This article was written by Nora Laberee, a former CPTC research assistant.
Stress Management for Teens: Taking Active Steps to Relax
Thinking clearly in stressful times strengthens our ability to manage life’s challenges. It’s possible to take active steps to relax — even when the world seems to be swirling around. Being relaxed helps maintain a clear mind ready to make good decisions and solve problems. Active relaxation is about intentionally achieving a relaxed and focused state to more effectively handle challenges.
Active relaxation is one of several techniques that help you “get away” from it all for a few moments. Another strategy is to take Instant Vacations — breaking to relax without having to actually “go” anywhere.
Relaxation isn’t just about handling stress. It is good for its own sake and key for maintaining good health. It’s about taking time to relax, enjoy work and other aspects of life.
Breathe to Relax
Achieving controlled breathing is one of the most effective methods of relaxation. Breathing slowly and deeply tricks the body into relaxation. Controlled breathing can be done anytime, anywhere! Here is a technique to get started:
- Sit up straight in a chair (don’t tense up) with your feet flat on the floor.
- Close your eyes and start to inhale slowly. Concentrate on your breath. Keep it as natural as possible.
- Draw a breath first by breathing deeply into your belly and then fully expanding your lungs. Notice how the air goes in and out.
- As you breathe, what comes to mind? Think about it for a moment. Exhale slowly. As you empty your lungs envision emptying your mind as well.
- Be very aware of your breath. Let your breathing fall into an easy rhythm. Breathe in to fill your lungs again. Then breathe out slowly.
By focusing all attention on breath, there’s no room for other worries. It feels refreshing and calming. It actually affects your nervous system by charging up your calming nerves and hormones. An added bonus? The mind-body connection goes both ways. Sometimes how the body feels affects how the mind is able to think and focus.
To see this strategy in action, check out the video below!
There are some physical postures that can make the body feel more relaxed and at peace, even in times of stress. For example, a typical posture when studying is to be hunched over a laptop or desk. This makes the body tense up. Sitting like this compresses breathing. The shoulders are rounded and tight, heads are bent, spines curved. Your leg might be shaking, suggesting to your body you should be running instead of thinking.
Next time you are doing homework or taking a test, think about sitting up straight, shoulders back and relaxed. Stretch your legs out comfortably. Take deep, calming breaths. Now you are more physically prepared to focus and take control of the situation. Check out the video below for a demonstration!
This simple strategy to de-stress takes no practice. Smell has an effect on mood. Different fragrances create different feelings ranging from calm to energizing.
Place a drop of fragrant oil on a cotton ball and then deeply breathe in the scent. Look for oils labeled “organic” or “therapeutic” grade. If you can’t get essential oils, use flowers, pine needles and other evergreens, or citrus peels — these all provide rich, soothing aromas!
Strategies That Take Practice
Yoga is often done with the intention of getting healthy and forgetting worries (at least temporarily). It includes a combination of breathing, movement, and posture. Learning about yoga is typically done best in a class (in person or online) where an instructor teaches correct positions and breathing techniques. Broadening the range of motion in the body helps broaden the mind. It takes advantage of the mind-body connection.
Meditation comes in many forms. At the core of meditation is breathing awareness, which can be combined with movement and envisioning ways to relax. The goal of meditation is to stop racing thoughts and turn off mental activity. Meditation helps turn off the thinking process while remaining in a clear state of awareness. This gives the body and mind a chance to relax.
Meditation has been shown to help individuals focus better when doing daily tasks in times of high stress.
Mindfulness is a type of meditative practice, but it is also about engaging with the moment. It’s about having an open mind. Without judgement. Often, stress and suffering comes from being pulled away from the present moment. It is so easy to spend time on “autopilot” mode, going through the motions without being fully present, focusing instead on the past or worrying about the future. The body is in one place, while the mind is somewhere else. Mindfulness helps the mind return to the present. To a state of calm where situations can be addressed with power and careful responses. Dr Dzung Vo, author of The Mindful Teen, demonstrates mindful strategies here.
Progressive relaxation systematically moves awareness through the body. From scalp to toe, away from the head, where tension often starts. There are a number of simple ways to practice this. First, become fully aware of your head and scalp. Then allow it to relax completely…. Next, slowly become aware of all the little muscles around your ears and allow them to relax as well. Do the same thing with the eyes and forehead, the neck, throat, and so on. Continue to do this throughout the body, moving down bit by bit, to your fingertips and toes.
A useful variation is to tense and release the muscles in each body part. This extra effort may allow you to more fully experience the control you have over choosing to relax.
Achieving Clear Thought
Getting to a state of calm and relaxation isn’t always easy. Sometimes it makes sense to try other stress management strategies before relaxation techniques.
Morning exercise increases alertness for the rest of the day, but anytime you are able to get moving is great! Exercise is the first thing to turn towards when stress feels overwhelming. Unless you’ve worked out those overwhelming feelings, it is hard to use strategies that involve calm thought and planning.
When exercise isn’t possible — like the moment an exam is handed out — sit in a comfortable position that reminds your body there’s no emergency worth running from. Then take slow, deep breaths to flip the switch that turns on the calm. It can also be helpful to ask some key questions to determine whether there is a real threat (“This test is not a real tiger, it can’t hurt me.”) It can also help to notice that the problem won’t seem like a big deal a week or month from now (“I’m going to get through this.”). These kinds of questions calm nerves and prepare the mind to problem-solve. Learn more here.
The mind is a powerful and amazing tool. When we get to a state of calm — helped by active relaxation — it works for us even more effectively. Learning to relax also conserves our energy so we can dive in more fully when we need to.