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Relax your way to better health

Stress. We all experience it. Some people have more stress in their lives than others, and some people have a more difficult time coping with stress. Stress is necessary and helpful in our lives because it gives us the initiative to complete tasks, foster creativity and survive. However, stress can be harmful when it becomes overwhelming and when we do not have balance in our lives.

Too much stress overloads our nervous system, activating our “fight or flight response” and causing a chemical reaction, which if prolonged can wear our body down. Relaxation techniques help to restore equilibrium and let our body know that we are not in a life-threatening situation. Relaxation is not just lying on the couch or sleeping, but is a mentally active process that leaves the body and mind feeling calm, relaxed and focused. There are several different relaxation techniques that work to relieve stress. Try a few out and see what works best for you. Learning relaxation techniques is not difficult, but it does take practice to master them. How long you practice relaxation is up to you, but try to shoot for 10 to 30 minutes a day to see the most benefit.

Relaxation technique No. 1: Deep breathing— Focusing on full, cleansing breaths is easy to learn, easy to do, and you already have all the equipment you need. The key to deep breathing is to breathe deeply from your abdomen so you can inhale more oxygen. The more oxygen you get, the less tense and anxious you will feel.

* Sit comfortably with your back straight or lie down. Place one hand on your stomach.

* Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise.

* Exhale through your mouth, pushing as much air out as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale.

* Keep inhaling and exhaling slowly. You can try to time your breaths, such as breathing in to the count of 10, or you can try to exhale longer than you inhale.

Relaxation technique No. 2: Mindfulness —This is the ability to remain aware of how you are feeling “in the moment.” Thinking about the past or worrying about the future often leads to overwhelming stress. By staying calm and focusing on the moment, you can learn to relax and bring your system back into balance. Mindfulness can be practiced while doing other activities such as walking, eating, exercising or meditating. When practicing mindfulness, focus on a single repetitive action, such as your breathing, a few repetitive words, or a flickering candle. The key points in mindfulness meditation are:

* A quiet environment: Choose a place where you can relax without distractions or interruptions.

* A comfortable position: Get comfortable, but try to avoid lying down, as this may cause you to fall asleep.  Sit in a comfortable chair or cross-legged on the floor.

* A point of focus: You can choose to close your eyes and focus on your internal thoughts. You can also choose to focus on an object in your environment.

* An observant, noncritical attitude: Let your thoughts come into your mind and float right out. Many people find it helpful to think of your thoughts as on a cloud, floating past you. Do not focus on a thought and begin to worry about it, or judge yourself for it. If you find yourself worrying, ruminating, or judging, don’t judge your judging. Just focus your attention back to the present and start again. This is the most difficult part of being mindful.

The most important part of incorporating relaxation techniques into your life is to find something that relieves your stress.  If deep breathing or mindfulness doesn’t work for you, feel free to try other activities that work better for you. Yoga classes are available at Anytime Fitness, YMCA and The Lighthouse. Just remember to breathe and find a good balance in your life.

Your challenge for week 7 is to practice a relaxation technique five of the seven days of the week to earn 15 points. Try one of the above relaxation techniques, a yoga or meditation class, or select a guided relaxation online. Relax your way to better health.