Written by Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP
When addressing your overall health, it’s critical to view mental health as a key component. Your mental health is based upon a number of factors, one of which is your ability to manage stress. Stress is what happens when we perceive an event in a way that causes negative emotions, anxiety and tension. If not managed quickly or properly, a great deal of your bodily energy and resources will be consumed by stress, and this will compromise your immune system and may lead to physiological effects such as impaired sleep, headaches, muscle pain, depression and more. It serves us well, then, to learn how to effectively manage stress, as doing so greatly improves our overall wellness. Below are convenient do-it-yourself strategies that can help.
Breathing Exercises and Muscle Relaxation Exercises
Many people respond positively to both, which are considered “muscle-to-mind” relaxation strategies. Breathing properly is relaxing, in part because it increases the amount of oxygen in the blood. Oxygen plays a key role in supplying energy to the body’s muscles, and good circulation facilitates the removal of waste products from the tissues. Unfortunately, many individuals have never learned deep, diaphragmatic breathing, and most are unaware that their breathing patterns are disrupted under stress (we tend to either hold our breath or breathe quickly and shallowly from the upper chest when anxious).
Do it yourself: Put one hand on your abdomen and the other hand on your upper chest. If you are taking a proper deep breath from the diaphragm—the thin muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavities—the hand on your abdomen should move out while inhaling. While exhaling, the hand on your chest should remain relatively still. Once you’re comfortable with the breath cycle, commit to taking several minutes per day to simply concentrate on your breathing. This meditative break in the day can induce very calming relaxation.
Progressive muscle relaxation, a technique developed by in the early 1920s, is another strategy that involves the tensing and relaxing of key muscle groups. Since muscle tension accompanies anxiety, learning to relax the muscular tension may effectively reduce anxiety.
Do it yourself: Sit or lie in a comfortable position. With your eyes closed, tense the muscles in your legs for 10 seconds, then release the tension for 20 seconds, noticing the difference between the feelings of the tension and relaxation. Try this with other muscle groups, particularly those in the abdomen, chest, arms and face. Find time to practice once a day for 10 minutes. The technique becomes more effective with practice, so stay committed!
Stretching has a positive effect on physical and mental health. Stretching promotes mind/body awareness, as successful completion of each physical stretch requires mindfulness of your bodily positions, breathing and control of your tension level. Stretching also improves circulation and range of motion, decreases muscle tension and reduces pain and soreness after exercise. A stretched, lengthened muscle is typically less likely to strain or tear than a tight, shortened one.
Do it yourself: Dedicate 10 minutes per day to stretching your muscles, particularly those in your legs, arms and neck. Engaging in relaxation breathing during the stretch will help maximize the activity.
Individuals who exercise aerobically report fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression and lower levels of stress and anger. Exercise appears to affect particular neurotransmitter systems in the brain like an antidepressant would. Cardiovascular exercise may also reduce one’s fear of bodily sensations, such as a racing heart and rapid breathing. Both of these, perhaps once associated with losing control or high anxiety, may now become an indication of health-enhancement and physical success. ACSM suggests that we engage in 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity.
Do it yourself: Walk or jog on the treadmill/elliptical, swim, dance or bike for 30 minutes per day, five days per week. Working out to an exercise DVD can also act as a convenient substitute.
Therapeutic massage may also act as a valuable tool in relieving the psychological and physical suffering of stress. Psychologically, the touch of the therapist helps relieve anxiety and fear, which aids the individual in regaining some sense of control over a stress-inducing situation. Physically, a skillfully applied massage sends soothing, pleasant sensations to the brain, which slows the secretion of stress hormones, slows and deepens one’s breathing, lowers blood pressure, slows one’s pulse rate and relaxes the body to the point that it begins to recover and rejuvenate.
Do it yourself: While you may be able to massage some muscles (like your calves), you may choose to turn to a professional masseuse to get the full effect. Treat yourself to a 30-60 minute professional massage, and reap the benefits of relaxation.
Researchers have found that yoga may be superior to other forms of exercise in its positive effect on mood and anxiety. Research reveals an association between yoga postures and decreased depression and other widespread anxiety disorders.
Do it yourself: Purchase a yoga DVD—any introductory disc will do—and practice three times a week for one hour each session.
View the full winter 2012 issue of the ACSM Fit Society® Page online.