It’s easy to feel stressed these days. Or worried, frustrated, or irritated about one thing or another, such as finances, work, the health of a family member, or a relationship.
When you get stressed or upset, your body tenses upto fight, flee, or freeze. That’s Mother Nature’s way, and its short-term benefits kept our ancestors alive to pass on their genes.
But today – when people can live seventy or eighty years or more, and when quality of life (not mere survival) is a priority – we pay a high, long-term price for daily tension. It leads to health problems like heart disease, poor digestion, backaches and headaches, and hormonal ups and downs. And to psychological problems, including anxiety, irritability, and depression.
The number one way to reduce tension is through relaxation. Besides its benefits for physical and mental health, relaxation feels great. Just recall how nice it feels to soak in a tub, curl up in bed, or plop on the couch after the dishes are done.
Whether you’re stuck in traffic, wading through an overflowing in-box, or having a tough conversation, being able to relax your body at will is a critically important inner skill.
Here are some good ways to activate the “rest-and-digest” parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that calms down the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system:
- PNS fibers, involved with digestion, fill the mouth. So relax your tongue and jaw; perhaps touch your lips. (If I’m having a hard time sleeping, sometimes I’ll rest a knuckle against my lips, which has a soothing and calming effect.)
- Open your lips slightly. This can help ease stressful thinking by reducing subvocalizations, the subtle, unconscious movements of the jaw and tongue often associated with mental speech.
- Do several long exhalations, since the PNS handles exhaling. For example inhale for a count of three, and exhale for a count of six.
- For a minute or more, breathe in such a way that your inhalation and exhalation are equally long; count mentally up to five for each inhalation and each exhalation. This creates small but smooth changes in the interval between heartbeats – since the heart speeds up slightly with inhalation and slows down slightly with exhalation – which is associated with relaxation and well-being (Kristal-Boneh et al. 1995).
- Relax your diaphragm – the muscle underneath your lungs that helps suck air into them – by putting your hand on your stomach, just below your rib cage, and then trying to breathe in a way that pushes your hand half an inch or so away from your backbone. (This is especially helpful if you’re feeling anxious.)
- Try these methods in stressful situations, or any time you’re feeling worried or frustrated; they really work! Also use them “offline,” when things are more settled, such as by setting aside a few minutes each day – perhaps just before bed – to practice relaxation. The resting state of your body-mind will become more peaceful, and you’ll become more resilient when things hit the fan. For example, researchers have found that practicing relaxation actually increases the expression of genes that calm down the stress response (Dusek et al. 2008).