Seven Steps to Stress Reduction and Relaxation

perfectly relaxed sleepy cat

Here are seven easy steps to stress reduction and relaxation.

There is no doubt that stress reduction, relaxation and good stress management help us to maintain a healthy lifestyle in today's fast-paced world.

Picture: our cat relaxing 

It's also a worthwhile from a green living perspective, too. Less stress usually means less spending on distracting flim-flam destined for landfill! This is just my opinion of course  - but I'm sure most people will agree that when we are stressed it's very easy to go for a bit of retail therapy.

And most of what we buy ends up either making us fat, or hitting our wallets where it hurts! It certainly all has a carbon cost. See The Story of Stuff for a neat exposé of how our consumerist habits ransack the earth's resources.


Killer stress

Stress reduction and relaxation is an important issue for health: stress is one of the biggest killers and one of the biggest challenges to our health and well-being in the 21st Century. So it's important to have some good stress-busting strategies are easily accessible and which don't impact on our precious environment.

Seven easy steps to stress reduction and relaxation:
How natural is stress?

Stress is a natural response to life's problems and difficulties and to some extent stress is good for you.

It is very noticeable that people who (apparently) don't have many stresses often invent stresses for themselves. This is a neurotic process and can throw up a lot of problems for people who suffer this way. The perceived stresses are very real to the person suffering from them and the outcomes are much the same as for people who are undergoing "real" stress (i.e. the kind of stress which most of us would recognise as such - workload stresses, relationship stresses, etc.)

As with many things in life there is a happy balance where stress levels experienced are sufficient to excite and motivate us but not to overwhelm us. Consistently achieving that balance can be tricky and most of us feel overwhelmed by modern day pressures at times.

Seven easy steps to stress reduction and relaxation:
There is a positive side to stress

The physiological indicators of stress are hard-wired into our human systems. The stress response is a throw back to our hunter-gatherer past. Stress prepares the body for fight or flight. We carry these responses into the modern world where they may serve to help us cross a busy road safely or help us get a vital business document in on time.

Having stresses and then rising to the challenges they pose is one of the most exhilarating things and leads to self-esteem and a sense of fulfillment. It also generally pays off in terms of work progression and promotion, at least sometimes.

So a certain amount of stress is both necessary and beneficial. The point is that some stresses can become just too much to process effectively. We have all been through periods where just everything does not appear to be going our way. Things "get on top of us" and our spirits sink.

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The main effects of stress

Here are a few of the major indicators of stress: 

  • heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and perspiration can all increase. 
  • Pupils may dilate and muscles become tense.

In bad cases some of these effects can be chronic (i.e. persist for days or weeks at a time.) They can also be extreme, leading to panic attacks in some people.

If the stresses are caused by overwork, headaches may be a factor, too. There are considerable variations in how different people react to stress and which symptoms are most troublesome.

Seven secrets of successful stress-busting

Here are some strategies for dealing with these periods of stress. Of course, they are worth doing at less stressed periods, too. There is a lot to be said for learning good habits of stress control and relaxation. Make some of these tips part of your daily routine.

These are my seven top tips for stress reduction and relaxation. They all start with the letter "S". (Pure co-incidence, of course!)

Have fun with them and they should give you some real strategies for de-stressing safely.

1. Stretching

relaxed cat being held aloft

Stretching is second nature to animals - just watch cats do it!

Dogs do pretty well too.

Stretching for a good few minutes in the morning before you get up is pleasant, relaxing and toning - and of course, it helps you to wake up. Stretching is good at other times too. Stretch out in the bath or in the shower.

It does not matter what position you are in, though of course it helps to have some room to move. Stretching in airline seats can take some doing! Stretch when you finish a piece of work or before you start. Or stop work for a stretching break. The possibilities are endless.

How best to stretch?

Anyway you like but make sure that you stretch your spine well two or three times a day. Stretching alternated with relaxation is good. You can alternately stretch, flex and relax muscles in an ordered way to help yourself become more relaxed. Start at your toes and work your way up your body finding muscles to stretch. This is easiest to do if you are lying down. Many Yoga programmes teach stretching and relaxation - see below for more on this.

For me, it's most pleasurable to stretch without any real rules. The only thing is to remember to give it plenty of time and to enjoy it (once again, learn from the cat!)

Seven easy steps to stress reduction and relaxation: 
2. Shaking

Shaking is another pleasurable de-stressing exercise. You may (if you are a certain age) remember being taught this in junior school. All you need to do is to take a few minutes out and shake different body parts until the tension just drops away. Work on different muscle groups, isolated or together e.g. shoulders, arms, hands, fingers. Don't stop until you feel refreshed and relaxed. Of course you can combine this with a good stretch before or after.

