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10 Stress Relief Exercises
If you’re thinking meditation means twisting your body into an uncomfortable position and uttering “oohs” and “omms” for an hour, guess again. Any repetitive action can be a source of meditation, says Herbert Benson, MD, author of The Relaxation Response and director emeritus of Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Chestnut Hill, Mass. This includes walking, swimming, painting, knitting — any activity that helps keep your attention calmly in the present moment.
When you catch yourself thinking about your job, your relationship or your lifelong to-do list, experts say to simply let the thought escape, and bring your mind back the repetition of the activity. Try it for just 5 to 10 minutes a day and watch stress levels drop.
Starting a meditation practice All you need to start meditating are:
• A quiet environment. Choose a secluded place in your home, office, garden, place of worship, or in the great outdoors where you can relax without distractions or interruptions.
• A comfortable position. Get comfortable, but avoid lying down as this may lead to you falling asleep. Sit up with your spine straight, either in a chair or on the floor. You can also try a cross-legged or lotus position.
• A point of focus. Pick a meaningful word or phrase and repeat it throughout your session. You may also choose to focus on an object in your surroundings to enhance your concentration, or alternately, you can close your eyes.
• An observant, non-critical attitude. Don’t worry about distracting thoughts that go through your mind or about how well you’re doing. If thoughts intrude during your relaxation session, don’t fight them. Instead, gently turn your attention back to your point of focus.
2. Show Some Love
Induce the relaxation response by cuddling your pet, giving an unexpected hug to a friend or family member, snuggling with your spouse, or talking to a friend about the good things in your lives, says psychologist Deborah Rozman, PhD, co-author of Transforming Stress. When you do, you’ll be reducing your stress levels.
Why? Experts say social interaction helps your brain think better, encouraging you to see new solutions to situations that once seemed impossible, she says. Studies have also shown that physical contact — like petting your dog or cat — may actually help lower blood pressure and decrease stress hormones.
3. Take a Time-Out Adults need time-outs, too. So when you sense your temper is about to erupt, Jeff Brantley, MD, author of Five Good Minutes In the Evening, suggests finding a quiet place to sit or lie down and put the stressful situation on hold. Take a few deep breaths and concentrate on releasing tension and calming your heartbeat. Quiet your mind and remember: Time is always on your side, so relax. The stress can wait.
4. Visual Imagery – Picture Yourself Relaxed
Is your mind too talkative to meditate? Try creating a peaceful visualization, or “dreamscape.” To start, simply visualize anything that keeps your thoughts away from current tensions. It could be a favorite vacation spot, a fantasy island, that penthouse in New York City — or something “touchable,” like the feel of your favorite silk robe or cozy sweater.
The idea is to take your mind off your stress, and replace it with an image that evokes a sense of calm. The more realistic your daydream — in terms of colors, sights, sounds; even touch and feel — the more relaxation you’ll experience.
5. Look Around You
“Mindfulness is the here-and-now approach to living that makes daily life richer and more meaningful,” says Claire Michaels Wheeler, MD, PhD, author of 10 Simple Solutions to Stress. It’s approaching life like a child, without passing judgment on what occurs. Mindfulness means focusing on one activity at a time, so forget multi-tasking! Staying in the present-tense can help promote relaxation and provide a buffer against anxiety and depression.
Practice it by focusing on your immediate surroundings. If you’re outdoors, enjoy the shape and colors of flowers, hear a bird’s call or consider a tree. In the mall, look at the details of a dress in the window, examine a piece of jewelry and focus on how it’s made, or window-shop for furniture, checking out every detail of pattern and style. As long as you can keep your mind focused on something in the present, stress will take a back seat.
6. Take an Attitude Break
Thirty seconds is enough time to shift your heart’s rhythm from stressed to relaxed, Rozman says. The way to do that: Engage your heart and your mind in positive thinking. Start by envisioning anything that triggers a positive feeling — a vision of your child or spouse, the image of your pet, that great piece of jewelry you’re saving up to buy, a memento from a vacation — whatever it is, conjuring up the thought will help slow breathing, relax tense muscles and put a smile on your face. Rozman says that creating a positive emotional attitude can also calm and steady your heart rhythm, contributing to feelings of relaxation and peace.
7. Try a Musical Detour
Music can calm the heartbeat and soothe the soul, the experts say. So, when the going gets rough, take a musical stress detour by aligning your heartbeat with the slow tempo of a relaxing song. And you might want to make that a classical tune. Research shows that listening to 30 minutes of classical music may produce calming effects equivalent to a two-hour nap.
