Back in a time before the internet was actually useful and safe for a child to explore unsupervised (pre-parental controls in the 1990s), I liked to read encyclopedias and other reference books for fun. I admire little Mallie’s patience and concentration, as the thought of doing that today is incredibly boring, despite my preference for non-fiction books.
My parents had a medical reference book that taught how to treat various minor aches and illnesses at home. Even as a child, I was drawn to the stress management section. In retrospect, I suppose this should have been a red flag about my chronic anxiety issues that weren’t discovered for another 15 years, but I was a generally curious kid.
I’ve learned a lot about stress management from various workshops and literature I obtained in grad school and in therapy…oh, and from the internet. But these basic techniques that I integrated as a child and teenager are still relevant and effective today.
1. Deep Breathing
Have you ever taken a yoga class?
Most often the class will start with a focus on your breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Breathe deeply.
Scientifically, there is a link between controlling your breath and controlling your otherwise involuntary sympathetic nervous system, which impacts things like your blood pressure and digestion.
When you get anxious or nervous, your body begins to react the way it was designed to: tensing up, producing shallow breaths, sweating, etc. This was a great result when we got nervous because we were being chased by a mastadon thousands of years ago, but now it’s often an overreaction (physically, at least) to a heavy workload or stressful situation at home.
It’s more difficult to control all these responses at once than it is to control your breathing. As your breath calms, it communicates to the rest of your body that everything is ok, producing the proper neurochemical signals to relax the muscles and lower the heart beat.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Wait, weren’t we just talking about how difficult it is to relax your muscles?
In fact, it is believed that the reason for knots in your muscles–you know, the ones you need deep tissue massages to get out?–is an inability of those muscles to relax and deconstrict.
Awareness is an amazing thing. The idea behind progressive muscle relaxation (steps included in that link) is that by making your body aware of the tension, you allow the muscle to relax.
Obviously this will only work for muscles that you can control (I, for one, can’t wiggle my ears or tighten my ankle muscles), and it will take some time for your body to adapt to this mix of physical and mental therapy.
3. Mindfulness Meditation
I feel like I talk about meditation a lot on The Irrational Mind. But I don’t think I talk about it nearly enough here. Meditation is beneficial to everyone, not just people dealing with mental health issues.
Think this is new age gobbledygook? Think again! Google “meditation science” and look at all the results. Hit up the Google Scholar search as well, and see that meditation is an active area of research in the scientific community.
There are so many forms of meditation, but mindfulness meditation is likely one of the least intentionally spiritual methods and the most straightforward. Of course, there are also multiple forms of mindfulness meditation as well, but let’s keep things simple for now.
Ready for your instructions?
- Breathe. Focus on your breath entering and leaving your body.
- Notice your thoughts
- Don’t dwell on any one thought, just acknowledge it and move on
- Notice your body
- Release any tension you notice
- Get distracted? Refocus on your breath.
Bam. You just meditated. No need to sit cross-legged, clean your chakras, wear yoga pants, or find a serene beach.
This isn’t something that you need to commit half an hour a day to; research has shown that even 10 minutes of meditation each day can be beneficial to how your brain handles stress and anxiety.
What other simple stress mediating techniques do you like to use?