When it comes to stress and anxiety, most people know that the trick isn’t to get rid of life’s stressors. Rather, successful navigation through tumultuous times necessitates using creative ways to weather the storm. Alternative practices like meditation are essential in that they not only calm the mind and body, but also help to get at what’s driving the disequilibrium in the first place.
Checkout this recent Science 20 post from neurophysiologist Paul Bretherton on several relaxation techniques indented to help reduce anxiety and stress levels in the body. In the article, Bretherton discusses what happens in the brain when a person is stressed and why it’s so important to practice proper breathing, meditation, and exercise techniques, as well as focusing on the here and now, listening to music, and keeping a journal. These practices generate positive alpha brain waves which are associated with alert, yet relaxed thinking.
Relaxation Techniques for Anxiety and Stress
The Here and Now
The simplest meditation is to find a relatively quiet place, close your eyes and focus on the sounds of the environment around you. Do this without processing them or putting them in context. When thoughts arise, push them aside and refocus on the sounds, smells and temperature of your environment. This will be difficult at first, especially if you are very aroused by stress or anger. These feelings will dissipate over time. Allow yourself at least 10-15 minutes to reconnect with the here and now. By doing this when you are stressed or upset (within reason, not a good idea to do this in the middle of a meeting) you will retrain yourself to decrease Beta waves and slow them into the Alpha range.
It is very difficult to breathe calmly when you are highly stressed or anxious. This is why it is advisable to breathe in deeply through your nose and try and fill your lungs with fresh air and release it through your mouth. Do this in a quiet place with your eyes closed. After a few initial deep breaths, begin to breath normally and focusing on your inhalation and exhalation separately. This will act as a type of mantra and will result in intrusive thoughts popping into your awareness. When this occurs push them aside and refocus on your breathing. 10-15 minutes and you will feel more relaxed and less anxious.
Listening to music is another well-known technique for relaxation. Most people have favourite music they like to play at certain times. As music helps to induce moods, a good technique is to make play lists of all the music you find relaxing. Take that music to a quiet place where you can sit for 15-20 minutes and focus on the music. Again, when stressful images or thoughts occur, push these to the side and refocus back on the music. There are many relaxation CD’s on the market that claim to aid relaxation. The rule of thumb here is, if YOU find them relaxing, they will work, there are no miracles here. Music you already find relaxing will work just as well if not better the tailor-made relaxation music.
Studies show that exercise can help improve mood temporarily in individuals who are stressed, anxious or depressed. In fact, for people with mild or moderate depression, 30 minutes of intense exercise can be as effective as medication for improving mood. People who do not respond to medications may also show improvement in mood when they exercise. Exercise can be cathartic, meaning that pent up energy or feelings can be released by physical exertion. During exercise, we activate our sympathetic nervous system. Blood levels of beta-endorphins have been found to increase to as much as five times their resting levels during prolonged aerobic exercise (over 30mins). This measurement varies from person to person and is affected by how regularly one exercises. However, the benefits are clear; exercise can reduce the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. AND its great for your waistline too!!!
To help aid stress relief you can add in visual imagery while exercising. Imagine that with each foot-fall (while jogging for example) pent up aggression, energy and frustration is leaving your body through your legs and into the ground. I find it helpful to imagine that pent up stress is like mud on my trainers and I leave a little of it behind with every step or that it is like electricity flowing through my legs and into the ground. This might sound silly, but if the imagery is relevant to you, it is more likely to be effective and it does work.
Keeping a Journal
Writing down your anxious or stressed thoughts is one of the best ways to deal with the problem of anxiety and stress, especially if it is a reoccurring one. When you write them down, you are letting it all out and this is very good for your mind and body. It also helps you to think constructively and perhaps see the situation/issue from a different perspective. This is especially helpful when you have just finished the breathing technique as you will have a clearer mind as a result. By doing this you will be able to put a more rational/logical perspective to the situation/issue and will be better able to find solutions.
Read more from Bretherton on the importance of practices like meditation in the reduction of stress and anxiety here.