Exercises to get the zone and the Zen
Brendan Rolfe, CPHR, BA, DipA
Stress is bad, right? Clammy palms, pie-plate stains on the armpits of your shirt, and ruining any opportunity to make a good impression on a first date are all hallmarks. But stress can also be a performance enhancer, highlighted by heightened sensitivity, elevated awareness, and increased blood supply to muscles. Here’s how to make stress work for you.
Is stress good or bad? According to some recent research, there is no such thing as inherently good stress or bad stress, only how you interpret the world around you. If your experience of a stimulus is negative, then it will likely cause a reaction in your body that can have a negative impact on your health (known as “distress”), whereas if your experience is positive, it can help improve your state of being (known as “eustress”). This means that you have the ability to take any stimulus (good or bad) and use it to your benefit. Pretty empowering, no?
Acute exposure (meaning for a short period of time) to “bad stress” stimulates an increase in body temperature and perspiration, increased heart rate, and increased secretion of a hormone called cortisol.
Over a short exposure period, there is typically no lasting detriment to your health; in fact, benefits are often found in this state. In sports, athletes call this being in a state of “flow,” where everything comes easily and you feel unstoppable.
Studies of long-term exposure to stressors, however, paint a very different picture. Increased and prolonged exposure to stress has been linked to physical maladies such as heart conditions, Alzheimer’s, and cancer, as well as psychological maladies such as anxiety and depression.
When a stimulus negatively affects your well-being, it often begins psychologically and then manifests itself through physical symptoms. To release this feeling, it’s imperative to manage both the physical and psychological symptoms.
You have several options available to you, but three methods stand out in my experience: progressive muscle relaxation; autoregulation within high-intensity, low-impact exercises; and mindful breathing during yoga.
In progressive muscle relaxation, you tense a group of muscles as you breathe in and relax them as you breathe out.
Try beginning with large muscle groups first (abdominals, quadriceps, glutes, chest, back) and then advance to the small muscle groups (calves, shoulders, biceps, triceps).
Autoregulation is the practice of basing physical exertion on current perception, rather than on a preconceived exertion level.
High-intensity, low-impact exercises are those exercises that exhaust your body, but have no or little associated force on joints, such as certain dancing, rowing, or isometric exercises.
Once again, the key word is “mindfulness.” Rather than zoning out to music or thoughts about your workday, be present in the exercise, consider how you are feeling, and adjust your effort accordingly.
Mindful breathing is the practice of controlling the pace, depth, and region of your body used to breathe. Yoga is a mindful practice of focused stretching, breath, and meditation.
In my experience the three best options are restorative, vinyasa, and yin yoga. Instructors will guide you; however, you can expect slow, deep breaths in through your nose, slow audible exhaling through your mouth, and a focus on feeling your breath in your belly, rather than your lungs.
Did you know that simply taking a multivitamin each day may help reduce stress? There are several other herbs and supplements linked to stress relief, so you can go from seeing red to ready for bed.
Bacopa is a semi-tropical plant known for its cognitive-enhancing effects.
Camomile is a European flower commonly made into tea, used traditionally to calm the nerves and treat insomnia.
Lavender is another flower whose oil has antibacterial properties but whose scent is commonly used to treat anxiety.
A version of this article was published in the December 2019 issue of alive Canada with the title “I stress, eustress, we all stress without fitness.”