6 Simple Stress Management Techniques
When we experience stress, it triggers a sympathetic nervous system response. Heart rate, breathing and vigilance all speed up. Once activated, it’s not always easy to let go of this hyper-alert state. Stress management techniques can teach the body to return to balance more quickly. Learning how to calm an overactive nervous system improves health in both body and mind.
When your body sees or hears something it perceives as dangerous, a small area of the brain called the amygdala turns on the stress response. The sympathetic nervous system gets activated, beginning a cascade of adrenaline-induced reactions in the body. Heart rate increases, breathing speeds up, increased oxygen boosts alertness and your muscles get ready for action.
While this response is normal and appropriate, it’s not meant to last long. Nor is it meant to be triggered multiple times per day. Our SNS not only responds to bears, but gets activated by bills, emails, family drama, uncertainty, and change among many other things. An overactive or always-turned-on fight or flight response can lead to inflammation, oxidative stress, and reduced immunity. It puts us at greater risk for disease, including heart disease, diabetes and dementia.
Downregulating the sympathetic nervous system and strengthening it’s partner, the calming parasympathetic nervous system, helps us improve our physical health and live with greater peace of mind. The following six simple relaxation techniques are all effective ways of reducing stress.
As the name “fight or flight” implies, the stress response system prepares us for movement. When we stay put versus walking, running or shaking it out, stress remains trapped in the body.
- Nature Immersion
Stepping outside and putting the mind in an open space is calming. In fact, research shows just looking at photographs of nature helps us let go of stress.
- Supportive Touch
Caring touch, like a hand on your shoulder, has a calming effect. Studies show it doesn’t even matter if it’s your own touch, that of another human, a pet or even a robot. Supportive touch dampens sympathetic nervous system arousal.
Being around centered people with the capacity for emotional regulation helps us better regulate our own emotions and decreases stress. The inverse is also true, so choose to spend time with those who are calm.
Many learn to self-soothe as children, but not all of us had upbringings which allowed for the development of this skill. Working with a therapist can help us learn new patterns of behavior in response to stress.
While the above techniques have each been proven effective, there’s one method of calming our nerves and heart that outperforms them all. Meditation reduces stress by treating the source, the amygdala. By reducing activity in the amygdala, meditation makes us far less likely to activate a stress response in the first place. We can also learn to change our perception of stress and our reaction to it through meditation.
Meditation for Calming the Nervous System
Meditation researchers have long documented its relaxing effects. Meditation triggers a relaxation response by turning on the parasympathetic nervous system. When the PNS is activated, heart rate slows down, blood pressure drops, and muscles relax. The stress response is effectively dialed down.
Researchers originally assumed any and all types of meditation led to a relaxation response, but it turns out that’s not true. Some types of meditation are better suited for stress relief than others. Try one of the following four methods to calm your nervous system with meditation:
- Mindfulness of the Body
Body awareness meditation may include a body scan, focused or open awareness. For example, you might focus on sensation in the body where it connects to its source of support, or rest in general awareness of the body as a whole.
- Mindfulness of Breath
Breath awareness is particularly calming for the central nervous system as it tends to slow down and lengthen the breath. Deeper, more patient breathing downregulates our stress response by turning up the PNS.
- Mindfulness of the Present Moment
Chronic stress builds when we (consciously or unconsciously) ignore it. By failing to pause, acknowledge and accept stress, our brain never receives a signal when the source of stress is gone. Mindfulness increases awareness of our present moment. Stress or no stress, we accept it without judgment.
- Mindful Movement
Mindful movement such as yoga or mindful walking can be particularly helpful for stress reduction. Because the body activates muscles in response to stress, using them sends a return signal that it’s ok to relax.
While there are many helpful techniques for reducing stress, meditation is the best tool you have to relax the central nervous system. Unlike spending time in nature or relaxing with a massage, it even works when you’re not meditating, thanks to lasting change that occurs in the brain, particularly in the amygdala. Check out our online meditation course on how meditation can reduce stress.