When we experience stress, our bodies kick into survival mode. We secrete neurotransmitters (chemical messengers made by brain cells) and hormones (chemical messengers made by glands) which prepare us to respond to perceived danger. This experience is commonly known as the "Fight or Flight" response (there's a "Freeze" response, too, but that's a post for another time).
Fight or Flight Mode
In Fight or Flight mode, our heart rate increases, our breathing hastens and becomes more shallow, blood pressure rises, and many advanced cognitive functions (such as evaluating options, planning, and decision-making) are inhibited. This can be helpful when survival literally depends on flighting or fleeing. In these moments, planning for the weekend, or retirement, or even your next meal isn't helpful- immediate safety is. Unfortunately, our Fight or Flight response takes over under less dire circumstances. This often leads us to act reactively without fully considering more helpful options. Even worse, chronically being in this state is associated with increased risk of experiencing serious health problems, such as heart disease and stroke.
Rapid Relaxation: QTR in 5 Steps
Don't let the seriousness of chronic stress discourage you. There are lots of ways to reduce your stress level, including skills you can do right now, in this very moment. Quick Tensing and Release (QTR) is one such skill. It can be done in just a few minutes and it goes like this:
Step 1: Tense your feet, lower legs, thighs, and butt. Hold them tightly for a few moments and notice the tension. Seriously. Notice how it feels to be contracting these muscles.
Step 2: Release the tension completely and let all those muscles soften and relax. Notice what this feels like.
Step 3: Now tense your hands, forearms, upper arms , shoulders, abdomen, chest, and facial muscles. Squeeze tightly and notice how it feels to be contracting so many muscles at the same time.
Step 4: Then release the tension completely and let all those muscles soften and relax. .
Step 5: Take some slow, deep breaths and notice how relaxed you feel. As you keep breathing, imagine your muscles softening more and more with each exhale.
Why Does This Work?
Whenever you create muscle tension by contracting a muscles, muscle relaxation necessarily follows as muscle fibers return to their low-tension state. Since our emotional, cognitive, and physiological states are interconnected, we can hack our stressed-out brains (so to speak) by inducing physical relaxation.
Just like you wouldn't try a new skill for the first time in big game, match, or performance and realistically expect great results, you'll probably need to practice in a less stressful situation in order to get really good at QTR. So, before you give up and decide that this skill doesn't help you, commit to practicing it every day for a week. You've got this!