By Gina Newsome Duncan, M.D.
For most of us, stress is a part of everyday life—at home, at work, during our commute. Even going on vacation can be stressful. Stress not only has a psychological effect. It also has a physiological effect. That is, it affects us physically, leading to direct changes in our heart rate and blood pressure, and over time, our risk for certain illnesses such as heart attacks and strokes.
Stress also plays a significant role in anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses. This is detailed in the book The Relaxation Response, by Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard physician and expert in Mind/Body medicine.
Relaxation, the antidote to stress, can often seem like a luxury. How many of us picture a hot bubble bath complete with scented candles and soothing music, or a long walk on a sun-soaked beach as the perfect way to relax? The problem is that most of us don’t have time to do these things on a regular basis. When you’re in the midst of a crisis, or have a deadline looming at work, it’s not always possible to take an extended break.
The good news is that there are steps we can take psychologically to improve how we feel physically. With practice, you can learn how to relax anywhere and in any situation.
Some of the most common relaxation techniques are:
1. Deep breathing
2. Progressive muscle tension and relaxation
3. Guided Imagery/Visualization
If you have a moment, try this simple exercise right now:
Sit in a comfortable position, either reclining slightly or laying down.
Take a deep breath in while slowly counting “one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two”. Then exhale, while counting “one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three, one-thousand-four”. Repeat this for several minutes.
Next, while maintaining a slow, regular pace of breathing, move on to progressive muscle tension and relaxation. This means tensing and relaxing the different muscle groups of your body one at a time. For example, start with your feet, curling your toes under… holding…and then relaxing. Then move on to your legs, stomach, etc, until you have worked your way up to your head.
How did that feel? Don’t worry if you couldn’t relax right away. It takes practice!
Most major bookstores and entertainment stores carry relaxation CDs that incorporate the breathing and muscle relaxation techniques described above. Combined with guided imagery and soothing music, these CDs can be a great way to learn the relaxation response if you don’t feel confident doing it on your own. A quick Google search can also pull up many websites with different types of relaxation exercises, suggestions, and even video.
The best thing is that this can take as little as 5 minutes and can be done anywhere—at your desk or while parked in your car—anytime you need to recharge.
Taking time to relax is not a luxury, it’s a necessity!