Let’s be real, regulating stress is no easy feat. Whether it’s navigating a hectic work schedule, the ongoing duties of parenthood, or coping with basic day-to-day scenarios, stress can manifest at most inconvenient times and in the most varied ways. “Stress can appear in many ways on the body if not regulated properly,” says Denise Francis, a self-love expert and founder of The Self Love Organization Inc, a platform that’s dedicated to providing affordable and accessible wellness resources for women of color. “It can have very obvious appearances such as weight gain and blemishes. But can equally affect you internally with signs such as headaches, intense back pain, and difficulty breathing.” No matter what the root causes are in your life, managing your stress through simple mindfulness practices can help you keep your mental health in check regularly.
According to Iana Edwards, a certified Bikram hot yoga instructor and founder of Yoga Bae, “Mindfulness is a game-changer when it comes to managing anxiety and depression. Depression is dwelling in the past and anxiety is obsessing about the future. Mindfulness put’s an emphasis on the present which is a continuous opportunity to choose better-feeling thoughts.”
But where does one even start this mindfulness journey? Ahead, TZR breaks down some expert-approved exercises to get you started that will help calm your mind even in the most stressful of circumstances.
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Progressive Muscle Relaxation
When one is stressed, anxious, or worried, the body’s first response is to tighten up the muscles. Whether it’s the restriction of the shoulders, necks, or backs, muscle tension is a psychological response to anxious thoughts. “PMR has a ton of benefits like reducing stress and anxiety, improving sleep quality, reducing muscle tension and pain, and helping to improve focus and concentration,” says Edwards. “Start by putting on loose clothes and find a quiet and comfortable place to lie down. Begin tensing and relaxing your feet, working your way up through your body. As you tense and relax each muscle and body part, focus on the sensation of the muscle and breathe slowly.”
Did you know that improper breathing can cause significant health problems in the body? From panic attacks to cardiovascular issues, improper breathing is a catalyst for disaster if not properly addressed. “The relationship between improper breathing and stress is like peanut butter and jelly,” says Edwards. “When we are stressed or anxious, our body goes into a panic ‘fight or flight’ response. This response causes our heart rate to rapidly increase, our muscles to tense up, cortisol levels to immediately spike, and breathing to become shallow and disconnected.” For times such as these, Edwards recommends three breathing techniques to help regulate stress in the moment.
- Diaphragmatic breathing: “This type of breathing focuses on using your diaphragm muscle to breathe, rather than the muscles in your chest. To practice, lie down or sit in a comfortable position, place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Inhale through your nose, focusing on expanding your abdomen rather than your chest. Exhale through your nose, gently contracting your abdomen. Do 10 cycles of breathing.”
- Box breathing: “To start, inhale for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of four, exhale for a count of four and hold the breath for another count of four.” She says. “It’s normal to feel anxious on your last exhale, but keep practicing. Repeat for four cycles.”
- Nose-breathing: “Your nose is meant for breathing and your mouth is meant for eating. Nose breathing can help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which can, in turn, help to relax the body and reduce stress and anxiety under any circumstances.”
Depending on where you live, it may not exactly be the best season for gardening, especially if you live in a city environment. No need to worry though, if you love playing in the dirt and are looking for a new mindfulness exercise to try out, hydroponics is a great new hobby to try out for yourself. Serving as a form of horticulture, it is a form of gardening in which you can grow plants, crops, or herbs without the use of soil.
“Several years ago I started a garden, and it’s been a great mindfulness practice as well as opening up all of my energy centers (also referred to as chakras),” says Thérese Cator, a trauma-informed embodiment practitioner and founder of the wellness, healing, and leadership platform Embodied Black Girl. “The fact that you’re working with your hands and living things, are outside, and doing work that supports the cycle of life/death/rebirth can be a very profound experience. [You’re] digging, weeding, planting, watering, and at the end [seeing] some of your crops blossom and some become compost. It opens us to a sense of things greater than us, the awe and beauty of nature, love, our co-creative power of seeing something we planted flourish.”
To create your own hydroponic garden at home, you can simply use this easy-to-use Hydroponic Indoor Growing System, which includes everything you need from herb garden growing kits to UV lighting and an optimized water tank.
Nature Walks & Forest Bathing
Walking, hiking, and forest bathing are great ways to clear the mind. No matter where you are in the world, getting fresh air is a pivotal coping mechanism for regulating our mental health. Furthermore, nature can generate positive feelings in the mind, body, and soul by promoting calmness, joy, and creativity. “Taking hikes in nature is one of my favorite practices,” says Cator. “I'm fortunate to have access to an expansive nature reserve, however, I’ve noticed even a walk in my local park has many benefits. Specifically, when going on a nature walk our bodies immediately respond with a deeper inhale and that’s because there are more trees which means more available oxygen. Hikes can reset our nervous system, decrease stress, decrease negative thoughts, improve our mood, get our circulation going and so much more. If you often find yourself stressed during a busy work day, try taking a walk to help take your mind off of your tasks for 15 to 30 minutes. Trust me, your body will thank you.”
Our lives can sometimes be so overwhelming to the point where we may not have time to really sit down with ourselves to understand or process what’s happening in our bodies. If you find yourself in this position and are experiencing emotions that you may not fully understand, try doing a full-body scan.
Amy Rosoff Davis, celebrity health trainer and wellness coach, practices full body scans for herself by lying on her back and focusing on connecting with her breath. “I lie on my back in savasana [yoga pose] and connect to my breath as I focus on each muscle, starting with my head and face, the space between my eyebrows, my jaw, etc, moving down through my body, muscle by muscle, to the tips of my toes,” says the fitness trainer and wellness coach. “It's incredibly relaxing. As far as stretching goes.... ‘Let go’ is my mantra, which serves me both mentally and physically in eliminating stress and calming my mind. When you stretch, take a mindful minute, breathe, focus on the muscle that has tension, tell it to relax and let go, and then take another breath. You will stretch deeper with each breath and will be amazed at how relaxed the muscle can become.”
Aside from the physical benefits of yoga such as easing arthritis, back pain, and inflammation, the practice has amazing mental and spiritual benefits too in that it can improve mental clarity, inner peace, and tranquility in the mind and body. “Yoga by definition means a union,’” says Rosoff. “And when you unify the mind and body, you are mindful. This in turn, relieves tension. When you allow yourself the space to breathe and have a mantra, that mind/body connection creates a multitude of health benefits from the inside out, serving both a centered, calm state of mind as well as detoxing the harmful aging effects of stress on a cellular level.”
Aside from having an outlet to release overpowering thoughts, journaling can help track your mental health progress in an effective way. “Journaling gives a tangible voice to the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that overwhelm and silence us,” says Francis. “It allows you to explore and challenge your thoughts, notice your patterns, and most importantly it gives you the non-judgmental freedom to release them. Through paper and pen, you can trace where your anxiety and negative thoughts stem from. You can question if you believe these thoughts to be true, share how they make you feel, and question where you’ve heard them before. Most importantly, you can ask yourself if these negative thoughts are even yours. It gives you an open invitation to sit with them, and offers grace and comfort as you intentionally work through them.”