Learning to recognise the various signs and symptoms related to the stress response can help us take steps to manage their impact by eliciting the relaxation response. There are many ways to achieve this including meditation, practising mindfulness, relaxation exercises and specific breathing techniques. Of these I have found using de-stress breathing provides a fast and simple way to accomplish this quickly and easily in any situation.
Physiotherapist and Director
Other articles in this series
The deep front line muscles can all be activated by the stress response causing extensive stiffness, aches and pains and even burning or tingling sensations from the top of your head to the tips of your toes.
Your jaw muscles are a convenient place to test for tension to determine if your stress response is on. I refer to the jaw muscles as your “stress-o-meter”. They will feel tender and tight to touch.
It is also helpful to test any other affected muscle groups such as the sides of your neck or the inner thigh (adductor) muscles just above the knee.
Because our breathing pattern changes with the stress response, we can also use breathing to turn it off.
Anatomy Trains 3rd edition 2015
- Lie down face up or sit in a high-backed chair.
- Test the jaw muscles for tension and any other affected muscles
- Move your shoulders down away from ears as far as possible.
- Place your hands separated on your lower ribs
- Take five slow deep breaths
Breathe in slowly for the count of 4 and out for the count of 4. Increase each breath by 1 count until you reach 8 counts. Ensure that you are breathing through your lower ribs only, and you are not lifting your shoulders.
- Re-test for jaw tension and other affected areas.
- Repeat the 8-count breath if required and re-test
Monitor your jaw frequently throughout the day to check for tension. This will indicate when you need to repeat your de-stress breathing.
Tip: Use this technique:
- before bed
- before difficult conversations or meetings
- after stressful situations
Please feel free to use this voice recording of the de-stress breathing technique and pass it on to others
Exercises to help with stress
Targeted stretches for the deep front line muscles which are activated by the stress response can help you manage any specific aches and pains. As the stress response tends to crash your core muscles, it is important to re-boot you core muscles after doing de-stress breathing.
Warning: Stretch only to discomfort not pain. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds to 1 minute unless otherwise instructed. Stop the exercise and consult your therapist if your symptoms worsen or your experience pins and needles or numbness. Repeat 2-3 times daily
If you are clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth at night, it is likely you will wake with jaw pain. Increased jaw tension can cause damage your teeth, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), restrict your upper neck mobility and give you a headache. Different jaw muscles are activated in clenching and grinding.
Jaw opening stretch (clenching)
- Swallow before starting the stretch.
- Open jaw as far as possible.
- Place fingertips on top of your chin.
- Gently push your jaw up into fingers.
- Resist this movement with fingers so that jaw does not move. Hold for 5 seconds.
- Relax and open jaw as far as possible and hold in open the position for 5 seconds.
- Repeat sequence x 3 times.
Jaw side stretch (grinding)
- Swallow before starting the stretch.
- Stretch away from the tight side.
- Relax the jaw open.
- Place your thumb and index finger around your chin.
- Stabilise top of your head with other hand.
- Gently slide your jaw sideways with your thumb towards index finger and hold in position.
- Gently push your jaw to towards thumb.
- Resist the movement with your thumb so that your jaw does not move. Hold 5 sec.
- Relax and slide jaw gently to the side towards index finger. Hold 5 sec.
- Repeat sequence x 3.
Warning: do not use forceful or sudden movements. Stop if you experience pain or clicking in your jaw.
Warning: Do not stretch into pain and stop the exercise if you experience pain, pins and needles or numbness in your arm.
Sitting in a chair, reach down and hold either under the seat or the leg of the chair.
Part 1: Tip your head to the opposite side keeping, your ear in line with your shoulder to feel a stretch down the side of the neck and shoulder. Hold for 20 seconds.
Part 2: From this position tip your head slightly forwards to feel a stretch along the back part of the side of your neck and shoulder. Hold for 20 seconds.
Part 3: Tip your head slightly forwards to feel a stretch along the front part of the side of your neck and shoulder. Hold for 20 seconds.
Hip flexors with side stretch
- Position a chair for support on the opposite side to the hip being stretched.
- Stand in a lunge position with the leg behind you.
- Keep the back knee straight and squeeze the buttocks to tilt the pelvis backwards. You should start to feel a stretch in the front of the hip.
- Maintain the backward tilt of the pelvis as you lunge forward by bending the front knee to feel an increase in the stretch at the front of the hip.
- Raise the arm on the side of the back leg and tilt your upper body towards the chair to feel a stretch into the abdomen and waist.
Inner thighs and knees
- Stand with the feet apart and the knees straight.
- Push the hips sideways to feel a stretch along the inner thigh.
- To stretch the right leg, push the hips to the left.
- To stretch the left leg, push the hips to the right.
Warning: stop the exercise if you feel pins and needles or sharp pain in your feet. Do not use a spiky ball to avoid damaging the plantar fascia.
- Stand next to a supporting surface
- Place the tennis ball under your foot just in front of the heel
- Apply pressure on the ball to a firm but comfortable pressure
- Maintain the pressure as you roll over foot over the ball keeping the toes relaxed
- Work along the outside, middle and inside of the sole of the foot
- Continue for 2 minutes
- Place a rolled towel against the edge of a step. A thick book or folder or yoga block can also be used.
- Place the foot with the toes bent upwards against the towel with the ball of the foot on the ground
- Bend the knee forwards over the step to feel a stretch under the toes and along the inside of the ankle or shin
Reboot your core
Less is more when it comes to your core. The core muscles comprise the deep abdominal muscles (transverse abdominus) the diaphragm and the pelvic floor. These muscles function at low loads and should be active most of the time without us thinking too much about them. These muscles tend to crash when we are stressed and assume poor postures. Maintaining an optimal alignment and correct breathing will help activate your core.
- Lie on a firm surface with your knees bent
- Place a low support for your head such as a low pillow or folded towel so that you are looking at the ceiling
- Maintain a slight arch in the lower back, enough to slide your hand under it.
- Bring the shoulders back and down towards the floor
- Maintain this position as you breathe into your lower ribs for the count of 6.
- As you breathe out, think about lowering your breastbone down towards the floor. You should feel a gentle contraction in your abdominal wall.
- Repeat x 6
Tip: A quick exercise to feel your pelvic floor contract with your deep abdominal muscles can be done when you go to the toilet. Gently sink your fingers into both sides your lower abdomen, just inside the front pelvic bones, and try altering the flow when you urinate.
I photographed this in Ravello, Italy last year. The roses are naturally in a heart shape on the bush.
Other tips to minimise stress
- walking or being in nature
- observe the beauty around you
- focus your attention when doing tasks like gardening or cleaning
- a daily dose of sunshine
- minimise exposure to the 24-hour news cycle
- if it is getting too noisy, listen to your favourite music through headphones
- watch or listen to something that makes you laugh
- take a long bath
- drink herbal teas that help you sleep
- do something that gives you pleasure
- talk with people who inspire and support you
- Mindsight: Change Your Brain and Your Life Daniel J Seigel
ISBN: 9781921844997 Publication: 2012
- Anatomy trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists
by Thomas W. Myers Publication: 2015
- Conversational intelligence Judith E.Glaser Publication: 2016
- Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman Publication:1996