A Primer on Stress Release and Inner Peace

Does it bother you that you have to schedule time to relax? Think about it. “Oh, I can’t wait to [something] so I can finally relax!” Now replace [something] with get home from work, go on a vacation, pass my exams, take a shower, hit the gym,  dump my boyfriend etc. That kinda seems upside down. Why not feel relaxed most of the time?

There are a million techniques you can use to let go of stress and achieve inner calm. Some of those are wrapped in their respective belief systems and religious dogma, but I’ll try to present them in a secular, down to earth way. Also, I’ll pack this article full of resources where you can look into each specific thing in more detail.

Physical relaxation

Duh! I know, it’s common sense, but humor me, it’s easy to miss some of the finer points. Most of the time parts of our bodies are under pressure or experience unnecessary muscle tightness. There’s no actual reason for it, it’s more of a nervous response or you think you’re more comfortable that way.

To start relaxing, first uncross your hands, feet, arms and legs. There’s a high chance you’re holding your body weight on one side, by favoring one leg while standing, resting your elbow on the desk/armrest while sitting, or lying on your side. You’ll relax more fully if you put your body in balance i.e. if you look in a mirror, your left and right side should be in a symmetrical position. Put your hands in your lap or beside your body if you’re standing or lying down.

Some people clench their jaw or press their tongue to the roof of their mouth when they’re anxious. Or they push their feet into the ground (while sitting) or put their chin/cheek on their hand. That’s unnecessary pressure and you should instead lean back and stretch your legs.

Breathing

We humans have developed this annoying unconscious habit of shallow and fast breathing, pulling air into our chest.  That’s far from optimal, and all mammals breathe with their abdomen instead of their chest. Close your eyes and pay attention to your breath. It’s easier to practice this lying down. Put one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen. Which area is expanding when you inhale? Try pulling the air in your stomach instead of your chest, so only the hand on your abdomen is rising.

Maybe it takes a bit of practice, but abdominal breathing (also called diaphragmatic breathing) is much more relaxing. Inhale through your nose, expand your abdominal area, and relax. You don’t have to exhale intentionally, your body will release the air naturally when you relax. Play with this for a while. Do ten breaths. Hold your breath for a few seconds after you inhale or exhale. Feel your body loosen up and get heavier after each exhalation.

If you think you don’t have time for deep breathing because you’re oh, so busy, just do two breaths. That’s it. Close your eyes and do two full, deep, belly expanding breaths. Try to relax your whole body during each exhale. Whatever you’re doing, wherever you’re going, you can find an excuse to stop and do two breaths.

As funny as it sounds, breathing is underrated. If anyone reading this is a fan of Leo Babauta, author of Zenhabits, he often stresses (hehe) the importance of focusing on the breath for our well-being. Check out his archive. His work was the inspiration for a big portion of this article.

Progressive relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a simple technique developed by Edmund Jacobson and modified and expanded on by other researchers (easy to Google). It’s a two step process in which you systematically tense a specific muscle group, and then release the tension while noticing how your muscles feel when relaxing. If you’re anxious throughout the day, you might not even notice that you’re tense in some part of your body.

[Disclaimer: if you have a serious injury, muscle spasms or back pain, do not practice PMR before consulting your physician. At no point should you feel intense pain while doing these exercises. Tense your muscles gently but deliberately. Please don’t be stupid. If you’re not careful and hurt yourself, I’ll be very sad.]

To get a feel for this process, start by sitting in a couch or comfortable chair. Lying down is also fine. Take a slow, deep breath and clench your left fist. Hold for 5 seconds, really noticing what a tight fist feels like. Now exhale and release the tension while focusing on the tightness leaving your muscles. The most important part of the exercise is to notice the difference between tension and relaxation. Be careful not to tense any other muscle groups.

For a full body relaxation sequence, start with the feet and work your way up, tensing and relaxing individual muscle groups in your legs, arms, torso, shoulders, neck and face. Alternatively, you can reverse the order and start with your forehead. Here’s an example:

  • Left foot (curl your toes downwards)
  • Lower leg + foot (pull your toes upwards and tighten the calf muscles)
  • Entire leg (squeeze your thigh while doing the above for lower leg and foot)

Repeat on your right side.

  • Left Hand (clench fist)
  • Entire arm (pull your fist towards your shoulder, tightening the bicep)

Again, repeat on your right side.

