Stress Reduction Made Easy

It goes without saying that these are pretty stressful times we’re all going through. Whether it’s politics, the economy, fuel costs and availability, or our innumerable personal issues, it seems that almost everyone I talk to is walking around with an unusual amount of stress. Emotional and mental worries and tension can lead to physical tension held in your muscles. So, I thought I’d offer some suggestions for how to neutralize as much of that stress as possible. Keep in mind that if you are feeling generally stressed in your life, you might need to initiate a program to “de-stress” yourself on a daily basis. Katherine and I have morning rituals, including ChiWalking or ChiRunning, meditation, and a good breakfast to make sure we start the day as centered, focused and relaxed as possible.

Walking and running have been proven to be highly effective in lowering stress levels for anyone willing to lace up a pair of shoes and head out the door. What ChiWalking and ChiRunning have to offer are specific things you can do that will quiet your mind and relax your body. As you practice relaxing your body, you’ll find that your ChiWalking and ChiRunning form will also improve. Most things go better when you are strong within and relaxed and flexible without. Here are a few things you can practice when your stress meter is about to max out.

Start Simple

One of the most effective ways to combat stress — whether you’re sitting at your desk or sitting in your car — is belly breathing. It has been used by many cultures for centuries and has been proven to produce an immediate calming effect, it’s easy to learn, and you can do it anytime.

Babies and small children belly breathe naturally. But as we grow older we tend to take on more tension in our lives which creates a tendency to breath in a shallow way, filling only the upper lung cavities with fresh oxygen. Here’s what happens in your body when you breathe in this way. Shallow breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system which is your fight-or-flight response (i.e., survival instinct). This in turn stimulates stress receptors in the chest and increases the heart rate. Shallow breathing triggers the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, causes the body to burn blood sugar and store fat, raises blood pressure rates (as a result of lower oxygenation rates), and ultimately overloads the adrenal glands.

Belly breathing (diaphragmatic breathing), on the other hand, draws breath into the lower lobes of the lungs where most of the oxygen exchange goes on anyway. This stimulates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. As a result, the body releases a beneficial cocktail of hormones, namely seratonin and beta-endorphin, your heart rate and blood pressure decrease, your circulation improves, and you feel an overall calming effect and sense of well-being.

Here’s how to practice belly breathing:
  1. Stand in your best posture. Straighten up your upper spine by lengthening the back of your neck and lifting your body from the crown of your head.
  2. Purse your lips like you’re going to blow a candle out.
  3. With your abdominal muscles, try to pull your belly button towards your spine while blowing out through your lips.
  4. When you’ve exhaled as much as you can, relax your abdominals and allow the air to fill your lungs.

You can either breathe out through your mouth and in through your nose, or in and out through only your nose. Either way works. But breathing in and out through your nose has a much more calming effect on your nervous system.

Lower your stress level by walking

You’ve just had the “day from hell” and your stress level is through the roof. (it doesn’t have to be this extreme, so feel free to do this walk if there’s just a little stress in your life.) This walk does just what it says. It’s the Calming Walk (pg. 129 in the ChiWalking Book). So, whenever you need to take the edge off and realign yourself with a more sane sense in your body, just take yourself out for this walk. You’ll come back a different person. This is a perfect walk to practice the belly breathing technique you just read about… especially nose breathing.

If you have the time to spare, I highly suggest that you make yourself a cup of decaffeinated herbal tea before heading out. One of the most calming teas is chamomile. You remember: it’s the tea that Peter Rabbit’s mother gave him after his ordeal with Farmer McGregor. She knew exactly what tea would calm Peter Rabbit and help him recover from his near-death experience. It’s a wonderfully calming drink and is sold in teabags in many grocery stores and specialty food markets. Brew yourself a cup. Then take a few minutes to sit comfortably and sip while you let all those worries of your day melt away like icicles in Spring.

When you’re done with your tea, put on your most comfortable pair of shoes and head out for a walk. Start with aligning your posture and engaging your core so that your energy can flow well while you’re walking.

The theme of a Calming Walk is to do whatever it takes to settle your energy. For most people, it’s not the energy in their body that needs calming … it’s the energy in their heads. So, the best tactic is to redirect your mental energy away from your head by focusing on your feet touching the ground. Focusing on your feet is a very effective way to stop thinking. Begin walking with a very slow relaxing stride (50 strides per minute, counting only one leg). This is not intended to be a physical workout as much as a mental break.

