How to Reduce Stress and Tension

DukeWell seminar explores breath, mind and body relaxation exercises

Participants in the DukeWell seminar on stress practice wrist relaxation exercises. Photo by Marsha A. Green.
Participants in the DukeWell seminar on stress practice wrist relaxation exercises. Photo by Marsha A. Green.

With her eyes squeezed shut, forehead furrowed and lips locked, Solita Denard looked like she was in pain. 

Dr. Shelley Wroth, a physician with Duke Integrative Medicine, gave the next instruction for a stress-relief exercise. 

"Relax your face," Wroth said. "Relax everything - your lips, your forehead, even your tongue. Doesn't that feel good?

Denard felt tension drain from her body as she slacked her jaw and relaxed her forehead.

The progressive muscle relaxation exercise was among techniques Wroth taught as part of "Stress Management 101: Easy Exercises to Reduce Stress and Tension in Your Body." The December class was the final offering in a yearlong series of free health-related seminars sponsored by DukeWell, Duke's health improvement program.

DukeWell continues its free monthly seminars in 2013 with talks on sleep, resiliency, managing diabetes and more.

During the stress management class, Wroth explained the relaxation response that each individual has that can counter the tension that stress builds in bodies. The relaxation response is like a muscle that can be trained, she said. The more we use it, the more powerful it becomes.

Take breathing, Wroth said. "It only takes three deep breaths to start kicking in the relaxation response," she said. "That's how quickly we can break the pattern of stress."

To use breathing as a more powerful stress management tool, Wroth suggested focusing on the rhythm of breathing and slowly making exhales longer than inhales. With each out-breath, consciously allow more tension to drain from mind and body.

To illustrate the power of the mind in managing stress, Wroth shared research from Barbara Frederickson's Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Frederickson's studies show that students exposed to positive messages while preparing for a stressful activity recover their equilibrium much faster than those exposed to neutral or negative messages.

"Unfortunately, we are tuned for survival to pay attention to threats, to negativity," Wroth said. "But we can consciously choose to savor positive emotions and this helps our bodies come down from the stress response."

For people who carry tension in their muscles, Wroth taught a progressive relaxation exercise. The class clenched fists then opened and relaxed their hands. They shrugged shoulders to their ears before letting them drop limply. They scrunched faces into frowns for five seconds before letting them go slack and enjoying the sensation of relaxation.

"The tools for invoking the relaxation response are so simple: breath, mind and body," Wroth told  participants at the end of the 90-minute session. "Find the palette you enjoy and give yourself the gift of practicing it often."

Denard, a program director for BOOST, a science education program for middle school students offered by the Duke University School of Medicine, attended the class because she has noticed changes in her sleep and energy patterns during times of high stress.

She left the seminar ready to give her relaxation response a workout.

"I am trying to take better care of myself, and I love the idea that I can incorporate small breaks, stretching and quiet moments throughout my day," Denard said. "Remembering that stress relief begins with our breath was the most enlightening thing to learn. We can all start there, can't we?"