  • Buttocks (tighten your glutes)
  • Stomach (suck your stomach in)
  • Chest (tighten by taking a breath and expanding)
  • Neck and shoulders (pull your shoulders toward your ears)
  • Mouth (open your mouth wide enough to strech your jaw muscles)
  • Eyes (close your eyelids tightly shut)
  • Forehead (raise your eyebrows as high as you can)

With practice, you’ll be able to relax while focusing only on the bigger muscle groups (like your whole arm or leg). It could be helpful to develop a cue word or phrase that you tell yourself while exhaling (like “relax”, “let go” or something similar).

In time you’ll be able to skip the tensing step and just will your muscles to relax. Using your cue phrase or visualization can help. I like to imagine muscle tension as black vapor that leaves through the pores of my skin when I exhale. At this point you’ll probably be able to quickly scan your body with your awareness (check out the next section for more details) and simply release any tension you feel.

If you have trouble falling asleep at night, this is gonna be the shit. I’m usually knocked out before I get to my waist. It relaxes you physiologically and psychologically, because focusing on relaxing specific muscle groups takes your attention away from any racing thoughts that keep you awake. But keep in mind, this may not work if you had 5 cups of coffee that day or a 4-hour nap in the afternoon. 😀

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a big buzzword right now (with good reason) and evidence is stacking up on it’s benefits. Let’s look at the definition:

noun
1.  the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
“their mindfulness of the wider cinematic tradition”
2.  a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

To become mindful, simply pay attention to your sensory experience in the present moment. How does your mouse, tablet or cellphone feel in your hand? Notice the shape, texture and weight. Notice the position of your body and your breathing. Don’t think about it, feel it.

You can do this anywhere. Focus on the movement of your body, every joint and muscle when you walk, type, exercise, wash dishes etc. Notice how water feels on your skin when you’re taking a shower. Mindful eating is especially awesome when you focus on all the rich flavors and textures with each and every bite, instead of reading the papers, watching TV or thinking about all the stuff you need to do after you eat.

Breathing can also be used for practicing mindfulness (in fact, it’s the most common way). Put all of your attention in your stomach and notice the subtle sensations in it as it expands with each inhalation, and as it contracts with each exhalation. And if you put your attention to the top of the inside of your nostrils, you can feel the air rushing in and out, along with slight changes of temperature. Count to ten (or a hundred) if it helps. As I’ve mentioned before, if you’re in a rush, just do two deep mindful breaths. It will help.

When using mindfulness to reduce stress and  feel peace and calm, it all boils down to two words:

Resist nothing.

Accept whatever’s happening to you. If something bad happens, you can resist it with anger, frustration or regret (thereby causing yourself even more stress), or you can accept the reality (because it already happened) and move on with your day.

This does not mean you should be passive or indifferent. Taking action to solve your problems is important. But the key here is not taking action from a place of frustration or anger, but conscious and deliberate choice. Detachment is the name of the game.

Realize that you are not your thoughts and emotions, but exist as a presence to which they happen. Imagine you’re in a cinema. What you see with your eyes is projected onto the screen, and you can hear your thoughts through the speakers. Try to really be the person sitting there and watching everything happen to you. It’s subtle but you can get a better sense of the stories you tell yourself and different roles you play in your life.

With a bit of experience, you’ll get a sense for what triggers you to run away from difficult situations and find comfort in distractions like social media, mindless entertainment or the bottom of a bottle. Or you could try the opposite. 😛

Body awareness

Experience is better than explanation when faced with the concept of body awareness. If you don’t already know what it means, close your eyes, stick your hand out in front of you and ask yourself: “How do I know where my hand is, if I can’t see it?”

That subtle tactile sensation you feel when you put your attention in your hand is your body awareness. You can ask that question for other parts of your body, like your feet, head or tongue. It’s usually easier in places where you have more nerve endings, like lips or fingertips. Once you have a solid understanding of it, you can move your body awareness through your whole body, scanning it for muscle tension (as mentioned in the previous section).

For me, it’s the easiest way to be mindful and I often use it as a tool for releasing stress. When you’re feeling stressed, most of the time it can be localized as a tense feeling in some part of your body (the chest and stomach being the prime contenders). Use your body awareness to feel out that tension. When you’ve found it, stay with it for a while. Rest in your discomfort. Breathe. Explore the feeling with curiosity. Just be present with it and tell yourself: “Okay, this is how I feel at this moment. There’s nothing I can do to change it right now.” Instead of resisting the feeling and wanting it to go away (which causes even more stress), can you accept that this is how you feel and there’s nothing you can currently do about it?

body_awareness

If you relax and accept that you’re stressed, and you’re totally okay with it, what happens to the stress? I usually feel an urge to take a deep breath or yawn, and all the tension goes away when I exhale. If not, there’s now a subtle change, a kind of empty space around the negative feeling, and it’s easier to function and go about my day.

