Stress management

We are all familiar with stress. It is a fact of life. In this fast paced world we live in, it feels increasingly difficult to keep up. Sadly, the negative effects of stress are widespread and growing. One of the most important skills we can learn right away is to manage stress. Once the skills are in place, thoughts become clearer, moods become more stable, relationships improve, and the risk of illness decreases. Below, I have listed a couple of stress management exercises that my clients have found helpful over the years.

Before beginning any relaxation technique, I ask clients to complete what is known as a body scan by asking, “What is my body feeling right now?” Notice how each part of your body feels (tense, increased heart rate, perspiring). This is useful information to know prior to starting so we may get a baseline.

One of the best ways to lower stress in the body is deep breathing. When you breathe deeply, a message gets sent to the brain to calm down and relax. When someone is stressed their heart rate increases, breathing becomes labored and blood pressure rises. As we deep breathe, these all decrease and the body is able to relax.

Here is an exercise that clients find very effective: The Modified Breathing Exercise. This exercise is portable and can be done anywhere. You may sit in a chair or lay down – whichever is more comfortable for you.

Instructions: Breathe in to the count of 4 through the nose and exhale to the count of 8 through the mouth. Repeat this 10 times. Take your time with each breath. You will start to feel calmer and more centered. I recommend doing this exercise not only when anxiety or worry is heightened, but also when one is calm to practice it. When this is practiced throughout the day, it will be more effective when tensions are high.

Another exercise my clients have found helpful is Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). This is a step by step plan to relax your body. PMR is an anxiety-reduction technique first introduced by American physician Edmund Jacobson in the 1930’s. In this technique you tense a group of muscles as you breathe in, and you relax them as you breathe out. You work on all the major muscles in your body in order from your head to your feet. By tensing the muscles first, you are able to relax them more thoroughly after you release. This technique lets go of the physical tension more effectively. By practicing PMR, you will learn how a relaxed muscle feels different from a tense muscle. Additionally, it can be extremely effective at relieving stress and may be helpful if you have trouble falling asleep.

Instructions: Find a quiet place free of distractions. Lie down or recline in a chair. Loosen any tight clothing, and remove glasses or contacts. Rest your hands where they feel most comfortable, either on your lap, arms of the chair or by your sides. Before you begin, take a few long, slow deep breaths. Please note: do not tense up to the point of cramping or pain.

  1. Forehead: Squeeze the muscles in your forehead, holding for 15 seconds. Feel the muscles becoming tight and more tense. Then, slowly release the tension in your forehead while counting to 30 seconds. Notice the difference in how your muscles feel as you relax. Continue to release the tension until your forehead feels completely relaxed. Breathe slowly and evenly.
  2. Jaw: Tense the muscle in your jaw, holding for 15 seconds. Then release the tension slowly while counting for 30 seconds. Notice the feeling of relaxation and continue to breathe slowly and evenly.
  3. Neck and shoulders: Increase tension in your neck and shoulders by raising your shoulders up towards your ears and hold for 15 seconds. Slowly release the tension as you count for 30 seconds. Notice the tension melting away.
  4. Arms and hands: Slowly draw both hands into fists. Pull your fists into your chest and hold for 15 seconds, squeezing as tight as you can. Then slowly release while you count for 30 seconds.
  5. Buttocks: Slowly increase tension in your buttocks over 15 seconds. Then slowly release the tension over 30 seconds. Notice the tension melting away. Continue to breathe slowly and evenly.
  6. Legs: Slowly increase the tension in your quadriceps and calves over 15 seconds. Squeeze the muscles as hard as you can. Then gently release the tension over 30 seconds. Notice the tension melting away and the feeling of relaxation is left.
  7. Feet: Slowly increase the tension in your feet and toes. Tighten the muscles as much as you can. Then slowly release the tension while you count for 30 seconds. Notice all the tension melting away. Continue breathing slowly and evenly.

After completing Modified Breathing or Progressive Muscle Relaxation, I ask clients to do a body scan once again and ask themselves, “What is my body feeling right now?” I recommend that my clients ask themselves this question throughout the day. It is important to know how our bodies are feeling so we may intervene earlier and deal with the stress and tension proactively.
The time and effort spent learning these stress management skills is well-spent because of all the emotional and physical health benefits it brings. If you commit to doing at least one of these exercises on a regular basis, you will begin to feel the benefits.

-Michelle Alexander, LCSW-R