Do you get stuck in your head? When you’re stressed, anxious or depressed do you find yourself in a cycle of worry or negative thoughts?Sometimes the best way to calm your mind is to first calm your body.
Life can be full of uncertainty and pressure. You might face it when you’re in college and are uncertain about such things as who you are, how you fit in, what is your future and how can you best prepare yourself for it. Or you might suddenly find yourself uncertain and feeling vulnerable and as though you have no purpose while awaiting difficult news about your health or experiencing changes at work.
Stress, anxiety and depression are often consequences of the combination of uncertainty and pressure.
Whether we are encountering health problems, are a college student, or are experiencing some other unexpected uncertainty and stress in your life, we all need strategies to get mental distance from their worries and burdens, so we can work, carry out normal day-to-day functions, and concentrate. Without these strategies your life can feel like it’s spiraling out of control.
It’s important to have a number of approaches to get through difficult times. This post focuses on two simple options for reducing built up tension in the body. These strategies won’t solve your problems, but they will improve how your body is responding to the stressors in your life. In one study focused on reducing anxiety and depression in college students, physical exercise and relaxation techniques were found to be valuable remedies for depression and anxiety (Cai, 2000).
Below are strategies for slowing your body and your mind by increasing relaxation and incorporating exercise into your life.
Progressive relaxation involves tensing and then releasing the muscle groups of the body.
- Focus on the muscles of your face and neck. Tense your facial muscles, scrunching your face into a ball and hold for five to ten seconds, then relax. Allow your muscles to relax for thirty second and then repeat. Now tense your shoulder and neck muscles. To do this, raise your shoulders to your ears, straining to lift them as high as possible. Hold this pose for five to ten seconds and then release. Allow yourself thirty seconds to imagine all the tension draining from your neck and shoulders and then repeat the exercise always ending by allowing tension to drain from your body.
- Try a similar exercise with your hands. Clench your fists as tight as you can and hold, straining to keep them tightly clenched, for five to ten seconds and then release. Allow yourself thirty seconds to imagine all the tension draining from your arms, hands and fingers and then repeat one to two more times until the muscles in your arms feel completely relaxed.
Every day routines that include exercise can decrease the amount and intensity of stress that you experience.
Your thoughts and your physical response to stress improve with exercise. Exercise is like preventative medicine for stress. It improves your ability to cope with stress and makes you more resilient to stressors (Salmon, 2001). Exercise can be a distraction from problems, can make you feel competent and can reduce muscle tension.
- Choose an easily accessible form of exercise, for example walking, running, exercise videos at home, using your gym membership or any other form that you can get to easily.
- Challenge thoughts that you don’t have time to exercise. Try telling yourself that exercise will help you cope, will improve your mood, will have a positive impact on your productivity or will make you better able to handle difficult challenges.
- Set a goal (for example twenty minutes, three times a week) and make a commitment to exercise. Tell people around you. People who make public commitments are more likely to follow through.
- Make it social. A partner can hold you accountable and get you going on days you might skip. Be careful to choose someone who is motivating. If you prefer to exercise alone, consider having making a joint commitment with someone with whom you compare notes and hold each other mutually accountable.
- Add a reward. Give yourself rewards at the time you exercise or immediately after (say checks in a calendar, self-praise, noticing improved mood, money set aside immediately after exercise that is earmarked for something special, listening to a favorite song or podcast while exercising, walking with a good friend, thinking of it as time to yourself etc.) The physical effects of exercise are typically not immediate. Pairing exercise with something immediately positive can help keep you motivated.
These strategies are meant to be used in the midst of difficult times. They won’t change your circumstances, but they can improve how your body is responding to stress and can have a positive impact on your body, your mood and your ability to cope.
You can find more strategies to improve how you feel in my new book, The Stress Response and by clicking here to sign up for more of my tips and podcasts using DBT strategies to improve how you feel.