April is Stress Awareness Month. Some stress can be productive, helping you to create or escape danger. But chronic stress is the kind that seems to never go away and has been linked to heart disease, depression, arthritis and gastrointestinal disorders. That’s the one to be aware of.
Not sure if you suffer from chronic stress? Take this stress assessment from the Mayo Clinic. Or check out these top 5 symptoms from LIVESTRONG.com. Neither is an official diagnosis (for that, you’d need to see your doctor), but they may help you understand if more action is needed.
Chronic or not, if you have stress that you want to shake off, then try one of these two tips. You can do the first one anytime, anywhere; the second needs a bit more time … but it’s so worth it.
The Fast One
You’ve probably heard the suggestion to take a few deep breaths to immediately alleviate tension. It can work – and with the right technique, it’s even more effective.
One method is to put your right hand on your belly, just below the navel, and your left hand on your heart; then breathe slowly and deeply, with three-second pauses after the in- and the out-breath.
The point of deep breathing is to get back in touch with your body, to center yourself. So letting your hands feel the air filling your belly, and the beat of your heart, helps focus your attention on your breath and tune out everything else.
Ironically, letting your body relax during this exercise can take a little effort. That’s because most of us take some muscle tension for granted. So take a moment to drop your shoulders, slacken your jaw (exhaling through your mouth helps) and either close your eyes gently or soften your gaze.
The Not-So-Fast but Better One
Deep breathing is handy because you can do it anywhere, for one minute or 10, depending on how much time you have. For this next technique, you’ll want to lie down and give yourself a little time.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is just that – the step-by-step relaxation of all of your muscles, head to toe (or vice-versa).
- To start, lie down and maybe move a little to loosen up. Gently shake your legs side to side and let them come to rest. Shake out your arms. For your head, gently shake (no) and then nod (yes). You’ll release any major tension and let your body naturally center itself.
- Now comes the Progressive part: You might start with your feet, or even just your toes. As a first step, just be aware of them. You might want to tense them for a few seconds and then release; or simply focus on their weight, feeling the effect of gravity on them.
- Consciously relax your feet or toes. Focus, and let go. For some people, visualization helps: close your eyes, and ‘see’ the tension there (whatever tension looks like in your mind) and then imagine it breaking up, floating off or whatever going away looks like to you.
- Repeat, moving up the body (you can also go in the other direction, top down). Take it step by step, body part by body part, until you’ve relaxed your entire body. Above the shoulders, it helps to relax your neck, jaw, face, eyes and scalp separately.
This technique works particularly well right before you go to sleep. Hopefully, it won’t work too well, and you’ll stay awake long enough to enjoy its full effect.