Get Tense!

Welcome to the third installment of my overcoming stress series!

It may seem ironic that the title to this post is “Get Tense”, when the whole idea in overcoming stress is to alleviate the tension in our bodies. However, deliberately tensing your muscles is the whole purpose of the relaxation exercise I am going to teach you. It is a “Progressive Relaxation Exercise” which enables you to identify the difference between your muscles feeling tense and feeling relaxed. 

Once we are consciously aware that a certain part of our body is tense, then we work on relaxing that part. So, what exactly is “Progressive Relaxation”? It is an exercise in which you deliberately tense each muscle group of your body and then quickly relax it. The goal is for you to feel your body completely relaxed at the end of the exercise. It should take around 15 minutes. If you have never done this type of exercise, then it is recommended that you do it twice a day (2 x 15 minute sessions) for two weeks. 

Here is how to do Progressive Relaxation (tense each muscle group for 5 seconds and then relax for 20 seconds before moving onto the next group) :

  1. Wear loose clothing and sit in a comfortable position. Close your eyes if you like. Take in several deep, relaxing breaths and visualise your body starting to relax. 
  2. Curl you toes as tight as you can and then relax them. Tense your feet and ankles as tight as possible and then relax them. Now tense your calf muscles and knees, then relax them. Finally tense your thighs and buttocks and relax them. 
  3. Make tights fists with your hands and fingers and then relax them. Tense your forearms and elbows, then relax. Do the same with your biceps and shoulders.
  4. Tense up your back as tight as you can, then relax. Tighten your chest and then relax. Do the same with your abdomen.
  5. Tighten your neck, feel it getting tense and then relax. Scrunch up your eyes as tight as possible and then relax. Tense up your jaw and then relax it. Tense up your forehead and relax. 
  6. Now just sit and feel how relaxed your body is. Does it feel different than it did before you started the exercise? How does it feel different? Explore the sensation. Become familiar with it so that you can recognise when your body is completely relaxed as opposed to tense. Don’t rush through the exercise. Take your time and get to know the difference between when you are tense and relaxed.
  7. When you are ready, slowly open your eyes. 

Please be careful when doing this exercise as you do not want to hurt yourself (I will not be held liable if you do). 

Once you become proficient at Progressive Relaxation you may find that you do it during the day when you feel yourself becoming tense, and it will not have to take the 15 minutes that this initial exercise does. You may sense tension in your neck and so you do progressive relaxation with your neck only. It could be your shoulders or stomach tensing up due to stress and so you concentrate on those areas only. Whatever area it is, just remember…Get Tense and then Relax!!

 

Breathe…Relax!!

Hi everyone!

Welcome to the latest installment of my series on how to identify and overcome stress. In my previous post I discussed a technique that you can use to identify any areas of tension in your body. Now that you know how to find where you are tense it is time to learn how to relax! 

Notice how this post is titled “Breathe…Relax!” and not the other way around? (Relax..Breathe!) That is because breathing helps our bodies to relax. When it comes to breathing there is a “good” breathing and a “not so good” breathing (I was going to say “bad”, but at least you are still breathing!). There are two ways in which we breathe: diaphragmatic breathing and chest breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing is the “good” breathing. When we do this kind of breathing we are in inhaling deep into our lungs, oxygen is then taken into our blood system and carbon dioxide exhaled. Whilst sleeping, it is diaphragmatic breathing that we are doing. It is deep, slow breathing which assists our bodies to relax. 

Chest breathing is the “not so good” breathing. It is shallow and does not utilise the full capacity of our lungs. You may not even know that you breathe into your chest only! This type of breathing can lead to hyperventilation. Anxiety and panic attacks can result in chest breathing. 

So, how do you know whether you are breathing from your diaphragm or your chest? (Take comfort all you chest breathers, you can learn how to become a diaphragmatic breather by doing the exercise I include later in this post.) To determine whether you breath from your chest or your diaphragm, do the following exercise:

  1. Lie on you back on the floor. Place one hand on your abdomen (just above your waist) and place your other hand on your chest.
  2. Take a few breaths and notice whether your chest rises and drops with your breathing. Or was it your abdomen that rose and dropped as you breathed?

If you noticed mainly your chest rising and falling in this exercise, then your are a “chest breather.” If it was your abdomen that rose and fell, then you are a “diaphragmatic breather.” 

Diaphragmatic breathing allows our bodies to relax. It removes tension in our muscles. If you have determined, from the above exercise, that you are a “chest breather” you can become a “diaphragmatic breather” by doing this exercise. Also, for all of you who have found out that you breath from your diaphragm, there is no reason why you can not do this exercise too! 

  1. Take a long, deep breath through your nostrils. Feel the air entering deep into your lungs. Feel your lungs expanding to their full capacity. Focus on the air entering your lungs. How does it feel as you inhale? Can you feel the air descending into your lungs? What sensations do you feel as you breath in. Become aware of these. Explore the sensations. 
  2. Hold your breath for a couple of seconds.
  3. Exhale through your mouth. How does the air feel as it leaves your body? Can you feel your lungs? What sensations are there as you breath out?
  4. Repeat this exercise for about 5 minutes. Inhale through your nostrils and exhale through your mouth. Focus on your breath. 

What you are doing is taking full advantage of your lungs and allowing a maximum flow of oxygen into your body. You will be amazed at how relaxed you will feel! It is also important to focus on your breath. Why? Because any thoughts that had that caused the tension can not be entertained whilst your mind is focused solely on your breath.  

