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Exercise and Stress Relief

You know that exercise does your body good, but you’re too busy and stressed to fit it into your routine. Don’t worry, you don’t have to devise a complex or time-consuming exercise plan to reap its rewards. Virtually any form of exercise, from aerobics to weightlifting, can relieve stress. Even if you’re out of shape, a little exercise goes a long way toward stress management. Exercise not only improves your overall health and well-being, but also provides some essential stress-busting benefits.

It pumps up your endorphins. Physical activity increases the production of endorphins, your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. Although this function is often referred to as a runner’s high, a rousing game of tennis or a nature hike can contribute to this same feeling.

It’s meditation in motion. After a fast-paced game of racquetball or several laps in the pool, you’ll like have forgotten the day’s irritations while concentrating on your body’s movements. As you begin to shed your daily tensions through movement and physical activity, you may find that focusing on a single task can help you remain calm and clear in everything that you do, resulting in increased energy and optimism.

It improves your mood. Regular exercise can increase self-confidence and lower the symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety. Exercise also improves sleep, which is often disrupted by stress, depression and anxiety. All of this can ease your stress levels and give you a sense of command over your body and your life.

Stress is a normal psychological and physical reaction to the demands of life. Your brain comes hard-wired with an alarm system for your protection. When your brain perceives a threat, your body releases a burst of hormones to fuel your fight-or-flight response. When the threat is gone, your body returns to normal. Unfortunately, the nonstop stress of modern life means that your alarm system rarely shuts off.

Stress management is vital because it gives you the tools to reset your alarm system. Without stress management, your body is always on red alert, which leads to serious health problems over time. Don’t wait until then to combat stress. Start learning stress management techniques now.

Stress Management

Do you know anyone who isn’t stressed out these days? Stress management has become a necessary skill for keeping pace with life’s increasing demands. Learning to identify your problems and implement solutions is key to successful stress relief.

The first step is identifying your stress triggers. Some causes of stress are obvious job loss, a divorce, the death of a loved one. But small, daily hassles and demands, such as a long commute or trouble finding child care, also cause stress.

Once you’ve identified a stressful situation, start thinking about strategies to make it less problematic. Sometimes, the solution may be as easy as turning off the TV when the evening news is too depressing. When you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try to find ways to reduce the irritation factor. And don’t feel like you have to figure it out all on your own. Seek help and support from family and friends, and ask what stress-relief techniques have worked for them.

Stress won’t disappear from your life. And stress management isn’t an overnight cure. But with practice, you’ll learn how to reduce your stress level and increase your ability to cope with life’s challenges.

young woman doing yoga

Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques are an essential part of stress management. Relaxation isn’t just about finding some quiet time or enjoying a hobby. It’s a process that helps you repair the toll that stress takes on your mind and body.

Almost everyone can benefit from learning relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques include meditation, yoga or anything that helps to increase awareness of your body and refocus your attention to something calming. It doesn’t really matter which technique you choose (most are free or low-cost), as long as you practice regularly. Almost any type of exercise is a great stress buster. Start de-stressing your life and improving your health.

Benefits of Relaxation

Practicing relaxation techniques regularly has many health benefits and reduces stress by:

  • Slowing your heart rate
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Slowing your breathing rate
  • Increasing blood flow to major muscles
  • Reducing muscle tension and chronic pain
  • Improving concentration
  • Reducing anger and frustration
  • Boosting confidence to handle problems

Types of Relaxation Techniques

Health professionals, such as complementary and alternative medicine practitioners, doctors and psychotherapists, can teach relaxation techniques, but you can also learn them on your own. Types of relaxation techniques include:

Autogenic relaxation: Autogenic means produced from within or self-generating. This relaxation technique uses both visual imagery and body awareness to reduce stress. Repeat words or suggestions in your mind to help you relax and reduce muscle tension. For example, imagine a peaceful place, then focus on controlled, relaxing breathing to slow your heart rate, or focus on different physical sensations by relaxing each arm or leg one by one.

