Stress Reduction: Relax Like a Boss

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This guest blog is a guest post provided by John Parrott who runs Relax Like A Boss, a blog that teaches people how to reduce stress and relax in a busy world. It is a companion to the Voice America Interview with Belinda Gore and Mark Palmer, Building Resilience, A Key Foundation for Change on Voice America, Innovative Leaders Driving Thriving Organizations.

Why Use Relaxation Techniques?

We all feel stressed from time to time…

But did you know that this can be incredibly harmful?

The Journal of the American Medical Associationdiscovered that stress can increase the risks of cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment and even obesity.

But that’s how relaxation techniques can help. According to the American Psychological Association, relaxation techniques can dramatically improve your health long-term, as we’ll discuss below…

The Benefits Of Relaxation Techniques.

Here’s a few of the benefits of relaxation techniques…

– Reducing Depression And Anxiety.

Relaxation techniques can be effective in regulating symptoms of depression, anxiety, and many other mental illnesses.

When stressed, the volume of ‘happy’ chemicals in the brain such as dopamine and serotonin are reduced.

These are partly responsible for the feelings of sorrow and helplessness commonly associated with depression.

It has even been claimed that ‘meditation works just as well as antidepressants’, which seek to alter serotonin receptors and boost levels in the brain.

Simply practicing relaxation techniques for just half an hour a day can produce effects similar to those of antidepressants, without any side effects.

– Lowers Blood Pressure.

Although researchers aren’t certain of the exact mechanisms involved, chronic stress has been shown to raise blood pressure and worsen heart function.

High blood pressure can create a number of health problems, from insomnia to strokes and cardiac address.

Regulating stress levels with relaxation techniques can significantly reduce this risk.

In one study, patients that underwent just 10 minutes of slow breathing exercises saw a significant reduction in systolic blood pressure.

It is thought that the daily practicing of similar techniques can help to keep stress-related hypertension under control, improving overall health and wellbeing.

– Boosts Immune System.

Prolonged stress has been proven time and again to hamper the function of the immune system.

This is, in part, because the body is less able to fight inflammation when under high-anxiety conditions due to chemical changes in the body.

Simply by reducing overall stress levels, inflammation can be regulated and many diseases, from the common cold to rheumatoid arthritis, avoided.

Physical Relaxation Techniques.

1. Breathing Exercises.

Breathing exercises have been recognised for centuries as a powerful tool for relaxation.

From the towering mountains of Tibet to the humble office of a psychological therapist, breathing is an incredibly versatile, easily-accessible way to reach a state of calmness and serenity.

Breathing exercises, also known as diaphragmatic breathing exercises, involve taking long, deep breaths into the stomach rather than the chest.

  1. Find a comfortable position, seated or lying down.
  2. Breathe slowly into your stomach through the nose, keeping your chest still. It may help to place one hand over your abdomen and the other over your chest, ensuring that only your moves as you inhale.
  3. Exhale through pursed lips, your mouth relaxed. Release tension from all parts of your body as you breathe out.
  4. Continue for 5-10 minutes, 2-3 times daily.

This exercise isn’t limited to the yoga mat, the quietness of your bedroom or a social situation. It can be practiced anywhere, at any time.

Whenever you begin to feel stressed, simply turn your focus to your breathing and continue until calmness is restored.

2. Progress Muscle Relaxation.

Based upon the premise that muscle tension is the body’s response to poor mental health, progressive muscle relaxation has been known to significantly improve symptoms of stress and anxiety.

This technique involves identifying tension in individual muscles by contracting them. This tension is then released slowly and under control.

Practicing muscle relaxation can provide a wealth of psychological benefits, from improving mental health to boosting physical performance.

It is also suggested to lead to increased blood flow, boosting local metabolism and, in turn, reducing pain and muscle spasms.

Progressive muscle relaxation should be practiced whilst lying down. Choose somewhere free from distractions and where you can lie and stretch out comfortably.

