For many, the holiday season is the season of stress. There are just so many things to do, and a limited time to do them in. However, incorporating some simple stress management techniques into your life will reduce your stress not just during the holidays, but year round.
For many, relaxation means zoning out in front of the TV at the end of the day or getting some extra sleep when possible. Unfortunately, this does little to help reduce the damaging effects of stress on the mind and body.
As stress levels increase, your body is flooded with chemicals from an overwhelmed nervous system in what is known as your “fight or flight” response. While this response can save your life in an emergency, it actually wears your body down when constantly activated by the stresses of everyday life.
To effectively combat stress, we need to puts the brakes on this heightened state of stress. By activating your body’s natural relaxation response, it brings the body and mind back into a state of equilibrium. This response can only be activated by a mentally active process that leaves the body relaxed, calm, and focused. You can do this by practicing relaxation techniques including deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and mindful exercise. Finding ways to fit these activities into your life can help reduce everyday stress and boost your energy and mood. They’ll also help you to stay calm when life gives you something unexpected.
Practicing deep breathing
Deep Breathing is an excellent relaxation technique and is very easy to learn. The best part is that it can be practiced anywhere and is a quick way to reduce your stress levels. If you have more time, you can do deep breathing with relaxing music which is a great combination for even deeper relaxation.
Breathing deeply from the abdomen is the key to deep breathing. Breathing from the abdomen, rather than just the upper chest, allows as much fresh air (i.e. oxygen) as possible into your lungs. Getting as much oxygen into your lungs as you can is important because this leads to being less anxious, tense, and short of breath. You can practice deep breathing anywhere, so you have no excuse not to practice this simple stress reliever. To begin, sit up straight in a comfortable position, or lay down. To make sure you are breathing correctly, put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Take a deep breath through your nose, as you do this, your hand on your stomach should rise, but the hand on your chest should move very little. As you exhale through the mouth, try to push out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. As you exhale, the hand on your stomach should move, but your hand on your chest should move very little. Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
Practicing Meditation: Silence the Racing Mind
Meditation is the act of breaking away, however briefly, from the world. Figure out what meditation means to you. For some it is taking time to pray, for others it is a way of stopping negative thinking. However you see it, it is important to make time for it, because this is the time to reduce stress and reconnect with what is important in life.
Again, this does not need to be a big production. The key is to find a way of sitting that is comfortable for you, if this is the traditional way great, if not then figure out what works for you. There are no rules, you can meditate anytime, anywhere...even driving in your car. If closing your eyes makes you sleepy, than leave them open. You want to be in a state of “relaxed alertness”, not in a state of unconsciousness. The first goal when learning to meditate is to get to a point where you can stop all the racing thoughts in your mind. For some, especially when first starting, this will be very difficult. To start, try focusing on one thought only. If other thoughts start to creep in, throw it back out. Once you start to feel comfortable with this, start to work towards emptying your mind completely. The typical recommendation for meditation is 20 minutes, twice daily. But to start try short sessions for about 2-3 minutes, and work up from there if needed. It is important to know that it is not about how long you meditate, but whether you achieve a state of relaxation and mental renewal.
Being physically active is a great way to release stress and tension, especially when done mindfully. The best forms of exercise for stress relief are yoga or rhythmic exercise (i.e. running, walking, rowing, or cycling). If walking or running, for example, focus on each step, such as, the sensation of your feet touching the ground and the rhythm of your breath while moving. By adding just 10 minutes of exercise to your routine daily, you can make a difference to your health. Don’t feel like you have to go to the gym to be physically active and mindful while doing it. For example, divide laundry into several small loads, then make several trips up the stairs, or park as far as away from the store as possible, while staying mindfully present. Your goal should be to work your way up to at least 30 minutes of physical activity, three times a week to really make a difference in your health and stress levels.
A healthy lifestyle is a significant factor in stress management. The better physical health you are in the better you are able to handle stress. Your diet plays a major role in stress relief. Eating a healthy diet is the back-bone of your immune system, along with keeping your energy up and your mind clear. Making sure you are eating nutritious and balanced meals throughout the day. We tend to crave more fats and sweets in the winter, and this is the time of year when treats and sweets are at every turn. However, the more fat and sugar we eat, the less energy we have, and the more stressed and run down we feel. This in combination with the holidays can really cause some health chaos. The best recommendation is to Re-program your thinking and not eat every holiday treat in sight. Remember to keep everything in moderation.
Along with eating a balanced diet, reducing the temporary “boosts” that caffeine and sugar provide is an good change to start to incorporate. These provide fake energy which ultimately leads to a “crash and burn” of your mood and energy. By reducing the lattes, pop, chocolate, and snack foods in the diet, you will feel more relaxed, have a more stable mood, and you might even see improvements in your sleep. Getting enough sleep in essential for having energy and decreased stress. The more tired you are, the “bigger” the situation will seem and opens the door for frazzled thinking.
Learning the basics of these relaxation techniques isn’t difficult, but it does take practice. Start by setting small goals for yourself for how you can start to incorporate these stress management techniques into your daily life. See Tips for fitting relaxation techniques into your everyday life on the left hand sidebar for more ideas. Here’s to a Happy reduced stress New Years!