Most of us are familiar with the effects of stress on our mood, emotions, and behaviors, but we may not be considering the impact on our bodies. During chronic stress, our sympathetic nervous system (“fight, flight, or freeze”) is upregulated to prepare the body for threats and conflict.
While these physiologic changes are highly advantageous in the short run, they have a harmful impact on the body if the sympathetic nervous system activity predominates for an extended period.
Sleep, cardiac function, immune function, sexual function, mental health, blood glucose levels, digestion, and even your lifespan are negatively affected by chronic stress.
Neverending deadlines at work, tight finances, waiting for medical examination results, and other health and family worries can trigger a stress response and feelings of being overwhelmed. While making significant adjustments to your work and home life will help, dedicating 10 minutes daily to stress-lowering practices like the exercises below can do wonders.
These exercises can help you feel more relaxed and combat the adverse effects of chronic stress.
1. Alternating Muscle Contractions
Stress reduction may be as simple as contracting and relaxing your muscles. A 2019 study looked at paced breathing and alternating muscle contractions of the arms by squeezing a tennis ball on alternate sides every 5 seconds.
The study found that simply alternating muscle contractions led to significantly increased parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) activation.
You can easily employ this technique wherever you are by tensing the muscles for 5 seconds in one arm, then relaxing that arm and tensing the muscles in the other.
This activity should be performed for 5 minutes at a time. To double the effect, add paced breathing by taking slow, 10-second breaths while you contract and relax your arms.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Studies show that progressive muscle relaxation is associated with reductions in pain and fatigue and is an effective method for reducing stress. While this technique is easiest to perform while lying down, you can also do it sitting.
To perform this exercise, find a comfortable position. Begin at your head and tense the muscles in your face and forehead, hold for a few seconds, then release the tension.
Imagine an X-ray image of your body and systematically continue this exercise throughout each part, progressively moving down your body, tensing and releasing the muscles in the neck, arms, torso, and legs.
Notice how each muscle group feels when relaxed before moving on to the next group. You can perform this several times through the body or spend some extra time on a particularly tense area.
Diverting your attention away from all the things causing your stress and focusing instead on your body is called grounding. This technique is a powerful way to connect with your present self and reduce stress.
The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is a great way to ground yourself, and you can do it anywhere. Taking long, slow breaths throughout this exercise can help shift you further into a relaxed state.
- Start by looking around and noticing five things you can see.
- Next, find four things that you can physically touch around you.
- Then focus on three things you can hear outside your body.
- Next, find two things you can smell in your environment (you may have to take a moment to locate these things).
- Lastly, acknowledge one thing that you can taste.
4. Body Awareness
Coming back into your physical body is a helpful way to ground yourself. Breathe slowly and deeply throughout this technique. Spend several minutes focusing on bodily sensations:
- If sitting, place your feet flat on the floor with your palms on your lap or arms on the armrests.
- If possible, take off your shoes and socks so you can feel the ground.
- Focus on feeling your feet on the ground or your arms on the armrests of the chair.
- Press your palms or arms down into the armrests.
- Stomp your feet on the ground several times.
- Clench and unclench your fists several times.
- Rub your palms together briskly or interlace your fingers and squeeze your hands together.
5. Take a Breath
While breathing is an automatic function, we often resort to a shallower, quicker breaths in times of stress. When done correctly, breathing techniques are a very effective way of reducing stress and returning the body to homeostasis.
Remember these four tips to get the most out of your breathing exercises:
- Focus on the breath, don’t monitor your stress.
- Repeat one word on the inhale and another on the exhale — keep it the same every time you practice (example: in…out).
- Fill your belly and lungs with each breath.
- Make the exhale longer than the inhale.
Another helpful breathing exercise is 4-7-8 Breathing. Do this one sitting or lying down if possible.
- Inhale deeply for 4 seconds.
- Hold the breath for 7 seconds.
- Then exhale slowly for 8 seconds.
Try to practice this for at least 5 minutes if you can, but even 2 minutes is beneficial. If you feel lightheaded, take shallow breaths.
6. Move Your Body
Exercise can be a powerful stress reducer. If you don’t have 30 minutes to get out and exercise, setting aside 10 minutes to move and connect with your body is beneficial.
Stretching, holding your favorite yoga pose, or taking a walk outside are all great ideas. You can double down on your parasympathetic pursuits by focusing on nice slow breaths, connecting with your bodily sensations, and noticing the sights and smells in your surroundings.
Take Time for Yourself
Experiencing stress may be inevitable, but allowing stress to go unchecked is not. Maintaining a regular exercise routine, establishing work-life balance, and developing good social support are essential long-term stress management tools. Adding these exercises to your daily routine can help you calm your nervous system, boost your mood, and experience improved mental and physical health.
About the Author: Nicole McCants, PT, is a Doctor of Physical Therapy practicing in Arizona. She holds a board certification in neurologic physical therapy and enjoys educating clients on healthy strategies to manage their nervous systems.
Feature Image by Rawpixel.com on Shutterstock
The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.
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