Relaxation relies on paradoxical processes. What this means is that it is challenging to “try to relax.” We have all been in a situation where someone tells us to calm down, and we react with anger and irritation. Trying to suppress our emotions, numb or not feel them, may work to get rid of unwanted feelings. However, numbing, avoiding, and suppressing emotions can dull our emotional experience and affect how we interpret what is going on in our lives and interact with others. Psychotherapy can help teach us proven techniques to lower our stress levels and anxiety without getting rid of emotions. Below is a list of three possible strategies that may help bring stress levels under more conscious control.
The majority of fear and anxiety are caused by imagining scenarios in the future and focusing on outcomes that are negative/bad. Human beings are unique in that we can be anxious about things in the future that may never occur. This is a highly adaptive quality, but it can lead to a never-ending cycle of anxiety. If you look into the uncertainty of the future, it is always possible to find something that may need your attention.
Human beings are also prone to weighing and measuring their options. We can always compare the now to something more ideal, always think of something more satisfying. This is an adaptive strategy because it allows us to look out for what would be in our best interests. However, it can cause suffering if our thoughts prevent us from making a choice or accepting a current reality.
Staying in the present moment through focused attention goes against the tendency of the mind to jump to the future and to judge things. The practice of deliberately staying in the present moment is a significant component of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the cultivation of nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. Practicing mindfulness for only 5 minutes a day can lower anxiety and depressive symptoms by up a significant amount in just a few weeks!
Mindfulness can help distance you from unwanted thoughts from the past or future. It can also help you pick out problems when they are small and manageable. If you notice stress beginning, you can do something about it only if you are aware of it. If you are overwhelmed with stress, it can be challenging to do anything. Mindfulness can help with the timing and utilization of coping skills, including the two listed below.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Stress causes tightness in the muscles, and everyone holds their anxiety in different places in the body. We colloquially refer to a difficult person or situation as a “pain in the neck,” referring to a common area where people have tension. When responsibilities become too hectic, we often say they are a “pain in the back.” Sometimes we even refer to ourselves as a “bundle of nerves” to reflect the kind of muscle tightness that accompanies high anxiety levels. A technique that can aid in reducing our muscle tension is progressive muscle relaxation. This technique involves focusing on groups of muscles and tensing them on purpose at about 3/4 strength. Tensing muscles and then releasing them under conscious control can allow these muscles to relax. You can move up your body from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head, focusing on each muscle group. There are many available free scripts online. A trained therapist can also lead you through this process.
For the highest level of anxiety, breathing exercises can create profound physiological changes in the body. When people are anxious, we tend to breathe short; shallow breaths from our chest. Shallow breathing itself then starts a cycle that increases anxiety. One straightforward and powerful exercise to decrease stress is a technique known as diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing involves consciously filling your lungs from the bottom up. Diaphragmatic breathing involves lengthening your exhalation (out-breath) to usually twice as long as your inhalation (in-breath). One method is to breathe in with deep belly breaths for three full seconds and exhale for six full seconds. Take a second to notice that when you breathe in thoroughly and slowly, your heart rate increases. When you breathe out slowly, your heart rate decreases. Breathing out longer than you breathe in will lower your heart rate and your general level of stress!
By: Christopher Grandits, PhD