Handling Stress, Part III: Simple Relaxation Techniques (encore) ~ Plus our Contest!

by Kassandra Lamb

For the month of August, while our misterio authors are focused on launching our new Readers’ Group (pop over to enter our contest!), we are re-running my series on stress management. Today, in our third installment, we’ll be talking about the best antidote to stress—relaxation.

Over the last two weeks, we’ve talked about the three components of stress: the stressors (stressful events) in our lives, our body’s response to those stressors and how we interpret stressors cognitively and emotionally.

And we’ve drilled down some on the subject of stressors and our body’s response to stress. (Both of those posts are chock full of tips for reducing stress, so I hope you’ll check them out.) Next week, I’ll explore how we interpret stressors and how to change those interpretations to lower stress.

simple relaxation techniques -- woman receiving shoulder massage
(Rama Day Spa Frankfurt — photo by Thomas Wanhoff from Phnom Penh Cambodia CC-BY-SA 2.0 Wikimedia Commons)

But on to today’s topic…

What do you think of when you hear the word relaxation? A long soak in a hot tub, a massage, going to a yoga class, a vacation to the beach…

Those are excellent ways to relax, but they require some time and effort. So, if you’re like me, you may very well put off doing those things until you are “less busy.” (Which rarely seems to happen for me.)

There are however, many simple relaxation techniques you can use throughout every day. AND it is important to relax throughout the day, every day. Those big relaxers are great, but they don’t last. I get a massage and the tension is back in my shoulders by the next day–sometimes sooner.

Why is it important to relax throughout the day? Remember that part of the nervous system that controls arousal vs. relaxation that we talked about two weeks ago?

Quick refresher:

The autonomic nervous system controls our body’s response to challenges and threats in our environment. When something is threatening/challenging us, the sympathetic branch of the ANS arouses our body to meet that challenge. Our heart rate, blood pressure, etc. go up, muscles tense, respiration increases, etc. When the challenge is over, the parasympathetic branch calms us down again so everything can go back to normal.

(photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash)

These two branches counterbalance each other, like the old-fashioned teeter-toters on children’s playgrounds. When one kid pushes off and goes up, the kid on the other side goes down.

Every time we activate the parasympathetic branch (relaxation) we are deactivating the sympathetic branch (arousal). And then it takes a little while for the body to get all stressed out and tense again.

Let me say that again—every time you take a couple of minutes to relax, it takes a lot more stress to get you all tense again.

In terms of our minds, when we use simple relaxation techniques throughout the day, we recharge our coping batteries so that we go back to the tasks at hand with a clearer focus. Thus the time spent on these short breaks will actually enhance our productivity.

simple relaxation techniques -- get comfy
Get comfortable! (photos by Ian Dooley, Sophie Dale, Kelly McCrimmon, and Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash)

So here are some quick and simple relaxation techniques one can use periodically throughout the day. All of these can be done in 5-10 minutes, some of them even less than that.

Btw, with all of these (except #4) it’s a good idea to be seated or lying down. It doesn’t matter where—you can even do these in a car (preferably not while driving!)—as long as each part of your body is comfortably supported.

1.  Progressive relaxation:

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, then focus on each muscle group, telling those muscles to relax completely. You can start either with your scalp or your feet. I’m a scalp person myself. I imagine the tension just flowing down and out of my body.

After my scalp, I tell my face muscles to relax (sometimes the jaw needs separate attention), then my neck, shoulders, etc. I imagine the relaxation slowly moving down my arms and hands, and down my legs, as all the tension flows out the soles of my feet.

2.  Guided imagery:

simple relaxation techniques -- guided imagery

No need to book a flight or pack your bags. Just close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine your favorite relaxing vacation spot. Build the imagery by engaging all the senses.

Lay on the beach and feel the warmth of the sun and the gentle breeze on your skin, hear the seagulls and the lapping waves, smell the salt in the air, etc.

Or perhaps you’re more the cabin-in-the-woods type. It really doesn’t matter where you go, as long as it is relaxing for you. Again, engage as many of your senses as possible to help put yourself in that place.

Can’t think of a relaxing place to go, or not the best at imagining things. Then try a little…

3.  Self-hypnosis:

simple relaxation techniques -- self-hypnosis
(photo by Danny Howe on Unsplash)

Hypnosis has this big mystic around it, that it really doesn’t merit. It’s nothing more or less than using the power of suggestion, while the mind is in a relaxed state, to influence our behavior/mood.

Close your eyes, take a deep breath and visualize a set of steps in your mind’s eye (or a hill gently sloping downward in front of you). Imagine yourself slowly going down those steps/that hill and tell yourself (silently inside your head, and repeat the suggestion several times) that with each step you will become more and more relaxed. Once at the bottom, tell yourself that you will relax completely for a certain number of minutes (whatever time you have available), and then you will ‘wake up’ refreshed and energized (again, repeat this suggestion several times).

Then just let yourself drift. You may want to set a timer or alarm on your phone, just in case, but 9 times out of 10, your internal clock will get it right and you’ll “wake up” at the time you designated.

If even imagining a hill or staircase is not that easy for you, then count slowly to 10 or 20, telling yourself that when you reach that final number, you will be completely relaxed.

4.  Deep breathing:

I’ve saved the easiest and fastest of these simple relaxation techniques for last.

Have you noticed a trend above? Each time you start with a deep breath.

simple relaxation techniques

That’s because deep breathing automatically engages the parasympathetic (relaxation) branch of the ANS and gets the ball rolling.

So if you don’t have time to stop even for 5 minutes, you can just do the deep breathing. Three slow, deep breaths in a row can do wonders!

I also saved this one for last because I have a fun story to share. A friend of mine was going through a really busy time (a new job plus planning her daughter’s wedding). I kept reminding her to take time to relax, and she kept saying she couldn’t do that. She would relax once XYZ was off her plate. Everything I suggested, she said she didn’t have time or wouldn’t remember to do it.

So I suggested that I hypnotize her and give her post-hypnotic suggestions that whenever she started to get tense she would automatically take a deep breath. She gave me a skeptical look, but she did sit still long enough for me to do this.

The next time I saw her was about two weeks later. I asked how the deep breathing was going.

“It´s wonderful!” she said. “I don´t have to think about it. I just automatically take a breath whenever I need to relax some. There was one problem though. Jim (her husband) kept looking at me funny. I finally asked him why and he said he was worried about me because I was so depressed.”

“‘I’m not depressed,’ I told him. ‘What gave you that idea?’ And he said, ‘Well, you’re constantly walking around the house sighing.’” 😀

I suggest trying all of these simple relaxation techniques and then focusing on the one(s) that work best for you. I mainly use #1 and #3 myself.

What do you think? Which of these techniques appeal the most to you? Or do you have other ways that you like to relax?

Oh, and don’t forget to check out our new Readers’ Group on Facebook and to enter our August Beach Reads contest there. You get two extra entries by joining the group.

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

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