If you have read my last blog, How full is your stress bucket?, I hope you are now convinced that stress management is a critical component of a healthy life and deserve to become a daily practice.
There are several ways to reduce our stress: 1- We can work to eliminate the stressor, if we can control it. 2- We can reframe our perception of the stressor or reduce the impact it has on us, if we cannot eliminate it. 3- We can practice relaxation techniques to reduce our total stress load and increase our resilience.
Today, I will cover relaxation techniques. Your job is to find the ones you like and to schedule some time in your week to practice them. Pretty much any activity that you enjoy and take your mind away from your daily worries will help empty your stress bucket.
The human (or pet) touch and the love hormone
There is a hormone called oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone". It plays a role in social bonding and makes you feel good. It is a natural anti-stress and anti-depressant. It can be released when you spend good time with people you like and also by touch - even by strangers - and warmth. So try one of the techniques below.
Spend quality time with your friends, spouse or family.
Book a massage or an acupuncture session. It will also help relax your muscles or release the tension or pain you may feel.
Give hugs, cuddles or strokes.
Smile (even to strangers in the street or on the bus, most of them will return your smile), compliment yourself or others.
Spend time with your pet. Your little companion also gives you a purpose as a caretaker and keep you active. Pet owners have an improved health and well-being and might even live longer!
Go and play with your kids, your dog or your friends.
Laugh out loud. Watch funny videos on YouTube. It also relieves muscle tension.
Get social support. Talk about the stress you feel. Or ask for help to deal with it.
Give social support to people who need it even more than you! Feeling needed and useful might have an even stronger effect on stress and well-being than receiving support.
Spend time doing things you love
Playing music, cooking, reading, travelling, fishing, bird watching, gardening, going to movies, singing, painting, dancing, shopping... whatever floats your boat.
Listen to soothing music or use a phone App with pink noise or nature sounds like waves lapping on the beach, leaves rustling in the trees, or a steady rainfall. [Sigh...] I can relax just by making up rainforest sounds in my head.
Diffuse essential oils at home to reduce your stress and lift your mood: lavender, ylang-ylang, peppermint, bergamot, neroli, orange or chamomile.
Try yoga or Tai-Chi.
Get rid of your tensions in a flotation tank or an Epsom salt bath.
Immerse yourself in nature and get sun exposure
I talked about grounding in my post Detox your life. Walking barefoot on the grass or the sand, swimming in fresh or sea water, walking in the forest and touching the trees or simply gardening, any direct contact with the surface of the earth changes our physiology immediately. The more we ground, the more we benefit. Our body absorbs free electrons that help counteract the accumulation of free radicals from our normal metabolism and life’s stressors.
Immersing ourselves in nature shifts our nervous system from the sympathetic fight-and-flight mode to the parasympathetic rest-and-digest mode. Many studies have reported health benefits such as reduced inflammation and pain, improved circulation and blood pressure, reduced stress and anxiety, improved sleep quality.
Combine grounding with sun exposure and you double the benefits! Sunlight promotes the release of feel-good hormones such as serotonin and beta-endorphins. It also allows us to synthesize vitamin D and to produce nitric oxide that contribute to reduce stress and are both essential for good health. The amount of sunlight YOU need depends on where you live, your skin tone and other factors. You need to have bare skin exposed without sunscreen, but not for too long as you don't want to burn.
Walk in your garden or around the block first thing in the morning for 15 minutes.
Go for a 20-minute stroll outside at lunch time and absorb some sun, instead of eating your take-away meal at your desk.
Try the Japanese forest bathing or shinrin-yoku.
Go for a hike with your family or friends at the week end.
Get sunlight exposure for 15 to 20 minutes every other day.
Organise your weekly team meetings in the park next door on a sunny day.
Take your conference calls outside. Find a patch of grass and take your shoes off.
Exercise or stay active but do not over-train
Exercise has been shown to reduce tension, improve mood, make you feel and sleep better and give you energy. It secretes endorphins, gives a sense of achievement and blunts the stress-response. Putting a little bit of physical stress on your body can relieve mental stress. Even slow movements such as walking or stretching can help you unwind.
Walk, cycle or jog to work if it is an option.
Put a timer on your phone when you are at work and stand up to stretch every 30 minutes.
Arrange for walking meetings around the block.
Schedule time in your calendar for a few weekly training sessions before or after work. Join a class or go with a friend to keep you motivated and accountable.
Go and play tennis, golf, soccer at the week end, mow the lawn or weed the garden.
Learn to breathe slowly and deeply
I will cover breathing techniques in a future post but deep breathing exercises can help activate our parasympathetic nervous system that triggers the relaxation response. Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve that connects our brain to many organs (guts, heart, lungs, liver...) and performs many tasks including slowing our heartbeat, lowering our blood pressure, reducing anxiety and depression, stress and inflammation, facilitating digestion and strengthening our immune system.
When we breathe in deeply through the nose, our lungs fully expand and our belly rises. This is called belly or diaphragmatic breathing and is very different from the shallow breathing that most of us practice automatically, with our shoulders rising.
The goal of deep breathing is to focus on our breath, making it slower and deeper. It is one of the most powerful tool to manage the stress response. It works immediately. Use it when you need to vent out a frustration, to control your physiological response before snapping at somebody or after a long day at work.
Sit straight, in a comfortable position, both feet flat on the floor and your hands on your lap. Breathe in through the nose slowly, with your belly rising and without the shoulders moving. Then breathe out slowly until you have no more air. You can breathe out through your nose (silently) or through your mouth whilst making a shushing sound. Continue for 5 to 10 minutes.
This exercise is easy to do anytime, anywhere. On the bus, whilst walking in the street or waiting in a queue, in the bathroom, at home watching telly or even in a meeting. Nobody will know you are doing it!
There are many variations of this exercise: The 4/4/4/4 or box breathing: breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breath out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and repeat. Another one is the 4/7/8: breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, whoosh out for 8 seconds and repeat. You can find your own rhythm.
Extending the exhale slows down the heart rate and reduces the blood pressure.
So think about it next time you feel stressed. Taking a few deep breaths before reacting can be really helpful and avoid getting you into troubles. Many athletes and elite military units (the SEALS for instance) practice deep breathing to improve their performance, increase their resilience and control their fear. If that works for them, it should work for you as well!
Other relaxation techniques
There are many more great relaxation techniques. I will cover meditation, mindfulness, positive thinking and visualisation in my next blog. Getting enough quality sleep is another must. See my previous blog on 10 tips to improve your sleep. And there are other more advanced techniques such as EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) or “tapping”. So many interesting topics to cover!
The relaxation techniques mentioned in this blog are easy to squeeze into your day or your week. They will move you out of fight-or-flight mode and into the rest-and-digest, relaxation response. They will get your mind away from the source of stress and will help you become more resilient. And if you still have some doubt, look at the research studies.
So choose the techniques that you enjoy and start practicing today!
We have invented chronic stress but we are also smart enough to find the antidote and apply it successfully.
This article is for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, heal or prevent any disease or medical condition. See full disclaimer here.