8. Breathe Deeply
Feeling stressed evokes tense, shallow breathing, while calm is associated with relaxed breathing, says Michael Lee, author of Turn Stress into Bliss and founder of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy in Bristol, Vermont. So to turn tension into relaxation, he says, change the way you breathe.
Try this: Let out a big sigh, dropping your chest, and exhaling through gently pursed lips, says Joan Borysenko, PhD, director of Harvard’s Mind-Body Clinical Programs. Now imagine your low belly, or center, as a deep, powerful place. Feel your breath coming and going as your mind stays focused there. Inhale, feeling your entire belly, sides and lower back expand. Exhale, sighing again as you drop your chest, and feeling your belly, back and sides contract. Repeat 10 times, relaxing more fully each time.
Deep breathing for stress relief
With its focus on full, cleansing breaths, deep breathing is a simple, yet powerful, relaxation technique. It’s easy to learn, can be practiced almost anywhere, and provides a quick way to get your stress levels in check. Deep breathing is the cornerstone of many other relaxation practices, too, and can be combined with other relaxing elements such as aromatherapy and music. All you really need is a few minutes and a
place to stretch out.
How to practice deep breathing
The key to deep breathing is to breathe deeply from the abdomen, getting as much fresh air as possible in your lungs. When you take deep breaths from the abdomen, rather than shallow breaths from your upper chest, you inhale more oxygen. The more oxygen you get, the less tense, short of breath, and anxious you feel. So the next time you feel stressed, take a minute to slow down and breathe deeply:
• Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
• Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
• Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
• Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.
If you have a hard time breathing from your abdomen while sitting up, try lying on the floor. Put a small book on your stomach, and try to breathe so that the book rises as you inhale and falls as you exhale.
When your muscles are tense and you’ve no time to visit a pro, try this simple self-massage technique from Darrin Zeer, author of Lover’s Massage and Office Yoga. Relax, and travel straight to Zen-land.
Massage therapy for stress relief
Getting a massage provides deep relaxation, and as the muscles in your body relax, so does your overstressed mind. And you don’t have to visit the spa to enjoy the benefits of massage. There are many simple self-massage techniques you can use to relax and release stress.
Scalp Soother Place your thumbs behind your ears while spreading your fingers on top of your head. Move your scalp back and forth slightly by making circles with
your fingertips for 15-20 seconds.
Easy on the Eyes Close your eyes and place your ring fingers directly under your eyebrows, near the bridge of your nose. Slowly increase the pressure for 5-10
seconds, then gently release. Repeat 2-3 times.
Sinus Pressure Relief Place your fingertips at the bridge of your nose. Slowly slide your fingers down your nose and across the top of your cheekbones to the outside of
Shoulder massage Reach one arm across the front of your body to your opposite shoulder. Using a circular motion, press firmly on the muscle above your shoulder blade. Repeat on the other side.
The most common type of massage is Swedish massage, a soothing technique specifically designed to relax and energize. Another common type of massage is Shiatsu, also known as acupressure. In Shiatsu massage, therapists use their fingers to manipulate the body’s pressure points.
Although self-massage is good for stress relief, getting a massage from a professional massage therapist can be tremendously relaxing and more through then what you can do yourself. When booking a massage, try types like Swedish or Shiatsu, which promote overall relaxation. Deep tissue and sports massages are more aggressive. They often target specific areas and may leave you sore for a couple of days, making them less effective for relaxation and stress relief.
10. Progressive muscle relaxation for stress relief
Progressive muscle relaxation is another effective and widely used strategy for stress relief. It involves a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body.
With regular practice, progressive muscle relaxation gives you an intimate familiarity with what tension—as well as complete relaxation—feels like in different parts of the body. This awareness helps you spot and counteract the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies stress. And as your body relaxes, so will your mind. You can combine deep breathing with progressive muscle relaxation for an additional level of relief from stress.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Sequence
• Right foot
• Left foot
• Right calf
• Left calf
• Right thigh
• Left thigh
• Hips and buttocks
• Right arm and hand
• Left arm and hand
• Neck and shoulders
Lastly, the whole body
Most progressive muscle relaxation practitioners start at the feet and work their way up to the face. Also:
• Loosen your clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable.
• Take a few minutes to relax, breathing in and out in slow, deep breaths.
• When you’re relaxed and ready to start, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to focus on the way it feels.
• Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
• Relax your right foot. Focus on the tension flowing away and the way your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
• Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
• When you’re ready, shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
• Move slowly up through your body — legs, abdomen, back, neck, face — contracting and relaxing the muscle groups as you go.