It takes practice, but if you do it often enough, it’s going to become automatic. You’ll develop a threshold, and when your stress levels reach it, your attention will be triggered. Then you’ll use your body awareness with laser sharp focus to find that clump in you chest, and you’ll release it. Remember, the key is not wanting the feeling to go away, but instead to make peace with it.

This particular technique I learned from Eckhart Tolle and his book A New Earth. I read it when I was 16 and I’ve been using it’s principles for over 10 years now. Eckhart is amazing at exposing the fallacies of our thinking and emotions. That said, I don’t currently agree on everything he says about the human ego, and it can be a bit fluffy in a New Age kind of way, so consider yourself warned if that’s not your jam.

Meditation

Yeah, you knew this was coming. I can hear you rolling your eyes all the way from here. 😀

Meditation is mindfulness boot camp, and it deserves a separate post. But I’ll cover the basics here in case you’re interested.

General points:

  • Start small, only 2 minutes a day. It will help on the days you’re tired, busy or don’t feel like it. Increase by one minute every week. But if you start to think of it as a chore, reduce it back to whatever feels comfortable.
  • Try to meditate at the same time every day, to develop a habit.
  • Set up physical and digital triggers to remind you. A post-it on your bathroom mirror and a notification from your smartphone are easy to set up and hard to miss.
  • Anything can be a meditation for you if you do it mindfully, like taking a walk.
  • You don’t have to sit in uncomfortable poses to meditate.
  • The effects of meditation are cumulative, the more you’re at it, the better you’ll feel. Every minute adds up.

Instructions:

  1. If you feel any physical tension, stretch your muscles before sitting.
  2. Sit on a chair, keep your spine straight and don’t lean back. (Holding your back straight will keep you from accidentally falling asleep. And it’s good for your posture)
  3. Set a timer for 2 minutes.
  4. Close your eyes.
  5. Don’t try to control your breathing, simply breathe naturally.
  6. Focus your attention on your stomach or nostrils (like before) and be mindful of every inhalation and exhalation.
  7. If your attention wanders, bring it back from your thoughts to the breath (without judging yourself about losing focus).
  8. Count on every exhale, if that helps you.
  9. Once the timer goes off, open your eyes and get on with your day. Try to carry that mindfulness and calmness with you as long as you can.

And that’s it. The simplest thing ever. There’s a lot of variations out there, but I like to keep it simple. If you want to go deeper into the topic and expand your practice, the best book I’ve read on meditation is The Mindful Geek by Michael Taft.

Using Mental Tricks and Questions

You can often pull various mental acrobatics to put things into perspective and reduce your anxiety. Here’s a powerful question that helped me release a lot of attachments I had in the past:

Is it possible for you to still enjoy your life even if your financial situation stays the same or even gets worse for the rest of your life?

Steve Pavlina

You can substitute “financial situation” with anything you want. Social life, love life, etc. Even if a part of your life sucks at the moment, you could still enjoy your life immensely if you commit yourself to that. Asking this type of question transformed how I looked at life. You can read the whole article here. Trust me, it’s worth it.

We’re also prey to a lot of cognitive distortions and stories we spin about ourselves and our lives that ultimately do us more harm than good. Again, I’ll draw upon the endless wisdom of Leo Babauta and his article on mental badassery.

A lesson from Stoicism

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. I’ve been reading up on the writings of famous Stoics from the period of “late Stoa” (during the time of Imperial Rome). These texts are from authors whose work has been preserved in sizable parts: Seneca the Younger, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

Stoicism is a very practical philosophy and it’s teachings form the root of the modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I won’t bore you with any more history, but if you’re interested, check out the amazing blog of prof. Massimo Pigliucci.

One quote from Epictetus has helped me relax in a lot of situations that used to frustrate me:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

Epictetus

So whenever I find myself in a situation that causes frustration, I ask “What can I currently control?” And the answer is always “Only my attitude.” And that causes me to relax almost instantly and try to improve that attitude. Might sound weird, but give it a go.

Practice

Reading about everything you can do to reduce stress is meaningless unless you actually start implementing these tools. All this is probably overwhelming, so don’t try everything at once. Pick one thing and master it. Play with these ideas and try each one for a week. Invent your own.

Another thing I like to do is chain some of these techniques together. For example, when you notice you’re tense, stop and relax your body. Take two deep, mindful breaths and do a body scan. Or you could do a round of progressive relaxation followed by a two-minute meditation session.

Feel free to share your experiences and suggestions. 🙂


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