can reduce its impact on you.
The first line of defense is the telephone. Caller ID is your friend. You don’t have to take every call when it arrives, so don’t let non-urgent or unwanted callers interrupt or disrupt you. Soften the sound, too. With most office systems, you can adjust the volume so that the ring is audible without being piercing, and you can definitely lower the volume on landline and cellular phones. Give your ears a break and turn the phone down.
Mask the background noise with soothing music. The appropriate type is a matter of personal taste; what sedates one person may put someone else on edge. Pick anything that makes you feel relaxed, but avoid music with a strong beat (which will increase your pulse). And if you need to concentrate, stay away from catchy lyrics.
Lighten the atmosphere visually as well. Find room somewhere on your desk (or, at home, in the area where you spend the most time) for an expression of yourself or a reminder of something that makes you happy. If you keep a family or vacation photo in view, you already have something that serves this purpose.
Be Good to Your Body
Besides reducing the irritants in your environment, take a look at how you treat your body. Be aware of the amount of stimulants you consume without thinking. It’s common to reach for coffee, colas and tea several times a day.
Make it easier to decrease caffeine intake by widening the variety of beverages you keep on hand. Stock up on flavored mineral waters, herbal teas and decaffeinated breakfast drinks. Replace soft drinks with juice and sparkling water. Mix them together to dilute the juice’s sweetness and caloric impact.
Schedule Down Time
You schedule so much in your life already; slot some time for sanity, too. A regular relaxation regimen works easily into a daily schedule. Begin and end each day with a brief period of quiet time and concentration on a reference point. You don’t have to set and accomplish a goal, what’s important is that you calm and focus your mind.
As little as five minutes will make a difference. You can even practice relaxation n the shower in the morning and at night before you go to sleep.
With repetition, your body will quicken its release of tension. If you relax in a regular place or posture, merely settling into your procedure will make your body begin to relax, through conditioning.
Starting the day off with relaxation will do more than just make you feel good (which, incidentally, isn’t such a bad benefit in itself.) Your calm state is a great springboard for preparing mentally for the day. Think of everything you want to get done and set an order of priority. You can also concentrate on a centering thought, such as, “I focus my energy and use it efficiently.” This process will give you a point of reference for dealing with the inevitable unexpected developments of the day.
Relaxing at the end of the day also prepares you for the time ahead, but for a slightly different purpose. It’ll help clear your mind and increase your chances for a peaceful, refreshing night.
Make the Time – For You
Learning how to relax isn’t hard. The biggest hurdle you’ll encounter will be your own reluctance to set aside time. But remember, spending a few minutes on yourself will enhance the value of the rest of your day. Not only will your mind be more calm and focused, but you’ll improve your outlook and your sense of humor. And that can only help your productivity – and enjoyment of life. Be forewarned, though: relaxation can be habit-forming.
Kathy Biehl is an astrologer, writer and champion of safeguarding your personal energy.
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