A number of physical exercises can help shift our unsettled emotional states to calmer, more relaxed feelings—as well as to actually alter to some degree the body’s physiological responses. For maximum effect, they should become part of your daily routine. Don’t wait until a crisis emerges and then plunge into them, looking for a quick fix, although two of them can also be resorted to when emotions are running hot.
They take only five or 10 minutes each—a small price to pay, considering the time you might spend on coffee breaks or watching TV. Because it releases endorphins, exercise has a potent effect on reducing the signs and symptoms of stress.
Also, it cheers you up; you feel (correctly) that you’re actively doing something constructive, instead of passively experiencing various sensations. This in itself imparts a sense of control over your body and, by extension, the situation that keyed the stress in the first place.
1. Diaphragmatic or “belly” breathing sounds peculiar at first, and somewhat unnatural. Usually we fill our lungs with air by lifting the ribcage when we inhale and letting it fall again as we exhale.
But this normal state of affairs can actually magnify our hot emotional states. Belly breathing involves holding the ribcage fixed and activating the diaphragm, located lower down in the stomach. Here’s how you do it:
- Find a quiet carpeted area, free from distraction. Loosen your shirt or blouse and take off your shoes. Lie down on your back and close your eyes, then place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Breathe normally, and observe what happens—then concentrate on changing that instinctive pattern.
- Keeping your chest and ribcage as immobile as possible, breathe through your nose and allow your belly to expand and power the inhalation.
Then exhale slowly through your partially opened mouth. With practice, you’ll be able to let your expanding belly do the inhaling for you, and allow your contracting belly to direct the breath out. Repeat this cycle for five minutes, by which time you’ll feel refreshed, relaxed and alert.
During moments of stress, you can still resort to belly breathing while sitting, standing or even walking. If you can’t close your eyes, focus on a nearby object and repeat the breathing cycle as many times as you wish.
- Acupressure works on the same principle as acupuncture and Shiatsu massage.
A simple exercise will show its advantages. Using the thumb and forefinger, squeeze the fleshy area between the thumb and forefinger of the other hand. The sensation should be slightly uncomfortable, but not painful. Maintain pressure for about five seconds, repeat on the opposite hand, and then repeat the entire cycle two more times. Your sense of tension should recede.
- Progressive relaxation was introduced by the psychologist Edmund Jacobson,5 and further refined by Robert Benson at Harvard and the renowned psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe6 .
Again, it involves a quiet, carpeted area. Remove your shoes, loosen your clothing, lie down on your back and close your eyes.
Clench both fists tight for ten seconds and focus on the degree of tension in your hands. Then ease your grip, and you’ll notice a sensation of heaviness and warmth.
Do not repeat this. Instead, go on to flex your biceps and forearms for the same length of time. Proceed to wrinkle your facial muscles, then work your way through your shoulders, chest, stomach, lower back, buttocks, thighs, calves and feet.
Throughout, tell yourself that you are indeed becoming more and more relaxed. When finished, lie still for a while before you slowly get up. At first, you may feel a trifle light-headed. This is perfectly normal, but take care to move carefully for the next few minutes. One caveat: do not attempt these exercises if you suffer from any muscle ailments.
You can probably modify them to suit your condition, but you must check with a health-care professional first.
- Purposeful distraction serves to combat stress, and you can pursue it in several ways. First, try writing down a list of things that you can do when in the grip of stress.
The very act of putting them on paper offers a sense that you’ve planned ahead, which also boosts a feeling of control. Next, you can distract yourself when worrisome thoughts appear by replacing them with pleasant and peaceful mental images such as a seashore, a forest or shifting clouds.
Or, having learned which activities exacerbate your sense of stress, you can discontinue them. For example, if you’re stuck in a traffic jam and find yourself looking at the car clock every 30 seconds, distract yourself by switching the dashboard display to a temperature reading. Instead of listening to the local rock and talk station (which will tell you only what you already know—you’re stuck in traffic), tune in to classical music.
Another effective way to relieve stress is to give yourself a “worry break” by consciously setting your woes aside and promising that you’ll revisit them at a specific time later in the day. List your worries on a sheet of paper, seal the paper in an envelope and mark a specific time on it, such as 7:15 p.m. Now that your concerns have been sealed away, promise yourself that you will not think about them until the time you designated arrives. At that time, open the envelope and revisit your concerns for three minutes. Then put your list back in the envelope, write a new time on it and repeat the process.