The Need For Relaxation
Strategies in Stress Management
Sometimes we are dealing with stressors that are not amendable. Other times we’ve changed all we can in terms of the situation and our perceptions. Our stress levels are likely to still be high and our stress symptoms may still be disruptive. In addition to trying to indirectly inhibit the stress response, we now may need to directly elicit the relaxation response. To do this, we need to incorporate relaxation/release/restore strategies into our stress management approach.
Now, it’s natural to be doubtful of the impact of these strategies on stress. "Just relax" sounds oversimplified and dismissive. You might question how exactly yoga is going to help you with your work projects or financial issues. Isn’t this now just another thing you have to find the time to do? Well, as we looked at in the previous section, that just depends on how you frame it.
Maybe it’s helpful for you to remember that the body did not evolve to function long-term at this level of activation. That the term “burnt out” is a pretty accurate conceptualization of what happens when our bodies are unable to recharge and restore energy.
It’s absolutely okay to be frustrated that you now need to do this other thing when you’re already overwhelmed, but it is necessary to do something to override the stress response. It might not directly help with your work project, for instance, but your productivity will be helped by you having less headaches and racing thoughts.
We can lessen the impact of the stress response by eliciting the opposite system, even if just for a few minutes or hours a couple times a day or week. Ways to do this are often referred to as relaxation strategies, which I think sometimes leads to that initial skepticism. They are called relaxation strategies not because it’s about “relaxing” but about eliciting the relaxation response. I also call these strategies “release/restore” strategies because their purpose is to release the hold that the stress response has on the body. There are different ways to do this, and a combination is usually the best approach.
Release and increase feelings
Sometimes it is helpful to just vent. To get it out, off your chest, even if it doesn’t change anything. Sometimes you just need to release emotions and cognitive tension and to feel validated in your struggle. You don’t have to vent to someone; have a good cry or scream in your car, or write things out.
And you are allowed to vent and express your frustration and desire for things to be different. You don’t always have to think of the positive or feel guilty for your feelings because it’s not “as bad” as it could be.
Of course, as discussed, just be aware of some of the drawbacks of overindulging in wishful thinking. Also, sometimes constantly complaining is an unhelpful coping strategy, and venting may not be enough to help you manage your stress, especially if there are ways that you can address or reassess the stressors.
Another option for releasing the hold of the stress response is to increase opportunities for positive emotions and activities that are pleasant and recharging. Redirect your attention to activities that, again, even if only for a few minutes or hours, will naturally bring down your stress levels. There’s a reason I watch so much Seinfeld and that’s because laughter lowers cortisol, boosts endorphins, stimulates circulation, and relaxes muscles. What are some things that you enjoy, that can bring you some pleasure and/or opportunities for escaping reality just for a bit? "Netflix and chill?" Spending time with friends and family and other social activities? What about self-soothing and self-care activities? A bath and a glass of wine? Is there anything small that you can look forward to at the end of your day?
You might also benefit from incorporating physiological activities into your routine to help elicit the relaxation response. Even doing these activities once or twice will be helpful, but the real benefit comes from doing them on a regular basis.
There is a reason why “just breathe” is the most common thing we hear when we are upset. While its obviousness and simplicity is sometimes maddening and invalidating, it’s also why it’s said: breathing is the number one way to elicit the relaxation response. And a type of breathing, diaphragmatic or belly/deep breathing, is the most effective.
As you can recall from the overview of the fight or flight response, when we are overwhelmed our breathing becomes rapid and shallow. We take in more oxygen than usual and breathe out more carbon dioxide than what is being produced. We are left feeling lightheaded and uncomfortable. Sometimes this is obvious to us, like when we are feeling panicked, but often we don’t even realize how shallow we are breathing in our normal states.
Deep breathing helps us slow the pace of our breathing and sends signals to the brain to elicit the parasympathetic nervous system. This type of breathing helps regulate oxygen and carbon dioxide input and output, slow heart rate, and reduce blood pressure.
Regular practice of this will help strengthen your diaphragm and decrease the energy you use for breathing. Now we always use our diaphragm when we breathe, but in belly breathing we are actively focused on contracting the diaphragm so a part of it drops into our abdomen. When belly breathing, you notice your belly is moving, not your chest.
PMR and imagery
Another strategy for eliciting the relaxation response is Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). Like with our breathing, we often don’t realize how tense we actually are when we are stressed. Progressive muscle relaxation involves the systematic tensing and releasing of certain muscles all over our body, from our feet to our forehead. With this, we learn to recognize and release tense muscles.
Guided imagery and visualization is also helpful for eliciting the relaxation response. Our brain don’t always know the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Think of how easy it is to feel anxious just thinking about a situation. We want to use this to our advantage by envisioning ourselves in a relaxing place, like on a beach or walking through a forest, in order for our brains to believe we are in a safe space.
Mindfulness exercises are also beneficial for overriding the stress response. Mindfulness is essentially a state of non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. This includes awareness of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Mindfulness helps us shift from reacting to these things to choosing how we want to respond to them. Mindfulness exercises can be relaxing in themselves, but they also help us strengthen our attention and acceptance skills. It really is just about learning to turn down or tune out the noise of our minds.
Mindfulness is not necessarily meditation, which is what many people assume. Meditation absolutely involves mindfulness, but not all mindful practice is meditation. There are many other ways you can practice non-judgmental awareness and being present, including mindful breathing, mindful observation of something like the room you are in, or listening attentively to music.
Sometimes we just need to release some of the energy coursing through us; use a stress ball, punch a pillow, go for a run. Exercise is a great way for using up adrenaline and tiring us in a good way. It also helps reduce muscle tension, release endorphins, and focus our attention elsewhere. Think of what it’s like to be “in the zone” when working out. It also helps when the exercise is something we enjoy, and there are many different activities to choose from.
Other ways you can release stress and induce relaxation include using items to soothe or distract us, such as weighted blankets, kinetic sand, or adult colouring books. There is also a song called "Weightless" that has been shown to lower stress hormones, slow heart rate, and reduce blood pressure.
Stress Management Resources includes a list of various items, along with guides to breathing, PMR, and mindfulness exercises.