  1. Breathe in slowly, tensing the first muscle group you choose – but not to the point of pain. Hold this contraction for 5-10 seconds.
  2. Exhale, relaxing your muscles fully and quickly.
  3. Relax for a further 10-15 seconds before moving onto other muscles. Notice any changes in your state of mind and body as your practice deepns.
  4. Continue to work through the rest of your body, paying attention to every sensation.
  5. Finish by counting to 10, in complete stillness, and bring your awareness back to the present moment.

3. Humming.

The concept of humming for relaxation brings to mind pictures of monks perched atop tall hills, monotonous notes being held for several seconds at a time in a state of total serenity.

In reality, the practice of humming isn’t quite as mystical or spiritual as it is stigmatized to be. It’s an incredibly simple and effective relaxation technique.

Humming can:

  • Dissolve worries by calming the mind.
  • Give time for reflection.
  • Stimulate creativity.
  • Help bring about feelings of peace.
  • Relieve stress and anxiety.

Simply find a quiet place to sit, relax the body, inhale and let out a long ‘hmm’ sound as you exhale.

When you run out of breath, breathe in and repeat. Continue this exercise for 10-15 minutes.

4. Yoga.

Yoga is not only a powerful way to reduce stress and anxiety, but also an excellent form of exercise for the body.

It’s a practice that’s been used for millennia, its roots set in schools of thought like Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.

Yoga is an incredibly relaxing practice. As is written in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, ‘Yoga is the suppression of the activities of the mind.’

Many studies have even recognised yoga as an effective intervention for illnesses such as asthma, schizophrenia and heart disease.

Here’s an outline of a basic yoga practice. Be sure to explore the varying branches of yoga, constructing a plan the best suits your physical capabilities and preferences.

  • Begin with a short meditation or humming exercise to calm the mind.
  • Move from warming up with sun salutations to a mixture of standing poses, backbends and forward bends. Be sure to focus on all muscles of the body, from the neck to the feet.
  • End your practice with shavasana, lying still on the floor.
  • Take these final minutes of your practice to relax fully, letting the business of your mind settle with body.

5. T’ai Chi.

The Chinese martial art of t’ai chi is known not only for its value in defense training, but also its numerous health benefits.

T’ai chi has been reported as being beneficial in treating a number of ailments, including Parkinson’s and diabetes. Furthermore, the art of of t’ai chi has been proven to have beneficial effects against a range of mental disorders.

T’ai chi has also been measured to reduce levels of cortisol in the blood, increase endorphins and reduce levels of inflammatory markers in the body.

The practice of t’ai chi is centered around improving the flow of ‘chi’, the Chinese concept of intangible energy. It is an incredibly effective way to calm the mind, practice mindfulness, and reconnect with the here and now.

6. Exercise.

Physical exercise is known to stimulate the release of endorphins – hormones that interact with the brain and trigger positive bodily feelings, similar to those associated with morphine.

For this reason, exercise is known for its ability to alleviate the symptoms of depression, chronic stress, and other mental illnesses.

‘There’s good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people’, says James Blumenthal, PhD of Duke University.

Based on a number of studies, Blumenthal concludes that physical exercise is comparable to antidepressants for patients with major stress and depressive disorders.

Exercise doesn’t have to be grueling and painful. Even light, steady walks can have significant effects in reducing stress and anxiety.

Relaxation Techniques for the Mind.

7. Meditation.

Meditation has been proven time and again to have significant value in boosting not only mental health, but also the function of the immune system.

This is, in part, due to telomere lengthening.

Short caps at the end of DNA called telomeres work to shield our genes from damage. Without telomeres, DNA is exposed to harm from our external environment, wreaking havoc on our bodies and, in many cases, causing cancer and other diseases.

It has been proven in several controlled studiesthat meditation can actually lengthen telomeres in the cells of our immune system.

The result? A body that is not only mentally well, but incredibly resilient to disease, too.

Not only this, but meditation is also incredibly effective in reducing stress and promoting feelings of relaxation.

In one study conducted by Harvard, just an average of 27 minutes of daily meditation over 8 weeks produced profound changes in the brain.

The amygdala, an area of the brain linked with anxiety and stress, was shown to reduce in size. Participants also reported significant improvements in their overall wellbeing.

