Stress is the body's reaction to harmful situations -- whether they’re real or perceived. When you feel threatened, a chemical reaction occurs in your body that allows you to act in a way to prevent injury. This reaction is known as "fight-or-flight-or-freeze,” or the stress response. During stress response, your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. You’ve gotten ready to act. It is how you protect yourself.
My recent book, The Stress Survival Guide for Teens, describes how stress means different things to not only teens but also people of all ages. What causes stress in one person may be of little concern to another. Some people are better able to handle stress than others. And, not all stress is bad. In small doses, stress can help you accomplish tasks and prevent you from getting hurt. For example, stress is what gets you to slam on the breaks to avoid hitting the car in front of you. That's a good thing.
Our bodies are designed to handle small doses of stress. But, we are not equipped to handle long-term, chronic stress without ill consequences. So here are quick and easy ways to lower stress in your body and in your mind:
Getting a Grip to Release Your Stress Squeezing an Imaginary Lemon
Imagine that there’s a lemon in front of you. Take a moment to visualize it in as much detail as you can. Then, with your right hand, reach out into the air and pretend you’re grabbing that lemon. Imagine its weight and the way it feels in your palm. Now picture there’s a hole cut in the end of the lemon, and try to squeeze that lemon so that some juice comes out. Notice how your right hand and arm are tense as you grip and squeeze that lemon for five to seven seconds. Okay, now pretend to set the lemon back down, and feel your hand and arm relax. Repeat this three times, each time trying to squeeze even more juice out and then relaxing your arm.
Ask Yourself How This Exercise Worked for You With These Questions:
Could you feel the difference between your arm muscles being tense and your arm muscles being relaxed? Now that you’re not holding the lemon any longer, does your arm feel more relaxed or more tense than when you started? Can you see how focusing on your body in this way could help take your mind off of stressful thoughts for a while? You can do this exercise as a quick tension reliever any time that stress is getting to you. Your imagination will supply you with as many lemons as you need.
Now try out a rapid stress-reducing exercise that focuses on letting go of muscle tension in your whole body. The Rapid Full-Body Tension Reliever Sit in a chair, or lie down in a comfortable position. Now quickly contract every muscle you can in your body and hold for ten seconds. Be sure to breathe as you do this exercise, and repeat it three times. Rest for about ten to fifteen seconds between each repetition.
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Consider the following questions to see how this activity worked for you:
Did you notice your body increasingly relaxing after each set of full muscle contractions? Were the sensations of letting go of the tension in your entire body pleasant or unpleasant? Does tensing and relaxing your entire body give you a better sense of the level of stress-related muscle tension you carry around on a daily basis? Does rapidly tensing and relaxing your full body seem like an efficient way to manage stressful situations?
You can do this third exercise while lying down or sitting. The way it’s presented here is for lying down. You can have someone read it to you or record it and listen while doing it.
The Brief Body Scan 1. Lie down on a rug, a carpet, or another comfortable surface. 2. If you want to, you can close your eyes. Or leave them open as you do this exercise. 3. Gently bring your attention to the feeling of your body resting on the floor. 4. Take a few deep, relaxing breaths. 5. Focus your attention on your feet. You don’t need to tense or relax them. Just notice to what degree they feel tense or relaxed, or comfortable or uncomfortable, at this moment. Breathe in and out, and notice any sensations that are present or that come up in your feet. You don’t need to evaluate these sensations or to try to change them in any way. 6. When you feel ready, gently shift your attention up your body to the next area, your lower legs. Spend a few moments focusing on what you feel there, just as you did for your feet. 7. Similarly, gently tune in to your knees. Then tune in to your upper legs. 8. Move your attention up your body. First focus on your buttocks and pelvis, then spend a while on your hands and arms, and then pay attention to your torso and back. End with your face and head.
Take a few more relaxing breaths Whenever you’re ready, open your eyes and slowly stand up.
Now consider how the brief body scan felt to you
Which areas of your body seemed the loosest? Which ones were the most tense? How did it feel to simply observe the sensations in your body without reacting to them? Did spending some time just observing your body feel comfortable, or did it feel foreign or even strange? Was this exercise a pleasant activity? As a result of doing this exercise, did you feel the stress in your body increase or decrease?
One of the best ways to manage your stress is to manage your expectations. Yes, it would be great for all of us to completely free ourselves of stress every time we attempt to do so. Just keep in mind that if you are having a really bad day, your attempt to lower your stress does not have to be perfect. In fact, remembering to squeeze that imaginary lemon, tighten and relax your body, or do a brief body scan can go a long way to get you feeling back in control of your stress--especially if you given these strategies a chance.
Bernstein, J. ( 2019) The Stress Survival Guide for Teens, New Harbinger Publications
Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior:Mayo Clinic