Chronic stress can be detrimental to your mind and body. It can put you at risk of developing health problems such as high blood pressure, IBS, headaches, anxiety, and depression.
When you feel stress, your body responds by releasing hormones that increase your blood pressure and raise your heart rate, known as the “stress response”.
This so-called "stress response" is a normal reaction to threatening situations, fine-tuned and passed down the generations from our prehistoric ancestors to help us survive threats like an animal attack or a flood. Today, we rarely face these physical dangers, but challenging situations in daily life can set off the stress response. We can't avoid all sources of stress in our lives, nor would we want to. But we can develop techniques to help us find calm and inner peace.
Relaxation techniques can help your body relax and lower your blood pressure and heart rate, or a relaxation response. Here are four exercises you can try. See which ones work best for you.
Breathing exercises are the foundation of many other relaxation techniques and are very easy to learn. These exercises work to help you breathe slowly and deeply, which can allow you to feel more relaxed.
Breathing exercises have been known to have a cleansing effect, making you feel energised and refreshed. Deep breathing also brings your focus and attention to the breathing process, therefore clearing your mind and helping you to control the rhythm of your breath. A useful tool for anyone who suffers with panic attacks.
You can do deep breathing almost anywhere. In this simple, powerful technique, you take long, slow, deep breaths. Sit still or lie down and place one hand on your stomach. Put your other hand over your heart. Inhale slowly until you feel your stomach rise. Hold your breath for a moment. Exhale slowly, feeling your stomach fall.
There are many other types of breathing techniques you can learn, and most of them require little instruction, making them simple but effective relaxation tools you can practice anytime, anywhere.
Meditation is a way of focusing your attention which will help you to relax both the mind and body. Practising meditation may help you respond with a calmer approach to your emotions and thoughts, including those that cause stress. Meditation has been practised for thousands of years, and there are several different styles.
Mindfulness meditation, for example, involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing, and bringing your mind's attention to the present moment without drifting off into worries about the past or the future.
Most types of meditation usually include:
Focused attention. You might focus on your breath, an object, or a set of words (known as a mantra).
Quiet. Most meditation is practised in a calm space to limit distractions.
Body poses. Most people think meditation is a sitting practice, but it can also be done lying down, walking, or standing.
An open attitude. The idea is to stay open to thoughts that come into your mind during meditation. Instead of judging these thoughts, you let them go by bringing your attention back to your primary focus.
Relaxed breathing. During meditation, you breathe slowly and calmly to help you relax.
Progressive relaxation is another simple technique that you can do almost anywhere. The intention is to focus on relaxing each muscle in turn, from the toes to the head, until the mind and body feel relaxed and calm.
The Body scan technique blends breath focus with progressive muscle relaxation. After a few minutes of deep breathing, you focus on one part of the body or group of muscles at a time and mentally releasing any physical tension you feel there. A body scan can help boost your awareness of the mind-body connection.
By focusing your attention on letting go of stress throughout the body, you are also able to quiet and calm your mind. When practised over time, the body scan can help you recognise when your muscles are holding tension and more easily release any physical discomfort you may be experiencing.
Imagery and visualisation
Using the imagery technique, you conjure up soothing scenes, places, or experiences in your mind to help you relax and focus. You can find free apps and online recordings of calming scenes—just make sure to choose imagery you find soothing, and that has personal significance. Guided imagery may help you reinforce a positive vision of yourself, but it can be difficult for those who have intrusive thoughts or find it hard to conjure up mental images.
Visualisation is a powerful way to let go of stress. Through visualisation, you use your imagination to picture yourself in a more calming and serene environment, such as at a beach or in a flower-covered meadow. Visualisation works to relax your body and soothe your thoughts. By simply seeing yourself in a more rejuvenating setting, you can actually allow your mind and body feel as though you are there.