It seems that there are an increasing number of stressors that we face … and we do not really take the time to consider the best ways to help our body and mind cope with the pressure. We find ourselves breathing faster, our hearts racing, our muscles tensing – and this feels like a normal reaction to daily pressure. It isn’t and it doesn’t have to be. Your body reacting this way to regular stress will eventually take its toll on your health and well-being.
The good news is that regardless of age, it’s easy to learn some effective strategies to better manage the stress and to cope with the pressures around us. You can use any one of these strategies, regardless of your age. I have taught them to people of all ages! You can adapt them and use them anywhere – while you are getting ready to go to sleep, while you are driving, or even in the middle of a stressful meeting. Lastly, you can use all three at once or pick your favorite.
The first strategy is belly breathing. When we get stressed, we tend to breathe more shallowly and quickly. We can intentionally slow down that process, and by doing so, you are physically relaxing your body. One of the best ways to know that you are taking deep breaths is to place one hand over your chest and one over your belly button. Imagine that you have a small balloon in your belly that you need to breathe deeply into in order to fill it. Take several long deep breaths, hold it for several seconds, release. Your goal is to watch your hand on your belly expand out more (or rise if you are laying down) as you breathe in more than the one on your chest does. It may take some time and some people like to practice this laying down before they do it in a chair in order to get a feel for it. Ultimately, you really want to practice taking long, deep breaths.
The second strategy is muscle relaxation. When we are stressed, we inadvertently tense the muscles in our body. Some people get muscle aches in certain parts of their body as a result of holding this tension, such in their shoulders or neck. Sometimes it’s just not enough to tell your body to relax because you don’t even realize that you have tensed those muscles! So, how can you relax them? Starting at your toes, tense, hold, and then relax, each muscle. Do this with each muscle group, working your way up your body to your head. Pay special attention to areas where you hold your tension. Even if you think it’s not possible to tense and relax a part of your body (like your temples or your scalp), visualize doing it and the stress melting away.
The third strategy is visualization. Now, your first thought may be that visualization seems simple, but it actually involves a little bit of work. Your goal is to visualize a place you’ve been before where you have felt calm, centered, and happy – a place where you felt your happiest. Don’t try to make up a place; make it an actual place. For example, a friend once told me that her place was her grandmother’s kitchen because when she goes to her grandmother’s house, they always end up in the kitchen, and her grandmother always seems to be making delicious soup. This is a great example! The place you visualize doesn’t have to be exotic – just familiar and comfortable to you. The next step is that you are going to walk through it in your mind using all of your senses. What does the place smell like? The olfactory memory is stored in a different part of our brain, and those memories are powerful and strong. Does your place have a taste (if food is involved or maybe the spray of the ocean)? How does your place physically feel? (How does the rug or the grass between your toes feel? What is the temperature? Is there a breeze against your skin?) Are there any sounds? (music, water, birds, purring cat, etc…) Lastly, what does your place really look like? Recreate it in your mind, the curtains on the windows, the turtles in the pond, etc… focusing on the details and the little things that you love about this place.
You can use belly breathing, muscle relaxation, and visualization in combination or in isolation. And, they are ideal for any age group! It’s best to try these strategies and have them down before you find yourself in a stress-inducing situation. The benefit is that the next time you are in the meeting at work and find your breathing starting to quicken, you can take control over your body, relax, and offer great suggestions without being bogged down by your own stress!