Your heart beats faster. Your breathing becomes more rapid. Your muscles tense and you start to sweat. This is the body’s response to a perceived threat or stress. If you are faced with a physical threat–like fleeing a burning building, scaring away a mountain lion, or lifting a car off a child–the body’s flight-or-fight response can be life-saving. In day-to-day life, however, the stresses we face–deadlines, bills, jam-packed schedules–don’t require the same burst of adrenaline, and yet our bodies respond in the same way. In the long term, chronic stress can lead to depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, weight gain, and a host of other health issues. In addition, we may use alcohol or drugs to cope with stress and this use can become an addiction. Part of recovery from any substance abuse problem includes learning healthy ways to cope with stress.
Deep Breathing and Body Scanning
Any number of deep breathing techniques can be used to de-stress quickly and a few are detailed below. For any of these techniques, it helps to get into a comfortable position.
- Falling out breath: In this technique, inhale deeply and fill your lungs with as much air as possible. Exhale with an audible sigh.
- Box breath: To use this technique, inhale for a count of four. Hold your breath for four counts, exhale for four counts, and then hold your breath out for four counts.
- Emptying breath: For this breath technique, inhale for a count of three and exhale for a count of six. Release as much air as possible.
Body scan techniques can also reduce stress. To try any of these techniques, get into a comfortable position, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. In the first technique, start at the top of your head and mentally work your way down your body. Notice and release any tension you may be holding in your muscles. You may be surprised at where your body holds tension. In another method, you would begin by tensing up your right foot as tight as you can, hold the tension for a few seconds, and then release. Next tense and release your right calf, then your right thigh, and so on until you have tensed and relaxed every part of your body. In a similar technique, you mentally travel through your body and imagine that each part is being filled with warmth. (Note: These techniques can also be used to help you drift off to sleep.)
Meditation is a great way to reduce stress. You can opt for guided or unguided meditation. If you are interested in guided meditation, you can find a teacher or use an app like Headspace, Calm, or MyLife Meditation. If you prefer to meditate on your own, there are many techniques for you to try. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Focus on your breath. Don’t control your breath, just notice it. As thoughts arise (and they will), notice that you are thinking and let the thought drift away. Another method that some people find calming is breath counting. Count your breaths, going up to 10. Repeat, as many times as needed, until you feel tranquil. You could also try a moving meditation. In a walking meditation, for example, focus on each foot contacting the ground. Notice how the ground feels beneath your feet. Notice the sensations as your heel hits the ground, rolls to the ball of your foot, and then to your toes. As your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to walking. These techniques allow your body to relax and your mind will follow.
Exercise, in any form, is a great way to reduce stress and anxiety and elevate your mood. The key is to find a type of exercise that you enjoy. You could go for a walk or a run, or you might prefer swimming or bicycling. You may enjoy the dynamic of an exercise class. You could take up tennis or golf. Yoga, in particular, is a great stress reliever. No matter what you choose, make it a point to exercise several times per week. This will have a positive impact on your mental and physical health.
Spending time out of doors helps to relieve stress as well. Researchers in the field of ecotherapy suggest that being outdoors can elevate your mood, lower your anxiety, improve your ability to focus, improve your memory, boost creativity, relieve depression and anxiety, and help with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Being outside for 120 minutes a week causes positive changes, and the time doesn’t need to be continuous. So go for a stroll on the beach, take a walk in the park, or a hike in the mountains. Plan a camping trip. Plant a garden. Take your work outside. Bring the outside in by keeping cut flowers or potted plants in the house. Use natural materials to decorate. Plant herbs in your kitchen. Arrange a comfortable seating space near a window with a view. Even something as simple as displaying photos of your favorite outdoor places can help reduce stress.