It may take a bit of practice until you are proficient at “diaphragmatic breathing”. Whenever you feel yourself tense up (such times are when we are susceptible to “chest breathing”), stop, breath and relax! 

 

 

Where am I tense? Time for a Body Scan!

Hi folks! 

Welcome to the first installment on how to recognise when you are stressed and what to do about it! My aim is to provide you all, over the next few weeks, with tools and techniques to help you release stress and relax. Remember how I mentioned in my last post that, when we are facing stress, our body automatically goes into “fight or flight” mode? Our muscles get tight and we are ready to take on the threat before us. This is good and part of our evolutionary programming. It allowed our ancestors to survive threats from animals, attacks from other people and also environmental threats. 

The bad part is when our bodies can not relax. That is when the damage starts. In my last post I have already pointed out how we can suffer from physiological problems as a result of our inability to reach homeostasis (i.e. a state of relaxation after a threat is no longer perceived). We need to know if our bodies are still tense and, if so, we need to know how to ease that tension. So the first step is to become aware of any tension that we may have. This is where the Body Scan exercise comes in!

Many of us pay little attention to our bodies and to what our bodies are telling us. We are too focused on the external world and take little time to stop and just listen to our bodies. Indeed, Western culture pays little heed to the internal world of the individual. It is time for us to stop, take time out (even if it is 15 – 20 minutes a day), and figure out what our bodies are saying!  It is time for some introspection and self-awareness!

The Body Scan sounds exactly like what it is: a body scan! In this exercise you take time to scan your body to see if there is any tension in it, then you relax that area. The exercise is aimed at making you become more aware of where you may have tension. I do this exercise constantly. Yesterday I had a stressful situation and so I did a Body Scan and realised that I had tension in my jaw, my shoulders and my stomach was tight! That is when I started to deal with the tension! How did I deal with it? This is where I show you how to do a Body Scan to remove tension.

The Body Scan

  1. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Take several deep breaths and close your eyes.
  2. Starting at you toes (you can choose which foot you want to start with), become aware of them. How do they feel? Become aware of your foot, your ankle, your calf muscle, your knee and then your thigh. Is there any tension in any of these parts? Feel the tension. Where is it? Take a breath and visualise the breath like a wave of relaxation flowing to  that area and dissolving the tension. Repeat the process with the opposite foot and leg.
  3. Concentrate on each of your fingers (again whatever hand you start with is up to you). Now become aware of your hand, your wrist, your forearm, your elbow, your upper arm. Breathe into the areas where there is tension and visualise the tension being washed away by waves of relaxation. Repeat the exercise with the other arm.
  4. Become aware of your waist, your stomach, your chest, your back, your shoulders, your neck. Can you feel tension in any area? Wash the tension away by breathing into those areas. How does your neck feel? Your throat? Your face: cheeks, chin, lips, nose, forehead? Can you sense any tension in the back of your head? How about the top of your head? Breathe in waves of relaxation to wash away the tension.
  5. Take a few minutes just to truly feel your body. Feel how relaxed it is. Enjoy the feeling of relaxation. Become familiar with it so that from now on you can recognise when you are relaxed as opposed to feeling tense. When you are ready slowly open your eyes. 

That is how to do a Body Scan! There is no set time limit as to how long one should do this exercise for. The whole idea is for you to become familiar with tension in your body that you may not have realised was there. That is the first step toward combating the effects of stress on your body. You can even do this exercise during the day. When you feel stressed, do a Body Scan  to see what parts of your body are feeling tense (you do not necessarily have to sit or lie down to do a quick Body Scan). You may be surprised to learn that different stressors (a stressor is anything that causes you to feel stress) can affect different parts of your body! 

Have fun! 

 

 

 

Why am I so STRESSED!?!

Stress. It’s an unavoidable part of life. Every day we face someone or something that will cause us stress (a traffic jam, moving house, getting married, winning the lottery, a noisy neighbour, the boss being a grouch), but is stress all bad? The answer to the question is “No” with a qualified “Yes”.

When we face a situation in which we feel threatened, we experience a physiological reaction: we tense up, our hear beats fast and pumps blood to our extremities (i.e. our arms and legs), we get butterflies in our stomachs and we become more alert. This is the good side of stress. It is the standard “Fight or Flight” mode as we perceive whether something or someone is a threat to our safety and well-being. This is the basics of self-preservation. Once we deem something to be not a threat, or the threat passes, then we feel our bodies relaxing (the technical term for this is “homeostasis” where our bodies reach an equlibirium)

The danger lies in our inability to relax once the threat has passed. As we face more and more stressful situations, we can find that it affects our ability to relax. We may find that we do not reach the level of relaxation that we used to when faced with stress (that is we no longer return to the same “homeostatic level” as we used to). This is the bad side of stress. When our bodies and our mind can not relax, then it leads mental illness (worry, depression, anxiety) and also it affects our physical health (our immune system becomes weaker, we age quicker and we are prone to die at a younger age). 

There is good news though, you can learn to relax and you can also learn how to cope under stressful conditions! There are many different techniques that can be used: breathing techniques, body-scanning, deep relaxation, meditation and visualisation just to name a few. I use all these techniques. When I find that I am becoming stressed, I start doing breathing exercises. The other week I was facing a stressful situation and so I did some mediation with a combination of deep relaxation. Trust me! It works and over the next few weeks I will give you a variety of different techniques and exercises that you can use in order to de-stress, relax and enjoy life!