Stress is part of life. Your favorite team lost and you swear? Stress. Your favorite team won and you jump for joy? That’s stress too. We can’t escape it. In many ways modern life is more stressful. From the time our cell phones wake us up in the morning to the bustle through our daily activities to that last email before we go to bed, we’re bombarded with stressors. Just a few decades ago we were partly protected from this. For example, most businesses were closed on Sundays so that we were forced to slow down: the freedom of modern luxuries is not free.
The good news is that there is an antidote to the problems caused by stress: relaxation. Ideally, we should take at least twenty minutes, twice per day, to relax. There are hundreds of ways[IA1] to[JH2] do this ranging from body scan relaxation exercises or mindfulness, to meditation, traditional yoga, and Tai Chi. Relaxation exercises (and similar techniques) can help treat the very problems that chronic stress causes. Taking time to relax reduces anxiety and pain while improving symptoms of cognitive decline, high blood pressure, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Many people say they’re too busy to take twenty minutes twice per day (I too find it challenging). The great news is that there are shortcuts. The evidence isn’t as strong for these shortcuts, but some studies show that there are things you can do for a minute or less that will help you relax.
1. Say “Ahhhhhh,” as loudly as you can without embarrassing yourself. Taking this “sigh of relief” will make you feel at ease.
2. Relax your jaw. The relaxation response is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, which comes as a package. So relaxing one part of your body will help your whole body relax.
3. Count how many breaths you take for one minute. Don’t try to be a Buddha or anything, just close your eyes (or keep them open, if you prefer) and count your breaths for one minute. It will feel longer than a minute, and will also probably make you feel calm.
4. Show gratitude for something. Anything. The tree, the sun, the cloud, your partner. The positive psychology movement believes that gratitude works by helping us shift our focus away from the source of stress to things that make us happy. Expressing gratitude also seems to help us sleep better.
5. Reach out to a friend or family member just to say “I was just thinking about you, so I called to say hi.” Or even send it in a text. Evidence shows that having good ties to friends, family, and social groups helps us relax. This is probably because being connected to others makes us feel that we are supported as we face challenges, which makes the challenges less stressful.
Try them out to see how you feel.