It’s no secret that as a society, we’re a stressed-out bunch. Work, money, children, relationships, and illness are major stressors. Life demands a lot from us, and it takes its toll. Persistent stress affects our bodies (ex. sleep issues, fatigue), mood (ex. anxiety, irritability), and behavior (ex. alcohol use, eating habits). But there are measures we can take to cope with stress and cultivate relaxation.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
When we experience stress, our body feels the symptoms, too. It’s common for us to describe feeling “tense” when we’re under pressure. This is quite literal, as stress can cause muscles to contract. This prepares our muscles for action (i.e., running, if necessary) and protects against injury. When the threat is gone, our muscles relax. However, chronic stress may lead to long-term pain issues, like tension headaches and back pain.
Cue, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). Created by American doctor Edmund Jacobson, PMR is a technique that helps us systematically notice body tension, then release it. The theory is that physical relaxation promotes mental calm. This practice combines muscle work with mindful breathing. To do PMR:
- Find a distraction-free space. PMR can be practiced laying on the back or sitting.
- Take a few deep breaths to settle in. Breathe in deeply through the nose, until the lungs are full. Then, slowly exhale completely through the mouth. Repeat three times, or however many feels good.
- While inhaling slowly, flex the feet towards the face. Then, flex them away from the face, and clench the toes. Hold for five to ten seconds. Exhale and relax the toes.
- Repeat the above on all muscle groups. Work upwards from the feet: calves, thighs, glutes, abdomen, low back, upper back, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and face. Give extra attention to any muscle group that’s particularly tight.
- Repeat step one, taking notice of how the body and mind feel.
Mantras are sounds, words or phrases believed to have mental and spiritual benefits. They can be said repeatedly or just once. Mantras can be spoken aloud, or internally to oneself. The oldest mantras can be attributed to the Vedic tradition of South Asia. Today, mantras are significant to many religious traditions, but can also be practices secularly. To practice relaxation-based meditation using a mantra:
- Set aside a predetermined amount of time. Find a quiet space. Sit on the floor or in a chair, whichever is more comfortable. Close the eyes.
- Choose a meaningful, relaxing word or phrase. It can even be lyrics from a song, or a quote from a book. For example’s sake, we’ll use “I choose to let go. I am relaxed.”
- Breathe naturally. On the inhale say, “I choose to let go.”
- On the exhale say, “I am relaxed.”
- It’s natural for distracting thoughts to arise during meditation. When it happens, simply acknowledge the thought, and then return to reciting the mantra.
- Continue for the chosen amount of time. Then, take a few deep breaths and slowly open the eyes. We should take notice of how we feel. Meditation can be challenging. It may bring up unexpected emotions, or we may just find sitting still difficult. It’s okay if we don’t feel totally at peace afterwards.
A note: At first, repeating a mantra aloud may help with concentration. But we should do whichever we find most useful.
Noticing a trend yet? Mindful breathing goes hand-in-hand with relaxation. When stressed, our sympathetic nervous system (aka stress response) is activated. As mentioned, this helps our muscles prepare to fight or flee. As a result, less oxygen circulates to the rest of our body. Deep breathing helps exchange carbon dioxide for fresh oxygen. This stabilizes blood pressure and lowers heart rate. It triggers our parasympathetic nervous system (aka relaxation response) and allows us to think more clearly. To experience the benefits of the breath, try box breathing:
- Inhale slowly through the nose for four seconds, until the lungs are full.
- Hold breath for four seconds.
- Exhale slowly through the mouth for four seconds, completely emptying the lungs.
- Hold breath for four seconds.
- Repeat for ten cycles, or as many as desired.
It’s important to note that relaxation techniques take time to master. Make stress management a priority. With consistent practice, it becomes second nature to put our wellness first.