You might be familiar with the phrase “fight or flight,” but did you know it can help us manage our own body’s physical response to stress?
When our bodies react to stressful situations, whether real or perceived, they psychologically prepare for how they will respond: by running away, freezing, or putting up a fight. This is our stress response, and it can have serious effects on our body.
The main form this stress takes is muscle tension, but it also releases adrenaline and can cause a quickening heartbeat, sweating, shallow breaths, a tightening stomach, and clammy hands.
“During the [stress] response, all bodily systems are working to keep us alive in what we’ve perceived as a dangerous situation,” psychologist Carolyn Fisher, Ph.D., said.
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Unfortunately, these days it tends to come up at the most inconvenient times: a slow grocery line, a tense day at work, a child who’s not picking up their phone, or simply a messy room.
So how can we control this stress? Better yet, how can we relieve it completely? Dr. Herbert Benson, the founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute, calls the solution the “relaxation response.” It means flipping the switch on our stress response by doing the exact opposite: meditation, yoga, breathing techniques, prayer, tai chi, or whatever practice best fits your personal definition of “relaxation.”
That’s why we put together four of our favorite physical relaxation methods. Here are some phenomenal stretches to calm your anxiety and release your stress-induced muscle tension.
1. Happy baby.
For hip and back tension (with a little extra something for your hamstrings), give this stretch a go.
Step-by-step, happy baby: Lay on your back, preferably on carpet or a yoga mat, in a neutral spine position. Begin to slowly lift your knees at a bend toward your chest, while making sure your hips stay down. Flex your feet so they are flat and parallel with the ceiling.
Next, wrap two of your fingers around your big toes and let the weight of your relaxed arms begin to pull your feet closer to you. For another option, bring your hands to the outside of your feet and grab the middle of your foot. Choose whichever feels best.
You may choose to rock back and forth or simply stay in one place, breathing deeply and relaxing like a happy baby.
2. Neck rotation and stretch.
If you struggle with tension headaches or basic jaw and neck tension, this one is for you.
Step-by-step, neck rotation: Lower your chin to your chest and slowly rotate your head to the right, all the way around until you’re back to the center. Then reverse, rotating your head to the left, all the way around back to center. If this stretch is hitting the spot, repeat it a few times. Then, move on to the neck stretch.
Step-by-step, neck stretch: Straighten your spine and place your left arm at your side, allowing your left shoulder to pull down just slightly. Put your right hand gently on top of your head, softly pulling your head down toward your right shoulder until you feel a stretch in your neck. Hold for 20 seconds. Then, do this same stretch on the left side. Repeat everything two or three times if desired.
3. Thread the needle.
This one is all about your neck, back, and shoulders.
Step-by-step, thread the needle: Place your hands and knees on the floor with your palms flat (again, preferably on carpet or a yoga mat). Your shoulders should be directly above your wrists, with your knees directly below the hips, at hip-width distance apart.
Slowly place your right hand, palm up, onto the floor, sliding it toward the left side of your body. Allow your body to naturally lean onto your right shoulder in the process, using your left hand as support. Hold here for 20 seconds, and then return back to all fours. Repeat on the left side. Feel free to repeat this stretch on both sides a few more times as needed.
4. Cat-cow pose.
The cat-cow pose is perfect for targeting your neck and back tension, with an added stretch to your torso as well.
Step-by-step, prep: This one begins similarly to the previous stretch. Place your hands and knees on the floor with your palms flat, still preferably on carpet or a yoga mat. Your shoulders should be directly above your wrists, with your knees directly below your hips, hip-width apart.
Step-by-step, cow pose: Starting in a neutral spine position, inhale and slowly lower your belly toward the mat as you lift your chin, chest, and tailbone toward the ceiling. Pause here a moment.
Step-by-step, cat pose: Exhale, rounding your spine toward the ceiling as you engage your abs and gently tuck your chin into your chest, gazing down at the mat. Release your neck and relax here a moment.
Repeat this sequence 10-12 times or until your spine feels warm.
Keep these stretches in your back pocket anytime you feel anxiety setting in or simply need to relieve some lingering tension. Some other awesome relaxation go-to’s are using a heating pad, diffusing essential oils, or sneaking in a massage.
Make it a priority to find the practices and exercises that bring you the most relaxation when you feel those stress responses coming on. And remember — you have to take care of yourself to take care of your health.
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