So, in that tough-love tradition, here’s a new fact about stress from a recent study: psychological stress is as serious of a heart attack risk factor as more routinely measured cardiovascular threats, like smoking, high blood pressure, or elevated cholesterol.
Anecdotally, I can share this: last year two friends my age had heart incidents — one life-threatening. That person, for the record, is a marathon runner, sober, and in otherwise excellent health.
Not to stress you out. In fact, the opposite: it’s time to get better at relaxation.
Build Your Relaxation Muscle
Back in the day, relaxing felt like our right (preach, Frankie!). But as adults handling more stress at midlife than ever before — from the pandemic to sandwich generation caregiving — it can feel impossible to chill out.
The good news is relaxation is a skill you can build, according to pioneering stress specialist Dr. Edmund Jacobson. His early 20th-century work on the connection between physical tension and mental well-being led to the development of “progressive muscle relaxation,” a simple two-step stress-release process.
First, learn to recognize what a particular muscle feels like when it is flexed. Then, focusing on that muscle in the flexed state, do the opposite of flexing: Relax.
Sounds simple, but the effect on your physiology is profound. While your body comes wired with a stress response (fight/flight/freeze/please) to keep you safe, it also has an opposite and equally important “relaxation response.”
Once triggered, it slows your breathing and decreases your blood pressure and heart rate, helping alleviate conditions from anxiety and insomnia to chronic pain, hypertension, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Muscle Through It
The technique is simple and quick: all it takes is 10-15 minutes daily. Here’s how it works:
- Find a quiet, comfortable spot to lay or sit.
- Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
- Start by clenching your hands into a fist on an inhale for five seconds.
- Release the tension and your fists for another five seconds on the exhale.
- Repeat this process of tensing/relaxing other muscle groups (i.e., flex your biceps and triceps, shrug your shoulders, wrinkle your forehead, tightly close your eyes, clench your jaw, smile wide, arch your lower back, point your toes for the lower leg).
- Notice how your body and mind feel throughout.
Much like meditation, progressive muscle relaxation gives your mind and body a rest. But unlike the eyes-closed practice, you can relax on the go — the perfect practice for X-tremely busy people.
Relaxing Is a Skill. Here’s How to Do It. (New York Times)