Industrialized countries around the world are suffering from epidemics of stress and anxiety. It’s estimated that 75-90 percent of all doctor visits in the United States are due to stress-related complaints. Stress is a major contributing factor to six of the top leading causes of death. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness, affecting 40 million U.S. adults. Being stressed and overworked in Japan and China is so common that each of these languages has a word for “death by overwork” — karoshi and guolaosi, respectively.
Stress affects your brain health and function in many real ways. Chronic stress increases your risk of anxiety and panic disorders, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, drug addiction and alcoholism. It also increases the size, activity level, and number of neural connections in your amygdala, the fear center of your brain.
It reduces levels of important brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. It disturbs the blood-brain barrier, causing the brain to become “leaky” and allowing toxins to enter. It slows the production of new brain cells while causing existing cells to age prematurely. Stress makes you bad at making decisions and causes your brain to freeze up at the worst possible times.
It’s no wonder that in the past few years there’s been an explosion of interest in mind-body relaxation techniques. Some of these are ancient, while others rely on the latest technology. All are backed by science as being useful tools for reducing stress and treating anxiety.
Autogenic training (AT) teaches you to gain control over functions you normally have no control over, such as respiration rate, heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. It’s considered a form of self-hypnosis that works by training the conscious mind to bring the parasympathetic (rest and digest) and sympathetic (flight or fight) nervous systems into balance.
This technique has been studied widely by NASA and is used by pilots and astronauts to alleviate motion sickness. It’s also used by Olympic and professional athletes to achieve peak performance. Over 60 studies found that autogenic training was beneficial for anxiety and numerous disorders with a stress component, such as insomnia, migraine, hypertension, racing heart, ulcers, and irritable bowel syndrome.
AT has been around for 80 years but has not really caught on with the general public yet. You can give it a try with this free autogenic training MP3 courtesy of the University of Wisconsin.
Biofeedback is another technique that teaches control of involuntary processes like heart rate, blood pressure, brainwave state, skin temperature, and muscle tension. It is usually performed by a trained health care professional, although there are now plenty of personal biofeedback devices available.
Biofeedback teaches you how to manage these functions to stop the stress response in its tracks. It is particularly beneficial for any condition linked to stress including anxiety, hypertension, teeth grinding, headaches, and digestive disorders. Different forms of biofeedback measure different variables.
Neurofeedback works by measuring brainwave patterns. It teaches you to achieve a relaxed brainwave state at will. Neurofeedback excels in treating neurological conditions including anxiety, addictions, ADHD, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and chronic pain. If you have a specific condition, it’s recommended you seek the help of a trained biofeedback specialist. But if your goal is general stress reduction, one of the latest do-it-yourself biofeedback or neurofeedback devices is an affordable place to begin.
It’s sad but true; most of us have forgotten how to breathe properly. If you watch a child or a pet sleeping you’ll notice that their stomach rises and falls. They are breathing as we are intended to breathe — from the belly. But most of us breathe shallowly, also called chest breathing or thoracic breathing.
Rapid, shallow breathing naturally occurs when you are in danger. But when you breathe this way all the time, you are continually eliciting the “flight or fight response.” One study found that employing relaxation breathing techniques lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression as effectively as antidepressant medication.
Breathing properly is so important that Dr. Andrew Weil, one of integrative medicine’s most famous faces, has stated, “If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly.” You’ll find instructions on how to do three of Dr. Weil’s favorite breathing exercises here.
Emotional Freedom Technique
The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), also called “tapping,” is a form of psychological acupressure. Like acupuncture, it works by stimulating meridian points, except you use your fingertips instead of needles.
According to Nick Ortner, the author of The Tapping Solution, “The basic technique requires you to focus on the negative emotion at hand: a fear or anxiety, a bad memory, an unresolved problem, or anything that’s bothering you. While maintaining your mental focus on this issue, use your fingertips to tap 5-7 times each on 12 of the body’s meridian points. Tapping on these meridian points — while concentrating on accepting and resolving the negative emotion — will access your body’s energy, restoring it to a balanced state.”
Here’s an excellent video that guides you through a tapping session specifically for stress relief (you can also view it in the player above).