Progressive muscle relaxation: This relaxation technique focuses on slowly tensing and relaxing each muscle group to help you feel the difference between muscle tension and relaxation and become more aware of physical sensations. Begin by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes and progressively work your way up to your neck and head. Tense your muscles for at least five seconds, relax them for 30 seconds, and repeat.

Visualization: This relaxation technique focuses on forming mental images to take a visual journey to a peaceful, calming place or situation. During visualization, try to use as many senses as you can, including smell, sight, sound and touch. If you imagine relaxing at the ocean, for instance, think about such things as the smell of salt water, the sound of crashing waves and the warmth of the sun on your body. You may want to close your eyes, sit in a quiet spot and loosen any tight clothing.

Other common relaxation techniques include:

  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Listening to music
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Hypnosis
  • Massage

Practice, Practice, Practice

As you learn new relaxation techniques, you’ll become more aware of muscle tension and other physical manifestations of stress. Once you know what the stress response feels like, you can make a conscious effort to practice a relaxation technique the moment you start to feel stress, before it spirals out of control.

Remember, these techniques are skills and your ability to relax improves with practice. Be patient with yourself — don’t let your effort to practice relaxation techniques become yet another stressor.

Some people, especially those with serious psychological issues and a history of abuse, may experience feelings of emotional discomfort during some relaxation techniques. This is rare, but if you experience emotional discomfort while practicing relaxation techniques, stop and talk to your health care provider or a mental health professional.

Meditation

If stress has you feeling anxious, tense and worried, consider trying meditation. Meditating for just a few minutes can restore calm and inner peace.

Meditation, originally intended to help deepen our understanding of life;s sacred and mystical forces, has been practiced for thousands of years. Today, meditation is commonly used to relax and reduce stress. Anyone can practice meditation — it’s simple, inexpensive and doesn’t require any special equipment. And you can practice it anywhere, whether you’re out for a walk, riding the bus, waiting at the doctor’s office or in a difficult business meeting.

Meditation, considered a type of mind-body complementary medicine, produces a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind. Focusing your attention eliminates the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress, resulting in enhanced physical and emotional well-being.

Benefits of Meditation

Meditation gives you a sense of calm, peace and balance that benefits both your emotional well-being and your overall health. These benefits don’t end when your meditation session ends. Meditation can help keep you calm throughout the day and improve certain medical conditions.

Meditation and Emotional Well-Being

When you meditate, you clear away the information overload that builds up and contributes to your stress. Meditation can help you to:

  • Gain a new perspective on stressful situations
  • Build skills to manage your stress
  • Increase self-awareness
  • Focus on the present
  • Reduce negative emotions

Meditation and Illness

Many healthy people use meditation to relax the body and reduce stress. But meditation may help if you have a medical condition, especially one that may be worsened by stress.

A growing body of scientific research supports the health benefits of meditation. Although these studies are far from conclusive, some research suggests that meditation may help the following conditions:

  • Allergies
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Asthma
  • Binge eating
  • Cancer
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Substance abuse

Meditation isn’t a replacement for traditional medicine, but it can be useful in addition to other treatment. Talk to your health care provider about the pros and cons of using meditation as a tool to cope with any of these medical conditions.

Types of Meditation

There are many types of meditation and meditative relaxation techniques, all with the same goal of achieving inner peace. Types of meditation include:

Guided meditation: With this method of meditation, sometimes called guided imagery or visualization, you form mental images of places or situations you find relaxing using as many senses as possible — smell, sight, sound, taste and texture. You may be led through this process by a guide or teacher.

Mantra meditation: With this type of meditation, you silently repeat a calming word, thought or phrase to prevent distracting thoughts. Transcendental meditation is a type of mantra meditation in which you reach a deep state of relaxation to achieve pure awareness.

Mindfulness meditation: This type of meditation is based on being mindful, or having an increased awareness of living in the present moment. You focus on what you experience during meditation, such as the flow of your breath. You can observe your thoughts and emotions, but let them pass without judgment.

Qi gong: This practice generally combines meditation, relaxation, physical movement and breathing exercises to restore and maintain balance. Qi gong (chee-kung) is part of traditional Chinese medicine.

