Learning to Relax

There’s no avoiding it – stress is a fact of life. Learning to relax could be the strongest defence against its debilitating effects.

Learning to Relax

We all experience some form of stress at some stage of our lives. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines stress as ‘the reaction people may have when presented with demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope.’ In other words, when you are stressed, you are pushing yourself, or being pushed, beyond the limits of your resources.

While completely banishing stress from your life is an unattainable goal for most people, developing coping strategies will provide you with a sense of control over your life. Learning how to and being able to relax will help you manage both physical and emotional stress.

Different Ways of Relaxing

Relaxation is as subjective an experience as stress. Just as there are many stressors that evoke different reactions, there are many ways to relax that, depending on your personal make-up, provide varying degrees of relaxation.

Some strategies are more effective than others, but anything that helps you to unwind can count as relaxation.

Ways to Relax

Put the kettle on: Keep calm and have a cuppa – but with a friend or two. Even though tea contains some jitter-causing caffeine, there are certainly times when it seems to calm rather than jangle the nerves. Turning to the ritual of making and drinking tea has become an almost conditioned response during times of stress. And, according to researchers at City University London, it seems to work. But the calming effects may have nothing to do with chemistry. Researchers believe that it is the tea ritual itself, with its associated social aspects, that make a cup of tea a natural tranquilliser.

Make your exercise ‘green’: Research from the University of Essex suggests that exercising in nature is especially beneficial to mood and self-esteem. Benefits were found to be greatest after just five minutes of such ‘green exercise’, with light-intensity exercise having the biggest effect on self-esteem and light- and vigorous-intensity workouts the biggest effect on mood. Walking, jogging, cycling, boating, horse riding, gardening and swimming in the ocean, lakes and rivers are all good options for mood-enhancing outdoor exercises. Not only will they combat stress, they will also improve your physical fitness.

Physical Responses as you Relax

  • Brain wave patterns change as the brain calms, bringing about a positive feeling of wellbeing.

  • Saliva production increases, stimulating the digestive system, which had been suppressed by the ‘flight, fight or freeze’ response.
  • Heart rate decreases, causing a drop in blood pressure.
  • Stomach – the blood supply diverted away from the digestive system returns to normal.
  • Muscle tension eases and skin temperature rises as the flow of blood returns to normal.

Physical Signs of Stress

Stress can be the cause of a variety of physical complaints. Symptoms, which apply to both acute and chronic stress, include the following.

  • Headaches
  • Teeth grinding
  • Jaw clenching
  • Aching shoulders, neck and back
  • Dry mouth, problems swallowing
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea or constipation
  • Insomnia
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations, rapid pulse
  • Cold or sweaty hands and feet
  • Skin problems (acne, eczema, psoriasis)

Instead of worrying, Swap It

  • Swap fretting about work or family problems with going for a swim, bike ride or brisk walk.
  • Swap cooking a big dinner after a hard day with having takeaway barbecued chicken (skin removed) and salad.
  • Swap stressing about everyday problems with doing a deep breathing exercise.
  • Take a break from financial worries by listening to your favourite song.

Global Stress Busters

Stress is universal. Different cultures have come up with a range of individual stress antidotes. Some are calming, long-standing traditions, others new, fun and active. All are intended to de-stress, recharge and beat burnout.

Traditional ways of dealing with the pressures of the world include Japan’s Zen rock gardens, which are places of serenity designed to encourage contemplation, and kirtan, the Indian devotional call-and-response chanting. Or, in contrast, New Zealand invented zorbing – a heart-thumping adventure activity in which you roll about secured in a transparent ball.

Practise Mindfulness

Living in the moment is a way of approaching life by consciously staying only in the present moment. It is our thoughts about the past and about the future that cause us the most distress. But you can’t change the past and there may be nothing immediate you can do to affect the future. Letting go of this pattern of thinking can bring relief from anxiety and worry.

The technique is easy to use, and can be learnt in classes, both in person and online. It involves learning to open up and be intensely aware of everything that is happening around you right now, in this moment. When people practice mindfulness meditation regularly for about 30 minutes each day, stress levels have been shown to fall.

Stress-Relief Toolbox

Use at least one tool every day, even if you are not feeling stressed.

  • Hug your partner
  • Spend time in nature
  • Get a massage
  • Listen to music
  • Do some colouring-in
  • Work in your garden
  • Talk to a good friend
  • Play with a pet
  • Watch a funny movie
  • Meditate
Manage Your Stress

Manage Your Stress

Hundreds of practical ways to cope with stress and help you reduce its harmful effects. © Reader’s Digest (Australia) 2016.

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