A major benefit of EFT is that you can do it anywhere, anytime. You don’t need to lie down, close your eyes, listen to a script, or see a professional. You can even do mini-sessions while sitting in traffic or at your desk at work.
Hypnosis may bring to mind an amusing magician’s trick, but it’s much more than that. Hypnosis is a medically recognized technique that puts you into a trance-like state characterized by extreme relaxation, increased suggestibility, and heightened imagination. A hypnosis session will put you into the same brainwave state experienced during meditation and light sleep.
Hypnosis is particularly helpful for situational anxiety, such as fear of public speaking, test anxiety, or fear of the dentist. It can minimize the symptoms of almost any disorder with a stress-related component, including asthma, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, headaches, chronic pain, eating disorders, and irritable bowel syndrome. One concern people have of hypnosis is of losing control or doing something you wouldn’t otherwise do, but that happens only in the movies!
You can work with a trained hypnotherapist. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health counselors sometimes offer hypnosis as part of their practice. Or you can do it yourself using one of the many self-hypnosis MP3s and apps available online.
Of all the mind-body relaxation techniques, none has made a bigger splash into the mainstream than meditation. According to Cornell University, over 1,000 studies have been published that support the health benefits of meditation. An estimated 20 million Americans meditate. Some of the most successful people on the planet, from business executives like Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey to legendary sports figures like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, believe in the powers of meditation.
Meditation teaches you to quiet your mind and control negative thinking — essential for stress reduction and anxiety relief. Of all the styles of meditation, mindful meditation seems to be the most helpful for anxiety. It’s popular among those in some of the most stressful occupations including Wall Street brokers, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and the U.S. Marines.
Meditation helps to improve performance, avoid burnout, minimize overall on-the-job stress, and, in the case of members of the military, minimize the effects of post-traumatic stress. Studies repeatedly demonstrate that meditation can rewire how the brain responds to stress. It trains your brain to be less anxious by teaching you to put the brakes on “mental time travel” — worrying about the future and ruminating about the past. Get started with your meditation practice with these best meditation techniques for beginners.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
If you sit at a desk all day, your neck, back, and shoulder muscles are probably so tight you’ve probably forgotten what they should feel like! Dr. Edmund Jacobson, who developed both the progressive muscle relaxation and biofeedback techniques, famously said, “An anxious mind cannot exist in a relaxed body.” Just as shallow breathing elicits the “flight or fight” response, so do tight, tense muscles.
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) involves a two-step process of alternately tensing and relaxing specific groups of muscles in an exaggerated, systematic way. It teaches you to recognize tight muscles and gives you a way to put yourself into a state of deep relaxation on demand.
Here’s a quick exercise to experience progressive muscle relaxation in a small way right now. Clench your right hand to make a fist while flexing it upward at the wrist. Hold tight for 10 seconds then release, letting your hand go limp. Do this a few times and you should notice that your right hand feels more relaxed than your left.
PMR is often used as a warm-up exercise for other mind-body relaxation techniques. University of Texas has a progressive relaxation muscle exercise video that you can follow along with or download as a sound file.
Yoga has been called a “gateway” practice since it often leads its practitioners on a path to an overall healthier lifestyle. Yoga is right up there in popularity with meditation. Almost 15 million Americans do yoga and an astounding 10 billion dollars are spent on yoga-related products every year. But you don’t need much to get started, a pair of loose, comfortable pants and a mat will do.
Physical exercise of all kinds is good for reducing stress and anxiety, but yoga excels at it. It slows down breathing and heart rate while increasing the neurotransmitter GABA. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a brain chemical essential for the ability to relax. When your GABA level is inadequate, you’ll have racing thoughts and feel overwhelmed and overstimulated. A single one-hour session of yoga can increase GABA levels by 27 percent.
You’ll find poses specifically for stress and anxiety at Yoga Journal. If you are new to yoga, don’t be concerned that you are too inflexible or out of shape. There are yoga poses suitable for every level including chair yoga — no pretzel poses on the floor required! Here’s a chair yoga routine that’s appropriate for all levels courtesy of Chopra.com (you can also view it in the player above).
These are only some of the available mind-body relaxation techniques available. While these techniques all have things in common, they also have some appreciable differences. There’s bound to be one (or more) that’s a perfect fit for you.