Relax! It's Back to School Time.

Stressed about school? Relax!
As the time to begin classes draws nearer, many people find that their stress and anxiety levels ramp up in tandem. Let's look at some relaxation techniques to help you use less energy combating stress, thereby directing it onto tasks like school, work and family life.

Deep Breathing
As stress increases, we clench our jaws, and our shoulders ride up toward our ears — forcing our breathing to become shallow. Shallow breathing, or chest breathing, affects our productivity significantly because it prevents the brain from getting the amount of freshly oxygenated blood it needs to function optimally. Breathing fully from the diaphragm, or deep breathing, allows more oxygen in and more carbon dioxide to exit. Deep breathing counteracts the fight or flight, or stress, response so that we are no longer reacting defensively to perceived threats to our well being, eliciting the "Relaxation Response." Coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, the Relaxation Response is the body being in a state of deep relaxation which lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and relaxes muscles.

The technique for deep breathing is relatively simple:
  1. Place your hand lightly on your belly, whether lying down or sitting.
  2. Breathe in to the count of five, ensuring that your hand rises and falls with the inhalation/exhalation.
  3. Exhale to the count of five; most people need to deep breathe for twenty to thirty minutes for the full Relaxation Response to occur, but after even a few minutes of deep breathing, you will more than likely feel your shoulders start to relax — a positive step forward.
Muscle Relaxation
The best way to get your muscles to relax is to tense them. Sounds counter intuitive, but by focusing on tensing one muscle at a time and then focusing on relaxing it, you become more aware of where you are holding stress. For instance, if you raise and tighten your shoulders and then focus on relaxing them away from your ears, you become more aware that your shoulders were tense and tight. Doing a "body check" periodically through the day, you'll begin to see where you typically hold stress and you can be mindful of relaxing that area.

Body Check:
  1. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
  2. Starting at the feet, work your way up the body tensing and then relaxing feet, calves, thighs, stomach, arms, hands, and shoulders. Breathe deeply using the technique described above and as you exhale, relax each muscle group; spend 3-5 breaths on each area.
Exercise
We all have different ways of coping with stress; from talking with friends to eating, and from sleeping too much to grinding our teeth — coping strategies are as varied as the stressors with which we each deal. And while you may feel tired and depleted and think you couldn't bear to do cardio or lift weights, exercise is one of the best ways to deal with stress. Stress increases our sensitivity to pain through pro-inflammatory cytokines; and our brains process emotional "injuries" in the same way they process physical injuries. Exercise has been shown to reverse the production of systemic inflammation through an increase in endorphins — our bodies' own pain relievers that act much like morphine in reducing our perception of pain.

New research has also shown that exercise is linked to an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which promotes brain nerve-cell health. Better nerve cells equate to increases in learning and memory and helps push the mood reset button. Exercise encourages better sleep, more energy and the release of sex hormones in the brain. Finally, exercise increases blood flow to the brain which encourages mental alertness and concentration. So get up off that couch!

These three methods are by no means the only ways to prevent or reduce stress, but used together provide a powerful recipe to enhance your relaxation efforts. Try any or all of them as you prepare for this semester and let us know how they worked for you!

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