Don't forget to give your hips and thighs a good shaking (shake that booty, as they say!) Head shaking can be a bit unpleasant if done vigorously. Rather, nod and roll your head around in half circles.

Seven easy steps to stress reduction and relaxation:
3. Speeding

"Speeding" is just my shorthand for rushing about. Whether you do this walking, running or cycling does not matter - obviously we aren't talking about speeding in cars!

The point is to burn up energy and tension. Exercise - fast, aerobic exercise is one of the very best stress-busting techniques.

Lots of different types of exercise can qualify, from swimming, to skiing and squash... and of course plenty that don't begin with "S" - tennis, badminton, and cycling or even just shopping!

The point is to move quickly and to get some valuable heart-pumping exercise. It is very calming and yet it makes you feel more lively than if you only rest and relax. Clearly, we do not need to move this way all the time - just enough to get some good exercise and burn off some excess calories. Fast movement also helps us to detoxify our systems.

See here for more about cycling for fitness - and fun.

You should try to get some decent exercise most days. Walking a lot is certainly the easiest to integrate into a busy working day. Most people should be able to increase the amount they walk very easily, even if only by getting off the bus home two or three stops early. Read here more about walking's fitness benefits. Housework can also be done at a pace which makes it a valuable source of exercise.

If you are at all overweight getting the speeding habit is even more important. Very few people who habitually rush about are rarely significantly overweight. If you are overweight it will, of course be well worth studying and adjusting your diet too.

Seven easy steps to stress reduction and relaxation:
4. Spinning

Spinning is another valuable exercise which can make you feel energised and yet relaxed. This is a technique favoured by Tibetan monks and the Sufis.

You don't have to make yourself dizzy. Just stand with arms outstretched and turn on the spot. You can go quite slowly at first. Start with three or four spins once or twice a day and build up gradually. Kids do this for fun. Research has shown it can have considerable health benefits. Consult with your doctor first if you have any doubts about your general health.

There is now a popular exercise also called spinning in many gyms. It involves working out on a stationary bicycle with others. It is also beneficial of course. It is a good form of aerobic exercise and some people enjoy the class-like atmosphere. 

Seven easy steps to stress reduction and relaxation:
5. Smiling

When the going gets tough and your brows are furrowed with anxiety and concentration, try smiling. We smile when we are happy and pleased. By association, we can reverse the process.

Try bursting into a big cheery smile and it's hard not to feel just a little brighter and more positive. Remember to do it often. It's a good one to end a stretching session.

Seven easy steps to stress reduction and relaxation: 
6. Stroking

A good massage, a hug or even just a verbal stroke can do so much for letting go of tension. So give and receive freely with those around you and everyone benefits.

Take the tension out of a situation by wise-cracking or clowning, if you can. Most people respond positively to gentle teasing. Nothing de-stresses so well as a good laugh.

This works so much better when you have done some of the other suggestions above first!

Seven easy steps to stress reduction and relaxation: 
7. Stopping!

We all know that part of the problem of stress is that it is just so hard to switch off. So first tire yourself by some of the relaxation and stress-busting techniques above. Then just find somewhere you can flop. Stretch out, get comfortable and just enjoy resting.

It does not much matter whether you watch TV or listen to music. Just take some time to really rest. Again cats and dogs are our best role models here.

Activities which may promote restful brain activity include many craft and hobby pursuits. It is important to spend some of the day engaged in more restful pursuits so that a relaxed state of mind can be achieved. Avoid challenging and stimulating activities and exercise in the time leading up to sleep.

Seven easy steps to stress reduction and relaxation:
A little bit about Yoga

Yoga incorporates most of these techniques. It does not offer quite so much in terms of pulse-quickening aerobic exercise (the kind which gets you out of breath.) So, combined with a good general exercise programme it will deliver excellent results. It also helps some to be part of a group so that you don't forget to actually do the exercises!

Yoga includes many relaxation methods within its exercise routines. You can learn how to systematically stretch and relax muscles; you can learn deep breathing methods asnd meditation both of which promote deep sttes of relaxation and inner calm. There is some evidence that such methods help people to lead more productive and meaningful lives, too.

The importance of doing

These techniques are all good - but they are useless if you don't actually do them! You may need to set aside time each day for de-stressing activities. It is not time lost. We work in a more focused and efficient way when we are not over-stressed. Set aside 10 minutes or so twice a day (in addition to exercise time) for the best results and practise at least three different techniques.

I hope you have a lot of fun trying out these seven easy steps to stress reduction and relaxation. If you make some or all of them a part of your lifestyle you will find you become more relaxed and able to cope with stresses. The other main stress busting technique which can contribute to a healthier, greener lifestyle is meditation. But that's another article!


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