While most of the world recognizes April 1 as a day for lighthearted shenanigans, health care professionals and other health advocates see it as the start of Stress Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, short bursts of stress can be beneficial; however, prolonged stress can have a number of damaging effects on your physical and mental health.
There is an abundance of retreats, books, spas and pricey gadgets you can invest in to help relieve stress, but you can also unwind without spending a dime. From free relaxation apps to a good stretch at your desk, here are seven cost-free ways to relax and get rid of stress.
For decades, researchers have studied the benefits of meditation. People who practice meditation experience a notable decrease in anxiety and depression and an increase in feelings of well-being, optimism, relaxation and awareness, according to personal growth website LiveAndDare.com, which compiled data from more than 100 studies on meditation.
Furthermore, it doesn't take long to reap the benefits of meditation. People who participated in an eight-week meditation program showed measurable changes in memory, empathy and stress, according to research by Massachusetts General Hospital.
There are many forms of meditation to choose from based on your taste and level of commitment, and just as many free or low-cost resources. Sabina Hitchen, a small business educator at SabinaKnows.com, said she swears by the Oprah & Deepak 21-Day Meditation Experience.
"I live for their 21-Day Meditation courses. I do them every a.m., and I choose courses that are focused on what I'm in need of at the moment," said Hitchen. "With introductions by Oprah and Deepak leading you through them, they're like hitting a refresh button for your brain." Not every meditation is free, but Hitchen said that registered users are periodically offered access to free series.
"Relieving stress is important to maintain everyday health," said Amy Rice, who is an app pro and the gadget expert at electronics reseller Gazelle.com. "The Stop, Breathe & Think app not only promotes meditation, but also mindfulness and compassion. Another app made for those who find it challenging to make some time for themselves is Headspace, which is meant to train users to be more mindful for 10 minutes a day."
Yoga, which is regarded as another form of meditation, can be a good option for people who struggle with sitting still. A study of 52 women found they experienced a decrease in anxiety and stress levels by taking two hot yoga classes per week, according to Medscape medical news.
"Yoga is a great stress reliever. You can take your yoga practice with you no matter where you are," said Nicole Kempka, studio manager of Yoga Six in Solana Beach, Calif. "Take a few deep breaths when you are feeling overwhelmed, or do a seated cat-cow to stretch the muscles in your upper back and shoulders."
The average price of a yoga class is $12, according to FitnessCostHelper.com. In metropolitan areas, the prices can be substantially higher. For example, at New York City's popular Jivamukti Yoga, single drop-in classes are $22.
However, there are plenty of free yoga classes on YouTube. "Yoga with Tim" and "Yoga with Adriene" are two channels with a lot of well-produced content, including practices of varying lengths and levels of difficulty, short how-tos and 30-day challenges.
We breathe all the time, so how can it help with stress management? It turns out that breathing mindfully can be very beneficial.
"Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, can make a big difference in how you feel and how you cope with stress," said Ronit Fallek, director of the Healing Arts Program at Montefiore Health System in Bronx, N.Y. "Studies show that these techniques can help slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, ease muscle tension and improve digestion and sleep."
"Our breathing patterns are directly linked to our nervous system," said Claire Hartley, a yoga teacher and founder of Claire Hartley Yoga in Los Angeles. "Are you finding it hard to concentrate or find a solution to a problem?"
Hartley offered this simple breathing exercise for relaxation:
- Close your eyes and ground both of your feet.
- Place your focus on your nostrils and relax your jaw.
- Breathe in for a count of 4 and breathe out for a count of 6.
- Do five rounds of this.
- Take note of how your head feels a little clearer.
To explore other breathing exercises and techniques, Montefiore.org offers a variety of guided relaxation tracks on its website. It also has a relaxation hotline with recorded tracks to help callers feel calm. Reach the hotline at (718) 920-CALM (2256).
Stress is not only bad for our emotional health, it's also detrimental to our physical health. Stress can lead to tense muscles in the neck and shoulders, which can impede the flow of blood to the heart and other areas of the body, according to MD Health.
"If mid-day stress includes muscle and body tension, stretching is a great (read free!) way to relax," said Amie Hoff, a fitness expert and creator of FitKit fitness kit for home and travel. "Gentle stretches can ease muscle tension, increase blood circulation and connect the mind and body, all of which will relax you in a matter of minutes."
At FitKit.com, you can find free simple stretches for the neck, back and shoulders. Also check out "Yoga with Tim" and "Yoga with Adriene" on YouTube for free guided stretching videos.
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5. Creative Exercises
Adult coloring has become very popular in recent years. Walk into any bookstore and you will find numerous books with pages of elaborate black-and-white designs just waiting to be brightened with colored pencils. And there's a reason why coloring is so popular.
"Doing something creative is a great way to relax," Fallek said. "The key is to immerse yourself in an activity that you enjoy — be it painting, singing, photography or doodling. When you lose yourself in an activity, it shifts your focus away from stressful thoughts and allows you to unwind, feel more connected to yourself and have fun."
You can print out free adult coloring pages on sites like Coloring-Pages-Adults.com and Art-Is-Fun.com. To learn how to draw things like human figures and animals, try free tutorials online at sites like MyDrawingTutorials.com or JDHillberryTutorials.com.
6. Martial Arts
Martial arts practices certainly have physical benefits, but they can have emotional benefits as well. The practice of a martial art like tai chi can improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"To truly heal stress, you need to change the electrical and chemical forces of your body by repositioning it," said Sifu Matthew, a kung fu master and healer with TheMartialArtsOfWellness.com. "You can then build these patterns and forms into your daily routine until you have full internal control over your stress mechanism."
He shared the following "Air position" exercise that has helped his clients combat stress. For this posture, it is recommended that you face west and that you practice it for at least two to three minutes.
- Raise arms and elbows above collarbones.
- Lift the right heel while keeping toes on the floor.
- Maintain lifted rib cage and relaxed throat.
- Focus eyes inward toward the back of the head.
- Press left leg down firmly.
- Focus on expanding and the feeling of openness.
Hold the position until you feel calm, spacious and expanded.
He said this position helps:
- Release stress and compression from nerves, bone and cells;
- Draw in space and new particles to clear stressful thinking and nervous charges; and
- Encourage balanced cellular communication.
Acupressure is a practice in Chinese medicine in which pressure is applied to certain points on the body to cause a healing effect. By unblocking the body's energy meridians, it can help calm you and reduce your stress, according to TheHealthSite.com.
There are practitioners of acupressure whom you can visit, but there are free relaxation techniques you can do on your own. At FineBalanceAcupuncture.com, you can find several recommendations for stress management and how to relax, including massaging the ears and applying pressure to the wrist.