Here is a brief overview of the practice:

  1. Take a comfortable seat somewhere quiet and free from distraction.
  2. Begin to breathe deeply into the base of the stomach.
  3. Allow your mind to quieten, holding your focus on the breath.
  4. When you find yourself lost in thought, gently return to your breathing.
  5. Continue for 10+ minutes daily.

8. Listen To Nature Sounds.

‘Looking at beauty in the world, is the first step of purifying the mind,’ – Amit Ray.

No method of relaxation is quite as overlooked as the simple practice of listening to nature; the sounds of birds singing, rain pattering on the tops of trees, wind whistling, waterfalls…

When you find your mind overrun with anxiety or by stress, simply reconnect with nature.

Step outside, take a deep breath, and embrace the modest beauty of the world around you.

9. Get Into A Routine.

Stress, anxiety, and many forms of emotional turmoil can arise from a lack of order in our day-to-day lives.

Whether it’s being frequently late for meetings or having an untidy bedroom, seemingly harmless areas of our lives can mount up and cause us a great deal of discomfort if left unchecked.

Simply establishing a daily or weekly routine, built to maximise productivity and wellbeing, can have tremendous effects on overall wellbeing.

Take some time out of your day to assess your daily habits.

Ask questions. Do you do enough of the things you love? Does your everyday life lack productivity? Are you acting in accordance with your goals?

When you have considered the areas of your daily routine that could benefit from a little TLC, put together a plan of action to eradicate unnecessary stressors from your life.

10. Listen To Music.

Music has long been recognised for its powerful impact on mood and wellbeing.

However, for the purposes of entertainment, music has become incredibly commonplace in society. It’s everywhere, from the car radio to television to the supermarket.

Rarely do we give music our complete, undivided attention.

Simply sitting and listening to a piece of music in full, free from all other distractions, can be an incredibly relaxing and therapeutic technique.

Choose a peaceful, soothing track or album to enjoy. Perhaps light some candles and enjoy the melody with a hot mug of tea in hand.

Then spend as many seconds, minutes or hours as you please tuning into the sounds you hear, and nothing else.

11. Practice Mindfulness.

Many forms of emotional turmoil result from a lack of mindfulness.

Mindfulness, at its core, is the simple act of focusing our awareness on the present moment, allowing the busy mind to relax into the here and now.

Many causes of day-to-day stress are chained to events of the past or future. Worrying about deadlines, the safety of loved ones, and any event that lies outside of this very moment can be the cause for a great detail of unrest.

By returning our focus to this moment, we free ourselves of unnecessary unhappiness and learn to appreciate every second of being alive.

When you find yourself becoming stressed or anxious, begin to expand your awareness to the this moment and all it contains.

Tune into the sensations inside your body, the sounds, sights and smells around you and the current situation you find yourself in.

12. Self-Hypnosis.

Self-hypnosis, or hypnotherapy, can be a highly successful way to reduce stress and clear the mind of unwanted thoughts.

The foundation of hypnosis is hinged upon the theories of world-renowned psychologist, Sigmund Freud.

Freud suggested that there are three components to consciousness; the conscious mind, the subconscious mind, and the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind is the focus of hypnotherapy.

It is believed that the unconscious mind contains all thoughts, values and ideas that we cannot access willingly. Instead, it influences our behaviour and emotions without us knowing.

By tapping into the subconscious mind through hypnosis, individuals and therapists attempt to rewrite its contents and improve mental health by deleting negative thinking patterns.

Here’s how to practice self-hypnosis:

(Before you begin your practice, create 2-3 statements that you wish to revisit during your practice. Theoretically, these statements will be planted into your subconscious once a state of hypnosis is reached. Examples mind include ‘I am stress free’, ‘I am not my thoughts’, ‘I am relaxed at work’.)

