Finding time to fully relax in modern society can sometimes feel as difficult as trying to hunt down the extinct wooly mammoth in mid-winter, barefoot (see: impossible). To break out of this thinking and start on a path to regain the lost art of relaxation, it’s important to first understand how our stress response operates.
Stress is regulated by two systems in the body. The parasympathetic system, which controls relaxation, rest, and digestion, and the sympathetic system, which controls our “emergency” response to stress. To put it simply, our parasympathetic system is in control when we’re relaxed and calm, while our sympathetic is in control when we’re facing an imminent threat (say, from an angry animal).
However, the giant hiccup in this system is that the sympathetic side doesn’t distinguish between that angry animal and another bad day at the office. This results in a chronic stress response that is extremely taxing on the adrenal system, and can leave us feeling run down and even suppress our immune system.
This is why managing stress is so important to overall health. We’ll help you do just that by providing some of the best relaxation techniques you can practice daily:
1. Mindful Breathing
The way we breathe has a profound effect on our nervous system. Ancient yogis instinctively knew this to be true, developing an entire system around the concept of timed and controlled breathing called “Pranayama.”
Modern research has shed light on this ancient practice, showing that specific types of breathing do indeed influence the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems we spoke of earlier. For instance, studies have shown that alternate nostril breathing (one of the common pranayama techniques) enhances the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, while decreasing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (1).
This is an amazing revelation, considering that breathing exercises are also an extremely convenient technique to integrate into our fast-paced lifestyles. Below is an alternate-nostril breathing exercise you can do anywhere with just 10-15 minutes, your fingers, and fresh air. Use it during moments of anxiety and stress, or go a step further and practice daily to strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system over time.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
- Find a comfortable sitting position with your spine straight and shoulders back.
- Relax your left arm in your lap, while bringing your right hand up to your nose.
- Place your pointer and middle finger so they rest between your eyebrows, while focusing on using your thumb and ring finger to alternate closing your nostrils.
- Close your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through your left nostril, slow and steady.
- Close your left nostril with your ring finger so both nostrils are closed, holding your breath for a brief count.
- Open your right nostril and exhale slowly, pausing for a beat at the bottom of the exhale.
- Inhale through your right nostril, pausing again at the height of the inhale with both nostrils closed.
- Open your left nostril and exhale, pausing again at the bottom.
- Repeat for 5-10 cycles.
2. Mindful Eating
Aside from making sure we’re nourishing our bodies with only the most natural foods, mindful eating also encompasses the way we eat. In our society, mealtimes are often rushed in an effort to get back to work or otherwise save time. Not only does this result in eating while we’re stressed (which has a host of negative consequences), it also causes eating to become a stressful activity in and of itself, compounding the problem.
Studies have shown that eating while chronically stressed can impair digestion, cause overgrowths of certain bacteria, and compromise the intestinal barrier (which can lead to leaky gut)
Also, in studies where individuals practiced mindful eating, satiety and hunger cues were improved, with researchers also discovering participants naturally lowered their calorie intake as compared to controls.
So how can we integrate mindful eating into our days? Below are a few simple techniques that will change your behavior toward mealtimes, hopefully filling your plate with peaceful relaxation, rather than anxiety and tension.
Remove distractions. This can be anything that takes your attention away from your food, such as the television, the newspaper, the computer, etc. Focus wholly on what’s on your plate and strive to remain in the moment.
Address your mood. As you sit down to eat, take a moment to address your emotions. What are you feeling? Try to release feelings of anxiety or anger before taking your first bite by taking a few deep breaths (or even doing a few rounds of alternate nostril breathing!).
Eat slowly. Notice that when your mind begins to wander, you tend to focus less on chewing—an important part of digestion. Practice setting down your fork between bites and/or counting chews (roughly 15 per bite) if this helps you slow down.
3. Yoga Poses that Promote Relaxation
Yoga, known as one of the best techniques to promote relaxation, also builds strength and increases flexibility.
Cat-Cow combines deep spinal stretching with deep breathing (which we know is a huge plus when it comes to relaxation). Begin on all fours and lift your head, heart, and tailbone to the sky as you inhale. On your exhale, pull in your stomach, round your back and drop your head. Repeat 5-6 times.
Sit comfortably on your heels. Lower your torso forward, bringing your forehead to rest on the floor in front of you. Extend your arms ahead of you and lower your chest as comfortably as you can to your knees. Take long, deep breaths.
Standing Forward Bend
Stand with your feet together. With a slight bend in your knees, bend over your legs until you feel a deep stretch in your hamstrings. You can either let your hands touch your feet, wrap them around your elbows to let your upper body hang freely, or deepen the pose by wrapping your arms around the back of your knees.
These relaxation techniques can be practiced throughout your day, allowing you to put your nervous system, your mind, and your body at ease in the face of any threat, be it mammoth or traffic jam.