Mental Health Exercises to Help Alleviate Stress

A Healthier Michigan

| 4 min read

Your brain serves many purposes, including giving you warnings and protecting you against threats. When these real or perceived threats happen or add up, the warning signs or messages from the brain can manifest as stress or even panic, even if the threat doesn’t call for such a response.

How does stress build up?

Stress affects the whole body and the body’s functions, including the respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous, gastrointestinal, endocrine, and reproductive systems. Stress manifests in each of these systems and builds up differently. According to the American Psychological Association, stress builds in various ways, including: 
  • muscle tension, including both acute and chronic tension
  • headaches and migraines
  • back and limb pain
  • triggered respiratory conditions or breathing issues
  • increased heart rate and risk of hypertension
  • increased production or release of stress hormones 
  • increased risk of bowel disorders or sensitivity
  • impairment of the nervous system
  • reproductive or menstrual issues
Many of these issues are either caused or exacerbated by stress. Chronic stress can extend these issues into chronic issues as well if left untreated or unmitigated.

Ways to avoid or prevent stress

Avoiding stress can be a tall task with the demands of life. There are lifestyle changes or habits that can help to alleviate routine stressors or triggers for stress or panic. Some of the best ways to avoid stress include:
  • eat and drink a heart-healthy, balanced diet
  • get regular exercise
  • stop smoking and stop drinking
  • learn how to meditate and focus your thoughts
  • incorporate positive self-talk 

5 exercises or activities for alleviating stress

When a moment of acute stress arrives or you can feel chronic stress creeping in, you may need ways to stop the stress in real-time and respond to how you are feeling. There are ways to help yourself calm down, relax, untense, and alleviate your stress.

1. Breathing exercises and deep breathing

There are many ways to approach breathing exercises and to teach yourself how to fix your breathing, deepening and slowing it, to help you calm down. An easy way to start breathing exercises is to start with a round of 10 purposeful, focused, slow, and deep breaths. The focus of breathing exercises is to focus on your breathing and be in control of it. This can help regulate oxygen flow, prevent hyperventilation, and calm you down. According to Harvard Medical School, a simple breathing exercise properly done for stress alleviation can slow your breathing, reduce your heart rate, and lower your stress hormones.

2. Autogenic relaxation and positive self-talk

Autogenic relaxation refers to self-soothing or relaxation that comes from within yourself, according to the Mayo Clinic. Positive self-talk and self-soothing can have a real effect on your self-image, mental health, and stress levels. Try replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts about yourself and your capabilities. You can even say them aloud to yourself.

3. Visualization practices

Not unlike positive self-talk, visualization is also self-contained and self-started. Picture places, situations, events, or features that calm you down and bring you into a more relaxed mood. Maybe for you this is a landscape, water, or a quiet place away from everything. Visualize what it is that brings you peace and focus on your breathing exercises as well. Combining visualization, self-talk, and breathing exercises is possible even at a desk or in a cubicle.

4. Progressive muscle relaxation and stretching

Stretching your muscles is a great way to release stress that builds up over time. Progressive stretching involves focusing on one area at a time, stretching and untensing the muscle groups purposefully and mindfully before moving on to the next part. It is best done starting with the toes and moving up to the neck and head, according to the Mayo Clinic. Tense your muscles for 5 seconds before releasing them for 30, and then move on to the next body part to stretch and relax. Shake it off afterward to loosen up.

5. Get up and get moving

Exercise can be hard to do when you are stressed or anxious, but it can be one of the best activities for alleviating stress. A 10–15-minute walk outside can help to soothe stress, calm emotions, and help your mind subconsciously sort through stressful thoughts or situations. Focus on finding an active response to stress that works for you, whether it is a walk, jumping jacks, stretches, or anything that gets you up and moving for a little bit of time when you need to alleviate stress. Regular exercise also will help to alleviate chronic stress.

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