by Brenna Liebold
Each of these elements makes a great relaxation technique on its own. When combined, though, magic happens! Let me break down how each one helps you manage stress and then provide some direction on the "reflection" part.
Exercise as a Stress Management Tool
Physical movement repeatedly turns up as a focus of research on stress, anxiety, and depression. Although it consistently proves itself as an effective way to help manage these conditions, it remains underutilized. No two individuals share the same body chemistry; thought, belief, and habit patterns; or responsiveness to medication and therapy. Adding to the unpredictability, medications and therapy for stress, anxiety, and depression often take time to start working and may change in effectiveness over time. Exercise shines as the go-to tool for filling in the gaps and boosting other treatments.
Exercise reduces stress, in part, by bringing closure to the stress cycle. The stress response prepares you to fight or flee, both physical in nature. However, If you never actually do either, your brain may not recognize that a threat no longer exists. Exercise tells the brain that you did, indeed, take the appropriate physical action, so it no longer needs to keep the body primed for movement.
The Nurturing Element of Nature
The great outdoors holds a curious power over us, in a good way. Whether that power lies in the feel of sunshine on our shoulders, visible beauty, or something in the air, it lowers stress levels in as few as five minutes! Do I need to say anything else to encourage you to enjoy a walk outside instead of on a treadmill?
Breathe in Relaxation
The absent-minded way of breathing that most of us habitually practice throughout the day does not apply here. Breathing during a walking reflection helps you tune out thought distractions and feel calmer but only if you engage your diaphragm. Take a big breath right now, and notice which part of your body moves the most: shoulders, chest, or stomach. Movement of your shoulders or chest indicate shallow, stressed breathing. If your stomach moved, or more precisely the area between your belly button and your rib cage, you took advantage of that diaphragm and got the deepest breath possible.
When you inhale, your diaphragm muscle works like the plunger inside of a syringe. It contracts downward, creating a vacuum that causes your lungs above it to expand into the empty space and suck air into the body, similar to what happens if you pull back on the plunger inside of a syringe barrel. As your lungs fill with air, your rib cage expands; and your internal organs get pushed down, making your belly stick out. Despite defying many cultures' standards of physical beauty, this type of breathing quickly stops the production of stress hormones.
The Impact of Mindfulness in Reducing Stress
Awareness of your body, thoughts and feelings, and environment (a basic definition of mindfulness) plays a key role in the stress management process. It improves your ability to accurately interpret the signals from your brain and body that indicate the first appearance of stress. The timing of these signals helps you identify your stress triggers, or what causes stress, which then helps you make healthier, long-term choices about how to respond to stress and ultimately prevent it.
In a walking reflection, mindfulness takes shape in a shifting awareness of the various parts of your body. Focusing on a physical sensation also offers a distraction from thoughts that trigger stress, preventing brain fatigue from overthinking. The reprieve your brain gets might appear to be temporary, but even brief shifts toward more positive thoughts build resilience to stress.
Adding Gratitude to Your Relaxation Routine
Practicing gratitude also contributes to resilience by moving emotions in a positive direction. Anxiety, confusion, doubt, and pessimism quickly replace confidence and contentment when stress contaminates your brain. The benefits gained by acknowledging the things you appreciate include better control over emotions and reduction of the stress hormones flooding your body. More surprising than this, gratitude exercises make you more likely to engage in self-care activities, including exercise.
Music's Contributions to Relaxation
Often thought of as an optional aesthetic in stress management, music actually enhances most relaxation techniques and sets off triggers for relaxation within the brain. In the case of a walking reflection, music coordinates your movement, improves your mood, helps you focus your attention, and grounds you in the present moment. It also distracts you from the physical effort of walking so that you fatigue less quickly and enjoy it more.
Putting All of the Pieces Together in a "Walking Reflection"
Allow yourself about 20 to 30 minutes to reap the benefits of a walking reflection. Find music you consider energizing and uplifting with a strong beat that matches an easy, steady walking pace for you. Opt for music without lyrics, if possible, so that you keep your thoughts focused on the reflection prompts without inviting constant distraction from the words in the song. Not only could it raise your stress level, it could also leave you feeling drained instead of energized by the end of the walk from dividing your attention.
Swing your arms naturally at your sides, and take a deep breath in through your nose. Pause the breath for just a moment before releasing from your mouth. Keep the back of your throat and nose open when you stop the flow of breath to prevent any unnecessary muscle tension. Drop your shoulders nice and low, especially when inhaling and pausing the breath. Roll your shoulders back and down if you feel them start to creep up toward your ears.
Bring your attention to different parts of your body as you walk. A sequence that flows from one area to a nearby one will help you remember the reflection more easily in the future and shift your attention quickly. The positive thoughts and perspectives to increase internal awareness that follow relate to each body area to make them easy to recall. That way, you won't need to print out and read the list as you walk. Don't worry if the reflection prompts feel a little difficult or awkward at first; It gets easier and faster with practice. Come up with one thought or response to start and increase to two or three new thoughts on each walk.
Check on your breathing often as you walk, taking deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Notice any changes from when you started. Does it feel easier to breathe deeply? Do your breaths feel more rhythmic?
One more thought to add at the end of your walking reflection. Finish this statement with a positive word or phrase to take with you into the rest of your day and repeat later to yourself to come back to this moment of focus and connection with your thoughts and body.
You finish the sentence. Make sure this affirmation feels good to you. Say it out loud or to yourself several times as you finish your walk and throughout the rest of the day!
Go for It, And Make Today a Great Day!
After finishing your first walking reflection, leave a comment below to share your experience. Imagine how it would affect you if made a regular part of your weekly schedule, say two to three times a week. Once you familiarize yourself with the cues above to focus your attention, your thoughts will flow pretty easily. Have fun experimenting with whatever music you like as long as it promotes a gentle walking pace and doesn't interfere with your reflection.
I'm a music therapist, dog mom, nature enthusiast, business owner, sleep and stress management coach, and research lover. My mission is to help you remove stress as a barrier to better health, greater happiness, and more meaningful connections with the people and passions that make life exciting.
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