Meditation is one of the easiest, and best, ways to release stress. We all experience stress as we move through our daily lives. Feeling frazzled or overwhelmed is something many of us would prefer to avoid. Unfortunately, avoiding stressors just isn’t possible. The good news is, we can reduce our exposure, and reframe our perception of these experiences. As we learn to manage our reactions, we let go of tension and mitigate its negative effects. Releasing stress is an important aspect of recovering, both mentally and physically. Regularly meditating to unwind, relax, and shed everyday stress, is a habit that promotes long-term health and wellness.
Interpreting Our Stress
Not all stress has negative impacts or outcomes.
Hans Selye coined the term eustress to describe stressors that positively affect us. Anyone who has been ready to take on a new challenge, or tackle a big project, is experientially familiar with this term. This is equally true of anyone who has shuffled their schedule to accommodate a new relationship, or pushed their body a little further to achieve a new personal best. When we are experiencing eustress, we may stay up late to finish just one last thing, and still spring out of bed hours before the alarm, full of energy and brimming with excitement.
One of the key differences between eustress and distress is that with eustress we feel up to the challenge at hand. We see what is happening to us as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. We believe we will succeed. It is likely that we have chosen, or are in control of, the stressor rather than feeling like it was thrust upon us.
Although our stress is often experienced, in the moment, as negative, the effects may be fleeting. When we’re stuck in traffic, we may feel very frustrated, but as soon as we’re moving again, our tension fades away. There isn’t necessarily a cumulative effect of the stress from sitting in morning traffic every time you go into work, but it’s more likely there is.
If the causes of our stress are ongoing, or occur frequently enough, they lead to chronic stress. Even something that occurs only once can lead to an ongoing stress response. Traumatic events, for example, can cause stress decades after an incident. This happens when we are unable to process and release stress, along with the resulting tension. When we hold onto emotional pressure, anxiety, and physical strain, the effects are even more severe.
Noticing Tension & Strain to Release Stress
When do you first become aware of stress? Does it have a tendency to sneak up on you?
Sometimes, by the time we concede that there is an issue, we:
- are becoming frustrated easily and snapping at people we care about
- feel completely overwhelmed and lack motivation
- have shut ourselves off from the world and decided that from here on out it’s just us, Netflix, and a tub of ice cream
- need to refocus because our mind is racing
Our body is typically reacting to stress long before we’re consciously aware of it. As we become more adept at observing ourselves, we cultivate our ability to detect the early signs of stress. In other words, regular meditation increases our awareness of physical sensations, also called bodysensing. Additionally, It raises awareness of the multitude of ways our mind and body connect and interact.
“Regular elicitation of the Relaxation Response can prevent,
and compensate for, the damage incurred by
frequent nervous reactions that
pulse through our hearts and bodies.”
The Relaxation Response
Experiencing stress results in muscle tension, or muscle rigidity. The manifestations of stress in the body vary from person to person, but there are common responses, which occur in a predictable sequence.
Some of the most common early indicators include:
- Aches and pains
- Nail biting
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Clenching fists or jaw
- Decreased energy
- Digestive issues
- Grinding teeth
- Muscle tension
Built Up Stress, Was There a Warning?
One of the main reasons stress sneaks up on us is that we spend the majority of our time focused on what’s happening around us. This external focus can cause us to, quite literally, lose touch with ourselves. By example, people can become so immersed in what they are doing that they:
- suddenly realize they’re totally famished because it’s been so long since they’ve eaten anything
- find themselves sprinting to the toilet, because they failed to “check in” with their bladder until it was an emergency situation
- realize their legs have gone completely numb, fallen asleep, while they were sitting in one position for too long
“From early childhood onward, most of us get into bad habits
in the way we use our bodies.
These eventually include not only a bad diet,
excessive drinking, smoking and lack of exercise,
but also the way in which we hold ourselves,
the way we move, and the way we breathe.
Over the years, tensions creep up on us almost unnoticed.”
David Fontana, PhD
Learn to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Self-Discovery and Fulfillment
Release Stress to Restore the Mind-Body Connection
Meditation and mindfulness encourage a more balanced focus. Through practice, we become more aware of both what’s happening internally and externally. When we are allowing ourselves to be calm and still, we are able to notice our thoughts, emotions, and also physical sensations.
Although any meditation technique might increase body awareness, release stress, and relieve tension, there are a few techniques specifically designed for this purpose.
Release Stress using Body Scanning Techniques
Body scanning is a meditative technique that lets the mind wander, searching the body, looking for areas that are holding tension. Over time, body scans can reveal patterns in where and how we hold onto stress.
Below is an audio recording that will guide you through a short body scanning session. Before you begin, find a quiet, comfortable place to lie down. Once you’re situated, press play.
When you’re finished, take one more deep breath, wiggle your toes and fingers, bring your knees up to your chest, then roll onto one side. Gradually open your eyes, letting the outside world back in. Give yourself a minute to adjust, then slowly sit up.
Listening to the Body
Our bodies are full of wisdom, all we need to do is learn to listen. When we take the time to unwind and release stress, we reduce its residual effects. Finding ways to relax unshackles us from the weight of the associated tension, strain, and pain. Relieved of that burden, we’re freed to experience joy, wonder, and gratitude. We have the energy to run, play, and live life to the fullest.
As we develop our meditation practice, we don’t just release stress, we also become less likely to retain or store it, in the first place.