Stress and anxiety can easily run rampant with the current COVID 19 pandemic. This is the first of a two-part series addressing how to manage stress. This week’s response will focus more on the physical aspects of stress reduction. Next week, I will address the role of the mind in producing and reducing stress.
Peace of mind and the state of relaxation do not arise spontaneously in our lives. Rather, these experiences are hard won inner attainments. They require practice and self-discipline. To do this we must consciously value the experience of serenity and relaxation. When you stop to think of it, isn’t peace of mind and the ability to be free of physical tension of more value than most of the things we consciously go after? Sometimes it takes being beaten-up a bit by life to value a mind that is free of anxiety, stress and worries, and a relaxed physical state that is free of tension, open to experiencing the moment. The current pandemic gives us the opportunity to develop practices that support our ability to manage stress and to create more contentment, relaxation and well-being in our lives.
Contentment and relaxation go together, they co-exist. If our mind is calm, then we can relax our bodies. Likewise, if we can relax the tension in our bodies, then it’s easier to calm the mind. The body and the emotions work together, and the breath connects the two. Inner peacefulness requires a strong stable nervous system. It is through your breath that you feed your nervous system and help to calm your mind. When we are tense and anxious, our bodies respond with shallow, tense breathing. This type of breathing can become habitual, thus starving our nervous systems of what we need most, the breath that relaxes the body and calms the mind.
Remember, peace of mind and physical relaxation are attainments. They require effort on your part. One way you can work on this very effectively is to consciously practice deep abdominal breathing during the day. Try taking the following 5 minute “breathing break.” Take a slow deep breath through your nostrils to the count of 20, hold the breath to a count of 20, then slowly exhale through the mouth to a count of 20. Repeat this 4-6 times. You will be surprised at how refreshed and enlivened you feel after this exercise. In addition, try to be conscious of your breathing during the day, replacing shallow breathing with slow deep abdominal breathing whenever you notice that you are tense or anxious. This will make a difference in not only your energy level but also the quality of your experience of your day.
Stretching will further enhance your relaxation. Unchecked tension leads to tiredness, and trouble coping with stress. Try to develop the habit of stretching. This will help to eliminate tension, refresh the mind, increase your energy level, and rebalance your body. Cats and dogs do this as a matter of course – it is instinctual for them. We need to return to the place where it is instinctual for us also. Hatha yoga stretches are perfect in this regard. Consciously stretch in the morning before starting your day. At night, stretch and breathe before sleeping. If you are tense when going to sleep, you are likely to be tired upon awakening, even if you slept for 8 hours. Your body is restored by relaxed sleep, not tense sleep. Listen to your body. Develop a stretching routine that feels right to you. Long slow stretching that incorporates deep breathing is most helpful.
Often we can’t relax because we are not aware of our tension. It’s hard to eliminate that which we aren’t aware of! Jacobson’s relaxation technique can help you to recognize where your tension lies. It does this through contrasting the states of tension and relaxation. In this technique you consciously and systematically tense various muscles in your body – starting with the feet and moving upward. After holding tension in the muscles of one area of your body (for example, your left calf) for a count of 10, suddenly let go of that tension and allow yourself a moment to feel the relaxation that pours into that body part. Continue up the body, alternately tensing and relaxing all the parts of your body, ending with your face. The contrast between the tension and the relaxation experiences in the different muscle groups can make you aware, sometimes for the first time, what it feels like to relax certain muscles that you have been unconsciously tensing – more out of habit than need. A good massage can also provide a similar effect.
If we are identified with the habitual experience of ourselves as tense, then it’s hard to feel comfortable with the state of relaxation. It feels not safe, too vulnerable, or even boring. Or, for many it is a state they only know how to access using alcohol or pills, or other mind-altering substances. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to access the state of relaxation at will? The more you practice relaxation, the more comfortable you are in that state (i.e., the more you can make it a part of your everyday experience of yourself), and the easier it is to access and sustain a state of relaxation. This requires conscious, persistent practice. Make a commitment to take time every day to consciously relax. You’ll find that relaxation makes each moment feel more alive.
(To be continued next week)
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(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.) Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanyacounseling.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2020 Chaitanya Counseling Services