Tai chi: This is a gentle form of Chinese martial arts. In tai chi (tie-chee), you perform a series of postures or movements in a slow, graceful manner while practicing deep breathing.

Yoga: You perform a series of postures and controlled breathing exercises to promote a more flexible body and a calm mind. As you move through poses that require balance and concentration, you’re encouraged to focus less on your busy day and more on the moment.

Elements of Meditation

Different types of meditation may include different features to help you meditate, depending on whose guidance you follow or who’s teaching the class. Some of the most common features of meditation include:

Focusing your attention. This is one of the most important elements of meditation. Focusing your attention is what helps free your mind from the many distractions that cause stress and worry. You can focus your attention on an object, an image, a mantra or even your breathing. Don’t fret when your mind wanders. Just return your focus.

Relaxed breathing. This technique involves deep, even-paced breathing, using the diaphragm muscle to expand your lungs. Slowing your breathing, taking in more oxygen, and reducing the use of shoulder, neck and upper chest muscles while breathing will help you breathe more efficiently.

A quiet location. If you’re a beginner, practicing meditation may be easier if you’re in a quiet spot with no distractions — no television, radio or cell phone. As you become more skilled, you may be able to do it anywhere, even in such high-stress situations as traffic jams, stressful work meetings or while standing in a long line at the grocery store.

A comfortable position. You can practice meditation whether you’re sitting, lying down, walking or doing some other activity. Just try to be comfortable so you can get the most out of your meditation.

Tips for Practicing Meditation on Your Own

Don’t let the thought of meditating the “right” way add to your stress. Sure, you can attend special meditation centers or group classes led by trained instructors. But you also can practice meditation on your own, as formally or informally as you’d like. Some people build meditation into their daily routine — for example, starting and ending each day with an hour of meditation. But all you really need is a few minutes of quality time for meditation each day.

Here are some tips for practicing meditation on your own, whenever and wherever you choose:

Breathe deeply. This technique is good for beginners because breathing is a natural function. Focus all attention on your breathing. Concentrate on feeling and listening as you inhale and exhale through your nostrils. Breathe deeply and slowly. When your attention wanders, gently return your focus to your breathing.

Scan your body. When using this technique, focus attention on different parts of your body. Become aware of your body’s various sensations, whether it’s pain, tension, warmth or relaxation. Combine body scanning with breathing exercises and imagine breathing heat or relaxation into and out of different body parts.

Repeat a mantra. You can choose or create your own mantra, whether it’s religious or secular.

Walking meditation. Combining a walk with meditation is an efficient and healthy way to relax. You can use this technique anywhere you’re walking — in a tranquil forest, on a city sidewalk or at the mall. When you use this method, slow down the pace of walking so that you can focus on each movement of your legs or feet. Don’t focus on a particular destination. Concentrate on your legs and feet, mentally repeating such action words as lifting, moving and placing, as you lift each foot, move your leg forward and place your foot on the ground.

Engage in prayer. Prayer is the best known and most widely practiced example of meditation. Spoken and written prayers are found in most religious traditions. You can pray using your own words or read prayers written by others. Check the self-help or 12-step-recovery section of your local bookstore or talk with your rabbi, priest, pastor or spiritual leader.

Read or listen and reflect. Many people benefit from reading poems or sacred texts silently or aloud, and taking a few moments to quietly reflect on the meaning of those words. You can listen to spoken words or any music you find relaxing or inspiring. You may want to write your reflections in a journal or discuss them with a friend or spiritual leader.

Focus your love and gratitude. In this type of meditation, you focus your attention on a sacred object or being, weaving feelings of love and gratitude into your thoughts. You can also close your eyes and use your imagination.

Building Your Meditation Skills

Don’t judge your meditation skills — that only increases stress. Meditation takes practice. Keep in mind, for instance, that it’s common for your mind to wander during meditation, no matter how long you’ve been practicing. If you’re meditating to calm your mind and your attention wanders, slowly return to the object, sensation or movement you’re focusing on.

Experiment, and discover what types of meditation you enjoy. Remember, there’s no right way or wrong way to meditate, so adapt it to your needs at the moment. What matters is that meditation helps you reduce stress and feel better.