Have you ever been so tense it felt like your shoulders were touching your ears? If so, you know that stress is more than just a mental or emotional issue.
“Stress manifests physically whether we realize it or not,” says Nicole Stenberg, a certified exercise physiologist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “Many times, we think something is physically wrong — we don’t feel good and we don’t know why. It’s possible that stress is to blame.”
Stress commonly expresses itself as a headache, jaw tightness, teeth grinding or muscle tightness. Every body holds stress in different areas, says Stenberg, and sometimes we don’t know we’re tense until we make an effort to release that tension. Muscle relaxation techniques are the simplest way to do that.
5 easy muscle relaxation techniques
1. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)
“Progressive muscle relaxation is a proven technique that starts with a ‘total body scan’ for tense areas,” says Stenberg. “If you feel tension in your shoulders, for example, you can shrug your shoulders up to your ears as you inhale and then release the shoulder shrug as you exhale. Reminding yourself what tension feels like, compared to what softness and relaxation feel like, promotes relaxation and relieves stress.”
Try progressive muscle relaxation:
- Start with 3 rounds of deep breathing. Inhale through the nose and slowly exhale through the mouth.
- Start with your feet and work your way up, focusing on one area of the body at a time.
- Create tension while inhaling, hold that tension for a moment, and then actively release it while exhaling.
- Once you’ve finished with your feet, continue to your calves, thighs, buttocks, abdomen, arms, hands, back, jaw and forehead.
- Finish with 3 more rounds of deep breathing.
“One great thing about PMR is that you can do it anywhere,” says Stenberg. “If you’re short on time but feel anxious, practice it just on the large muscle groups of the body, or the areas where you hold the most tension, such as your shoulders or upper back.”
2. Deep breathing
Take a deep breath. How often do you do that each day? For most of us, the answer is not nearly enough, Stenberg says.
“It’s not uncommon for people to go the entire day breathing shallow,” says Stenberg. “Deep breathing is your body’s natural way of calming you down. The goal is simple: take deep, intentional breaths that fill up your lungs. ”
Try deep breathing:
- Finding a count that works for you is important. Focus on making your exhale longer than your inhale.
- Start by trying to inhale to a count of 2 and an exhale to a count of 4.
- Repeat for up to 2 minutes.
- If you like, try to increase your count over time.
3. Simple yoga poses
“You don’t have to be an expert in yoga to benefit from a few poses that promote muscle relaxation and stress relief,” says Stenberg.
- Start with child’s pose.
- Kneel on the ground, big toes touching.
- Bend at the waist and stretch your arms out as far as possible, touching the ground if you can.
- Once you find a comfortable position, relax into the pose.
- Finish with savasana, aka corpse pose.
- Lay on your back on the floor.
- Focus on feeling heavy and feeling the ground supporting you.
- Stay there until you feel open and calm.
“One wonderful thing about meditation is that you don’t need anything to do it,” says Stenberg. “You can just sit down and breathe.”
- Sit or lay down and close your eyes.
- Breathe deeply.
- Allow your thoughts to come to the surface.
- As each thought comes up, recognize it without judgment or attachment.
- Let that thought go.
- Repeat for 1 minute, and build up over time.
“An easy way to start is when you wake up in the morning,” says Stenberg. “Just lay there for a minute and breathe. If you like more structure, there are also some excellent apps that offer free trials — Headspace, Calm — and can teach you so much in the comfort of your own home.”
5. Active Stretching
Active stretching is the practice of activating opposing muscles to the ones that feel tense.
If an area is tight, you can activate the opposing muscle group to release that tension. For instance, if one side of your neck is tight, activating the other side of your neck, will help you “relax” the area that is tense.
“It’s easy to fall into a pattern of ‘ignore it and it will go away,’ says Stenberg, “but taking action to actively relax the tension in your muscles may reduce the amount of time you feel discomfort.”
Active stretching differs for each muscle group, but a few examples include:
- Lower back pain, which can indicate a need to strengthen and engage your core.
- Tight triceps, which can be softened by bending at the elbow and contracting your biceps.
- Jaw tension, which is common and can be addressed with a simple tongue exercise.
BlueCross physical therapist Kelsey Vickers offers these 5 steps to release jaw tension:
- Place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth directly behind your teeth.
- Allow your jaw to relax and lower toward the floor. Keep your lips closed and your teeth apart.
- Relax into this position for 20-30 seconds.
- Repeat 2-3 times in a set.
- Perform this a few times through your work day, or at set times such as when you’re driving, watching TV, etc. so you can make it part of your routine.
“Muscle relaxation techniques are most helpful when performed routinely, whether you’re feeling stressed in that moment or not,” says Stenberg. “Find what works for you and make it part of your routine.”
Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.