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Using relaxation techniques to manage stress

By Sakuni Weerasinghe

Raise your hand if you’re experiencing

  • Headaches
  • Tiredness
  • Upset stomach/acid reflux
  • Lack of appetite
  • Sleep problems
  • A racing heart
  • Irritability

Given that you do not have a medical condition that could bring about the above signs, chances are you’re experiencing all of the above due to stress. If you look more closely, you may even be able to acknowledge it as stress associated with the effects of the pandemic. The uncertainty, the anxiety over whether you may be infected, work-life boundary violations, maybe even the claustrophobic nature of being restricted to your room, among many other effects of the curfew and/or the ongoing pandemic can bring about significant stress. 

In perceiving stress, we immediately switch to what is commonly referred to as the fight-or-flight mode. In this mode, our bodies are prepared to either fight or flee from situations of impending danger irrespective of calibre. The key is the perception of the event as a stressor. This explains why we experience the sensations of stress when we run into a stressor that is physically present in the surroundings, such as a vicious snake, and also when we run into a series of thoughts about imminent dangers, such as ruminating on the possibility of being infected by the virus. Hence, our body responds through the fight-or-flight mode by increasing blood pressure, increasing heart rate, rapid breathing, and slowing down digestive functioning, thereby pushing us to protect ourselves from perceived danger or stress. 

The fight-or-flight mode is a natural response that has ensured our survival from physical threats throughout the course of history. However, if we are identifying multiple situational stressors that do not pose a direct threat to our survival, we are constantly keeping ourselves in a state of physiological arousal, i.e., a prolonged state of stress. In a state of chronic stress, your immunity functions are lowered, which increases the propensity for you to be more susceptible to and/or worsen physical illnesses such as high blood pressure, gastritis, and dermatological conditions such as psoriasis. Chronic stress can also lead to the development of more serious mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety. It is clear then why we ought to learn strategies to manage stress. 

The “off” button to this fight-or-flight mode resides in the relaxation response. This is naturally brought about in the absence of perceived danger. In this mode, the body swings towards a state of physiological relaxation, with blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and digestive functioning returning to its normal state. The best part though is that the relaxation response can be induced through various techniques even during moments of stress. 

So let’s take a look at a few:

Diaphragmatic breathing

More simply called “belly breathing”, this is an effective breathing exercise that can bring about the relaxation response. Here’s how you could do it: 

  • Sit or lie on a bed (or any other comfortable, flat surface). If you are lying down, keep your knees bent. You can use a pillow to support your head and legs 
  • Place one hand on your upper chest and the other one on your belly (just below the ribcage)
  • Breathe in through your nose, slowly and deeply until your tummy protrudes
  • Then gently release by breathing out through the mouth through pursed lips
  • As you do this, note how the hand on your chest remains still, while the hand on your belly moves with each breath in and out

You can practise this for five to 10 minutes each day, preferably when you wake up in the morning and before you go to bed. 

Progressive muscle relaxation

Muscle tension is part and parcel of the fight-or-flight mode. With prolonged stress, you would be carrying around a lot of muscle tension. An effective way to bring about a sense of relaxation to your mind is to start with relaxing your body through the release of pent-up tension in your muscles. This practise involves tensing and relaxing different muscle groups of the body and being mindful of the difference of sensations. Over time, you would be quick to become aware of any tension within the body, thereby allowing you to let go of that tension immediately through this method. Here’s how you could practise it:

  • Sit on a comfortable chair or lie down. Keep your eyes closed in order to ward off any distractions which allows you to keep your focus 
  • Take a few deep breaths using the diaphragmatic breathing technique (above) 
  • If you’re seated, you could focus on your senses; on the feeling of your feet on the ground. Feel the muscles in your feet and begin tensing them, beginning with curling your toes and pressing your heels to the ground. Gently release them after a few seconds, stretching them
  • Work your way up towards the head by tightening and relaxing muscles, one muscle group at a time 
  • Tighten the muscles in your calves and thighs and release gently 
  • Next, move towards your glutes, your back, and then towards your abdomen, and proceed to your shoulders, arms, and hands, and tighten each muscle group and relax after a few seconds
  • Finally, proceed to your neck and facial muscles, tightening them for a few seconds and then relaxing
  • Scan for any areas in your body where you still hold tension. Notice the tension and relax, taking gentle breaths as you do 
  • Take a few more deep breaths to complete the exercise

Make sure you continue gentle breathing as you go through this exercise. 

Guided imagery

We all have a happy place; a place where we feel most calm and at peace with ourselves. Guided imagery is the practice of visiting this happy place at times of stress in order to bring about relaxation. While it is usually practised with a professional, you could also try this on your own, guided by your own imagination and your thoughts. This happy place I refer to can be a real place you may have visited and known, such as a beach in Mirissa, or a forest trail that you may have come up with on your own. Let’s take a look at how it works.

  • Sit or lay down in a comfortable position. Close your eyes in an effort to not get distracted
  • Take a few deep breaths using the diaphragmatic breathing technique (above) 
  • Start to vividly imagine your place of calm; what sounds you hear, what things you see, what smells you can sense. If you’re imagining a beach, vividly imagine the bird sounds, the sounds of waves crashing, the smell of salty water, the aquamarine hues of the water, the hot sand below your feet, and the coldness of the waves that appease them. Focus on all the details of the place you are imagining. Feel a sense of peace wash over you 
  • Stay with this image as long as you like and bask in the feeling of peace. Once you are ready to come back, do so gently by taking your time 
  • Take a few deep breaths to complete the exercise

 

PHOTOS Lososopsc, Green Child, Lara Physiotherapy, George Watts, Mindtools.com