Stress Management & Relaxation Techniques

By Abbey Bronzati, BS, CPT

Intro to Relaxation Practice

5-minute Gratitude Practice to Relax & Reboot Your Brain

Why is it important to talk about relaxation?

We talk regularly about various ways to prevent or minimize stress in our lives. If we were perfect at managing our thoughts, time, exercise, finances, sleep, emotions and mother nature, we would always be capable of keeping our stress and anxiety at bay. However, we’re not perfect at these things, and many of them are often out of our control completely. We live in a hectic, fast-paced, go-go-go world, global pandemic or not. Due to the inevitability of experiencing stress,  especially during uncertain times such as now, it’s important to have techniques to turn off, or at least tone down, the stress response.

Let’s talk about the word “relaxation.” People often misunderstand or misuse this word. Relaxation is defined as “the state of being free from tension and anxiety.” It’s the restoration of equilibrium following a disturbance.

The relaxation response is the exact opposite of the stress response (AKA fight-or-flight response). There’s a lot of physiology surrounding the stress and relaxation responses I could talk about here that I’ll spare you the details. If you’re interested in learning more about the physiology of what’s going on inside the mind-body connection response to stress and relaxation connect with me and I would be happy to do another post or video.

The relaxation response facilitates an increase in alpha brain waves, which allow us to focus, and, contrary to popular belief, there is actually an increase in physical and mental energy. This is always beneficial to our lives, but especially right now.

4 basic sources of stress

Generally, there are 4 basic sources of stress from which we might currently be experiencing at a heightened level. These sources are taken from “The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook” by Dr. Martha Davis and Dr. Matthew McKay. This is an excellent workbook I highly recommend having as a resource for anyone interested.

  1. Your environment bombards you with demands to adjust. You’re required to endure weather, traffic, noise, a global pandemic or other natural disaster.
  2. You must cope with social stressors such as demands for your time and attention, job interviews, deadlines and competing priorities, work presentations, interpersonal conflicts, financial problems, and the loss of loved ones.
  3. A third source of stress is physiological. The rapid growth of adolescence; the changes menopause causes in women; lack of exercise, poor nutrition, and inadequate sleep; illness, injuries, and aging. All these things tax the body! Your physiological reaction to environmental and social threats and changes can also result in stressful symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches, an upset stomach, anxiety, and depression.
  4. The fourth source of stress is your thoughts. Your brain interprets these complex changes in your environment and body and determines when to turn on the stress response. How you interpret and label your present experience as well as what you predict for your future can serve either to relax you or stress you out more. For example, interpreting a sour look from your boss to mean that you are doing a poor job is likely to be very anxiety-provoking. Interpreting the same look as tiredness or preoccupation with personal problems will not be as frightening. Remember that how you think is how you feel.

Where does stress begin?

Stress researchers argue that stress begins with your appraisal of a situation, meaning that first you ask yourself how dangerous or difficult the situation is. Then, you assess what resources you perceive to have to help you cope with it. More anxious, stressed people tend to decide that (1) an event is dangerous, difficult, or painful, and (2) they don’t have the resources to cope.

Now that we have a better understanding of why and how the stress response is triggered for us, let’s dive deeper into the resources available to create a true relaxation response both mentally and physically.

Over the coming weeks we will review different relaxation techniques and how to practice them whenever and wherever you are. Please know that as you practice your relaxation techniques, you’ll become familiar with how it feels to be truly and deeply relaxed.

Right now, if I were to ask you what you do to relax, you might say that you watch TV, daydream, read a book, apply a face mask, or any other list of activities that are enjoyable and don’t elicit a stress response. However, this is not relaxation. While most of these activities are distractions, they don’t directly target the parts of our nervous system that trigger a relaxation response.

Relaxation is more than just doing something you enjoy, even though as you learn different techniques, you will learn to enjoy them.

Considerations for starting relaxation practice

  • A good place to start is to practice in short increments of 10-20 minutes per day.
  • It’s best to seclude yourself to minimize interruptions and background noise. Anything that you can do to minimize distractions will help you stay in the moment and focus on the activity. That said, relaxation practice is a skillful and valuable technique for kids from age 1 to 92. I hope you will consider sharing the various techniques you’ll be testing out with your loved ones at home. I know you will notice a difference in the lives and relationships around you.
  • Whatever relaxation technique you are testing out, it’s important to keep an open mind. Strip yourself of any expectations and allow the experience to happen. If you don’t think it’s going to work, it probably won’t. If you think it will work, it likely will.
  • Please know that every technique we’re going to talk about has been proven to elicit a relaxation response. Some of the techniques can seem odd to some people, but if you keep an open mind and allow for the possibility that these practices will help you relax, I promise you will find that there is great power in these activities.
  • Your attitude plays an important role in maintaining a high degree of mindfulness. This means that you’re engaged in the moment without judging it to be good or bad. Rather than forcing an experience, you’re just allowing it to happen. In other words, you have a passive attitude. Allow and accept. Don’t get frustrated with yourself or the experience.
  • Not everyone will have the same experience with relaxation practice. Take time to experiment and find what works best for you. For example, different times of day might work for different people. You may find that you get the best relaxation response in the morning so you can calm your mind and get yourself focused for the rest of your day. You might find that the afternoon works better as you start to feel tired and run-down. You may even find it’s best when you’re already in bed to help you fall asleep and get deeper, higher quality rest. Like I said, take time to experiment and find what works best for you.

The goal of stress management and relaxation practice is not merely stress reduction. After all, life would be pretty boring without stress. There is a common tendency to think of stressors or stressful events as negative, but stressors are often positive. The physical exertion of a good workout or the challenge of doing something new for the first time are great examples of good stress.

Performance and efficiency both improve with increased stress as long as the stress level doesn’t become too great. Stress management involves finding the right types and amounts of stress, given your individual tendencies, priorities, personality, and situation, so that you can maximize your performance and enrich your life experience. You can learn how to cope with stress more effectively while including more positive stress, challenge, excitement, and pleasure to your life.

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