  1. Begin by feeling physically relaxed and comfortable. Put on comfortable clothes, perhaps practice some yoga or take a warm bath, and enter your practice feeling relaxed and at ease.
  2. Identify an object to focus on. Ideally, choose an object that will require you to look slightly upwards or directly in front of you.
  3. Attempt to clear your mind of thoughts. Focus intently on your chosen object, allowing all other thoughts to gently fade away. This may take some time, and it isn’t easy. If your mind wanders, simply return it to the object.
  4. Expand your awareness to your eyes, feeling them become heavier and slowly closing.
  5. Relax your muscles further with every exhalation. Slow your breathing as you settle deeper with each out-breath.
  6. Visualise an object swaying slowly back and forth. This may be a pendulum swinging or a pocket watch moving from side to side – anything with a slow, regular pace.
  7. Begin to count slowly down from 10 in your head. Tell yourself that you are relaxing deeper and deeper after every number.
  8. Believe and remind yourself that, when your countdown is complete, you will have reached a hypnotic state.
  9. Once in a state of hypnosis, return to the statements you prepared before your practice. Focus on each, visualising it intently and repeating it over and over, maintaining a state of total relaxation.
  10. Slowly count back up to 10. As you progress, become more energetic and alert; reverse the process you used before to reach a state of hypnosis.
  11. When you reach 10, return to your day with a renewed sense of calm.

Social Relaxation Techniques.

13 Practice Gratitude.

Taking just a few moments out of our day to practice gratitude, cultivating appreciation for what we have, is an effective way to reduce stress and encourage feelings of contentment.

When you find yourself consumed in thought and emotion, simply turn your focus to that which you’re grateful for.

That may be family or friends, your job, health, freedom, or even just life itself. Often these modest blessings are overlooked. Reminding ourselves of all that we are fortunate to have can bring us happiness and peace of mind.

14. Reflect On What Makes You Happy.

Humans have a troublesome propensity to focus on the negative of every situation. And there’s a good reason for this.

Many years ago, pessimism served a handy survival mechanism. Our cave-dwelling ancestors developed a tendency to identify problems and hazards rather than contemplating that which made them happy.

As a result, they’d strive for more – more food, better shelter, larger families, and these desires would serve the purpose of helping our species to survive.

Those that sought more increased their chances of survival. Thus, they passed their character traits through many generations.

What was once an evolutionary blessing, however, now manifests itself as a scourge on our mental health.

It can be easy to focus on the negative aspects of our lives; to desire more than we currently have and become disheartened and stressed as a result.

Simply switching your focus to the things that make you happy, whether that be a delicious food, cherished memories or loving family members, can work wonders on our stress levels.

When plagued by pessimism, make a conscious effort to list off 5 things that make you happy. If your mind reverts back to negativity, recenter your awareness on that which fills you with joy.

15. Random Acts Of Kindness.

Executing random acts of kindness is a quick, easy and extremely powerful way to reduce stress and promote feelings of joy and contentment.

Here are some examples:

  • Complimenting a stranger.
  • Buying a meal for a homeless person.
  • Expressing your love to a friend.
  • Donating to charity.
  • Smiling at passersby in the street.

These small, seemingly trivial acts of kindness have the power to lift your own mood whilst brightening other people’s day.

How To Make The Most Out Of These Techniques.

Here’s a few ways to make the most out of these relaxation techniques…

– Be Persistent. 

While a one-off relaxation session won’t do you any harm, in order to feel the full benefits of your practice you should aim to engage in it as often as possible.

– Be Consistent. 

In order to be persistent, it helps to be consistent with your timings.

Whether it be yoga every weeknight, meditating at 7am every morning or writing in a journal before bed every evening, consistency will ensure that you stay committed to your practice and set aside enough time to engage in it.

– Find The Techniques That Work For You.  

T’ai chi may not be for you, and that’s okay. Finding relaxation techniques that you actually enjoy will increase the chances that you stay committed to your habits.

– Optimise Your Environment. 

Practicing these techniques in a quiet, peaceful setting with minimal distractions will ensure that you get the most out of the time you spend.

 

Please check out the interview with Belinda and Mark giving more in-depth information about building resilience.

As a reader of this blog and listener to the interviews, please consider enrolling in one of the innovative leadership online leader development program. For additional tools, we recommend taking leadership assessments, using the Innovative Leadership Fieldbook and Innovative Leaders Guide to Transforming Organizations, and adding coaching through our online innovative leadership program. We also offer several workshops to help you build these skills.