For this walk, swing your arms fully extended at your sides in a nice relaxed way. Begin by focusing on your breath. Breathe out for three strides and then in for three. If possible, try to breathe through your nose the entire time. During your in-breath feel your belly and chest expand with calming energy and then, on your out breath, feel that energy move down your spine and flow into your center, just below your navel. Spend the first ten minutes of your walk just breathing this way, slowly and deeply through your nose. Return your focus to feeling your feet on the ground with each step.

It works much better if you can do this walk alone. Carrying on a conversation with a friend while trying to calm yourself is not a good bet for success because you’ll most likely get into talking about whatever it was that made you uptight to begin with.

Once you’ve been walking and breathing fully for ten minutes, imagine a waterfall flowing down your spine carrying with it all the tensions of the day. Let it begin at the base of your skull and cascade down to your tailbone … continuously flowing and washing all of the tension out of your body as it flows down your spine. If you find your thoughts wandering, just gently return to your feet or your breathing or the waterfall focus. Walk with these focuses for at least 20-30 minutes or for as long as you feel the need.

When you’re finished with your walk, find a nice spot and take a few minutes to just sit and relax. Remain silent and just watch the world go by. How often do we let ourselves do this? Take a moment to sense the calmness in your body and mind. This is a very important step to take, because it builds in you a sense that you can and do have control over your anxious moments. With this walk you can neutralize anxiety regularly before it gets a chance to build up inside.

Lower your stress level by running

It’s clearly apparent to me that whenever I go into a run feeling uptight in any way, I’ll almost always come back a calmer, more relaxed person than when I took off. If you’re a runner and use your running to get out of your mind and into your body, you’ll like this one. It’ll have a profound effect on lowering your stress level.

I had a spiritual teacher that once said, “True relaxation comes from the absence of unnecessary effort.” This single statement has for many years been a reminder for me to look at the areas of my running, and my life in general, where I’m efforting more than I need to. So, this run is based on the premise that less is better… less effort, less speed, less thinking, less focus on results of any kind. Because it has always worked so well for me in stressful times, I’ve come to call it the Fun Run (pg. 143 in the ChiRunning Book).

Here are the ground rules for the Fun Run:
  • No agenda: Just put on your shoes and head out the door without planning where you’re going to run. Run in whichever direction your impulse pulls you…with the exception of Starbucks.
    No fast speeds: It’s difficult to truly let go of deeper stress and tension when you’re running at faster speeds. Trying to run out your stress is one way you might get injured, pushing yourself harder than your body is conditioned to do. When you’re stressed, you want to learn to relax and loosen. Save speed for another day when you will practice going faster by relaxing even more.
    No time limit: Leave your watch at home and run until you sense the need in your body to head back.

Since you’ll be running well within your aerobic range it should be easier to run without worrying about how far you’re going to go. It might be 20 minutes and it might be longer than you’ve run in a long time. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re enjoying being in your body and not in your head. When I was living in San Francisco I used to carry bus fare with me and just run without worrying about when to turn around. When I felt like it was time to stop, I’d start looking for the nearest public transportation that would get me back to where I started.

When I go out for a Fun Run my bottom-line guiding principle is to enjoy myself. Anything goes. I allow myself total freedom to run anywhere, to stop and take in Nature and my surroundings, to chat with people as I’m waiting for the light to change, to run at any pace as long as I’m not efforting to hold that pace. It is a very freeing way to run, and one of the best ways to say goodbye to stress.

Make an agreement

There are about as many ways to be uptight as there are people on this planet. Fears and tension keep us from being ourselves and more importantly, from feeling ourselves. Holding tension in your body is not going to increase your bank account. Relaxation creates a sense of freedom in everything, whether it’s walking, running, driving in rush hour traffic, or handling a child’s tantrum. The biggest challenge for most of us is feeling when we’re not relaxed so that we can do something about it.

Now that you have some choices as to what to do when you’re feeling stressed out, make an agreement with yourself that you’ll regularly take the time to sit quietly and scan your entire body from head to toe looking for anywhere you’re holding tension. When you can locate those places in your body (or mind) Belly Breathe, and then treat yourself to either a Calming Walk or a Fun Run. You’ll know you’ve done your job when you can feel energy flowing through that tight area once again.

In any situation, what is most important is how we respond to whatever comes our way. Eventually you will get so good at relaxing that life won’t seem as stressful and your strong center and your relaxed, flexible attitude will become your norm.

That’s what we call ChiLiving.


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