(Image by dendoktoor from Pixabay)
When you’re stressed, muscles tense and activate.
This is your body’s natural response to protect you from pain or injury when in danger.
Stress activates your sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight response) producing adrenaline and cortisol. Apart from the tensed muscles, your breathing becomes shallow, blood pressure rises, your digestion switches off.
These physical factors and modern lifestyles induce more stress—a vicious cycle. Your parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest) battles to kick in the door.
A simple way to relieve the tension is to relax your muscles on demand.
Let’s loosen up and go.
But first ...
Back at school
My first exposure to relaxation exercises was in deportment class in the 1950s! The only part I enjoyed was the exercise at the end where we lay on our backs on the bare gym floor with eyes closed, progressively relaxing each muscle while taking deep breaths.
No yoga mats in those days. Imagine the horror of introducing Eastern ideas and philosophy to Western culture!
Out of curiosity, I checked if such a thing exists today. To my horror, it does! Women lived in a misogynist society then, but the practice of finishing schools and deportment classes continues.
Here’s a short video from British Pathe News filmed in 1949 by the London School of Deportment. This should evoke anger, followed by howls of laughter at the patriarchy inherent in the script.
East meets West in reducing stress
Before muscling in on the story title, the following activities deserve an honourable mention. They take more time but are worth the effort.
This practice, once considered very New Age, has entered the mainstream over the decades. There are many methods such as kundalini, kriya, and transcendental, but the underlying benefits are the same—a healthy hippocampus and an inner calm that helps you de-stress.
- Reduced anxiety
- Improved cognitive functioning
- Stronger immune system
- Greater self-awareness
- A sense of being part of a larger consciousness that transcends physical reality
(If you’ve never meditated, Be Brain Fit offers a useful resource: Top 10 Meditation Techniques and Tips for Beginners)
Performing yoga (which I practise intermittently—my bad!), tai-chi or qi gong (pronounced chee gung) reduce muscle tension.
This 20-minute yoga workout for beginners is extremely popular, even more so during the pandemic. Try it!
Simple muscle relaxation exercises
An important ingredient with any relaxation technique is to remember to breathe—slow, deep breaths—so that precious oxygen circulates through your brain and bloodstream.
A helpful routine on waking is to remain on your back in bed. Tense and relax your muscles, working up from toe to head, then down to your toes again before rising.
The Clenched Fist
This is a quickie.
- Clench your right hand to make a fist while flexing upward at the wrist.
- Hold tight for 10 seconds then release, letting your hand go limp.
- Repeat 3-5 times—note your hand feels more relaxed than the other.
- Move to the Left and repeat.
Lie on your back, legs shoulder-width apart, arms resting with palms facing up, away from your torso. (If you practise yoga, you’ll recognise the Corpse Pose.)
Close your eyes and take a few deep, relaxing breaths.
Starting at the bottom, focus first on your right foot:
- Slowly tense the muscles, squeezing hard, and hold for 10 seconds
- Relax your foot and sense the tension streaming away
- Repeat with your left foot.
Work your way up to the top (your head), alternating between the left and right.
The three-part sequence is:
- Foot, calf, knee, thigh, hip, lower back, abdomen, upper back, chest, shoulders
- Hand, wrist, forearm, elbow, shoulders
- Neck and throat, face, back of head, top of head
Rest, ensuring you relax your eyelids too, then count backwards from 5 to 1.
Then open your eyes, repeating,
“I’m feeling calm and alert.”
If you only have two minutes to spare, focus on these four muscle groups:
- Legs and feet combined
- Abdomen and chest combined
- Arms and hands combined
- Shoulder, neck, and face combined
If you are one of the 26 million Americans who suffer from lower back and hip pain, mostly caused by too much sitting in front of a computer, this link will show you a routine of 9 easy stretching exercises for relief.
Still uptight or in delight?
Has your tension disappeared?
A relaxed body leads to a relaxed mind which leads to a life free of overwhelming stress.
If you only have 2 minutes—try this simple yet effective exercise using just your hands and breath:
Here's wishing you a stress-free day.