We’ve all had times where we’ve felt tense, edgy or stressed – and more often than not, a well-meaning friend, colleague or family member will tell us: “Just relax!”
We might think to ourselves: “Well, that’s easier said than done.”
But does it have to be?
In short, the answer is “No!” and this blog will be all about why we could all benefit from taking the advice of that well-meaning acquaintance and making time for relaxation.
When we’re confronted with a stressful situation, our bodies produce a complex mixture of hormones and chemicals that prepare our bodies to deal with threat. Usually, the ‘threat’ (i.e. stressful situation) passes and the effects of these hormones and chemicals fade – however, sometimes the ‘threat’ lasts a bit longer and we start to experience symptoms of chronic stress.
Symptoms of stress include:
- Sleep difficulties
- Avoiding things
- Difficulty concentrating
- Smoking or drinking more
Long-term stress and highly stressful events can be a major contributor to the kinds of common mental health problems we treat at The Wellbeing Service; things like depression, anxiety, panic, OCD and PTSD. Chronic stress can even make us physically unwell – the hormones and chemicals released in our bodies suppress our immune systems, making us more susceptible to illness.
Evidence indicates that by managing stress through relaxation, we can:
- Lower the risk of stroke
- Maintain a healthy libido
- Improve the health of our hearts
- Reduce the chance of catching a cold
- Boost our memory
- Reduce skin blemishes
- Fend off depression and anxiety
- Reduce stress-related weight gain
- Improve concentration and decision-making
Evidence also indicates that stress is massively prevalent across the UK and is one of the leading causes of people having to take time off work. So if we’re all so stressed by our busy and demanding lifestyles... how exactly are we meant to find time to relax?
We may associate the word “relaxation” with taking days out to visit the beach or countryside, or paying for a yoga class or a massage – however, it really doesn’t have to take up huge chunks of time (or cost the earth!)
In fact, there are a few short and simple relaxation exercises that you can slot in to your everyday life – on your lunchbreak, after taking the kids to school, before bed or even while you’re doing other things, like listening to music or doing household chores.
One of the ways that our body responds to stress is by releasing adrenaline. This causes physiological changes in a number of different areas of the body. The following short relaxation exercises will help you to recognise and reduce some of these changes, calming the body. Over time, with practice, you may find that you begin to experience less of those unpleasant stress symptoms in your everyday life.
You may find that when you are stressed, your breathing becomes shallower and quicker. This is because, in order to prepare our body to respond to threat, we need to get as much oxygen to our muscles as possible. However, if we don’t then use up this excess oxygen through physical exertion, it can cause further symptoms of stress – like dizziness and light-headedness.
One way that we can counter this response is to control our breathing, reducing the excessive intake of oxygen and leading to a calmer physiological state. Practice the following for 3 minutes:
- Breathe in through your nose, slowly and calmly, for 4 seconds.
- Breathe out through your mouth for 3 seconds.
Ensure that you breathe as deeply as is comfortable, from your stomach – as opposed to shallow breathing from your chest. You should be able to see your stomach filling up with air.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
One of the most noticeable signs of stress is muscle tension. Again, this is part of our threat response – your muscles are getting ready for action. You may notice that if you stay still, this tension causes you to tremble or shake. It can also cause headaches and tightness in some areas, like the jaw, shoulders and back.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) involves systematically tensing and relaxing different muscle groups – over time, this will help you to notice when you are holding tension in your muscles, and to be able to release this tension more easily.
When practicing PMR, it is important to make sure that your surroundings are comfortable and free from distraction. Also be aware of any existing injuries or areas of pain – it may be that you should avoid these areas.
Tense a muscle for 5 seconds – enough that you can feel it, but not enough to cause pain. Then, slowly relax the same muscle for 10 seconds and pay attention to the absence of tension. You may find it useful to follow a sequence, e.g. working your way up your arm or leg.
Often when we’re feeling stressed, our thoughts turn to analysing stressful past events or ‘what if...?’ worries about the future. You may find that your thoughts start to race and that your concentration and memory are affected. This is another element of the threat response – quick thinking helps us to evaluate danger, but makes it very difficult to concentrate on anything other than the problem at hand.
One way to combat this is to refocus on the present moment – whilst we are concentrating on what is going on in the here and now, our minds cannot be occupied by stressful past events or worries about the future. This refocusing can be achieved by paying attention to your five senses – try asking yourself questions like:
What colours and shapes can I see in my surroundings?
Can I taste or smell anything?
How does the fabric of my clothing feel under my fingers?
Is this surface warm or cold?
What instruments can I hear in this song on the radio?
Can I hear any sounds coming from outside the building?
So now you’ve got a few relaxation techniques to calm some of the physiological responses to stress – the key is to keep practicing! Relaxation is a skill, and like any skill it takes repetition to master. You’ll find that the more you do it, the easier it becomes – and you may find that you even start to use the skills without consciously trying.
This blog has just been a little taster of how relaxation can benefit our everyday lives – but if you like what you’ve heard so far, there are a number of self-help resources, websites and apps that can assist you to continue on your journey of relaxation.
Here at the Wellbeing Service we offer a free computerized CBT-course for, Stress, called SilverCloud. If you are registered with a Telford and Wrekin GP, you can sign up immediately at http://telfordwellbeingservice.sssft.nhs.uk/silvercloud
There are other resources available too - here are some of the ones we know of. Please note these are external from the NHS and we don't officially endorse them, they are just suggestions you may find useful:
Headspace – This app includes a selection of free guided meditation exercises to get you started – if you get on well with these and want access to all that the app has to offer, a subscription starts from £3.74pm thereafter.
Buddhify – This app is aimed to assist the user to build short relaxation exercises into their busy lifestyles, and get used to relaxing ‘on-the-go’. The app costs £3.99
Digipill – This guided meditation app is aimed specifically at improving quality of sleep – and it’s free!
Rest and Relax – Another free download, this app is full of guided breathing exercises to help you calm those stressful feelings
7 Second Meditation – If you’re not sure about relaxation and want something that’s a little lighter – this app is based around push notifications reminding you to stay present in the moment
www.calm.com – A website (that also has an accompanying app) which you can sign up to for guided meditation, relaxation/sleep tips and a helpful blog
www.llttf.com – ‘Living Life to the Full’ – A website that allows you to take online courses to help with stress, low mood, anxiety, problem solving and also has free online self-help resources
www.getselfhelp.com.uk – Full of free CBT self-help resources for relaxation, managing stress and working on anxiety and low mood