For many adults on the autism spectrum, de-stressing means zoning out in front of the TV at the end of a hectic day. But this does little to reduce the damaging effects of nervous tension. To effectively combat nervous tension, you need to activate the body's natural relaxation response. You can do this by practicing de-stressing strategies (e.g., deep breathing, meditation, rhythmic exercise, yoga, etc.). Fitting these activities into your life can help reduce everyday nervous tension and boost your mood.
Chronic nervous tension is harmful because it becomes overwhelming and interrupts the healthy state of equilibrium that your nervous system needs to remain in balance. Unfortunately, chronic nervous tension has become an increasingly common characteristic of contemporary life. When anxiety throws your nervous system out of balance, de-stressing strategies can bring it back into a balanced state by producing the relaxation response, a state of deep calmness that is the polar opposite of nervous tension.
When tension overwhelms your nervous system, your body is flooded with chemicals that prepare you for “fight or flight.” While the tension-response can be lifesaving in emergency situations where you need to act quickly, it wears your body down when constantly activated by the worries of everyday life. The relaxation response puts the brakes on this heightened state of alert and brings your mind back into a state of equilibrium.
A variety of de-stressing strategies can help you bring your nervous system back into balance by producing the relaxation response. The relaxation response is not lying on the couch or sleeping, but a mentally active process that leaves the body relaxed, calm, and focused.
Learning the basics of de-stressing strategies isn’t difficult, but it does take practice. Most experts recommend setting aside at least 10 to 20 minutes a day to practice such strategies. If you would like to get even more relief, aim for 30 minutes to an hour. If that sounds like a daunting commitment, remember that many of these strategies can be incorporated into your existing daily schedule (e.g., at your desk over lunch, on the bus during your morning commute).
There is no single de-stressing technique that is best for everyone. When choosing a technique, consider your specific needs, preferences, fitness level, and the way you tend to react to nervous tension. The right de-stressing technique is the one that resonates with you, fits your lifestyle, and is able to focus your mind and interrupt your everyday thoughts in order to elicit the relaxation response. In many cases, you may find that alternating or combining different strategies will keep you motivated and provide you with the best results.
How you react to nervous tension may influence the technique that works best for you. For example:
- Do you tend to freeze-up internally, while slowing down externally? Your challenge is to identify de-stressing strategies that provide both safety and stimulation to help you “reboot” your system. Strategies such as mindfulness, walking, or power yoga might work well for you.
- Do you tend to become depressed, withdrawn, or spaced out? You may respond best to strategies that are stimulating and that energize your nervous system (e.g., rhythmic exercise).
- Do you tend to become angry, agitated, or keyed up? You may respond best to strategies that quiet you down (e.g., meditation, deep breathing, guided imagery, etc.).
- Do you need social stimulation? If you crave social interaction, a class setting will give you the stimulation and support you’re looking for. Practicing with others may also help you stay motivated.
- Do you need alone time? If you crave solitude, solo strategies such as meditation or progressive muscle relaxation will give you the space to quiet your mind and recharge your batteries.
Here are 10 strategies to reduce the tension in your life:
1. Deep breathing: Feeling nervous tension evokes shallow breathing, while calm is associated with relaxed breathing. So, to turn tension into relaxation, change the way you breathe. Let out a big sigh, dropping your chest, and exhaling through gently pursed lips. Now imagine your low belly, or center, as a deep, powerful place. Feel your breath coming and going as your mind stays focused there. Inhale, feeling your entire belly, sides and lower back expand. Exhale, sighing again as you drop your chest (feel your belly, back and sides contract). Repeat 10 times, relaxing more fully each time.
2. Hot tea: If you're a coffee drinker, consider going green. Coffee raises levels of the hormone, cortisol, while green tea offers health and beauty. Chamomile tea is a traditional favorite for calming the mind and reducing nervous tension. Black tea may be a good tension-fighter, too. In one study, participants who drank regular black tea displayed lower levels of cortisol, and reported feeling calmer than those who drank a placebo with the same amount of caffeine.
3. Be here - now: “Mindfulness” is the here-and-now approach to living that makes daily life richer and more meaningful. It's approaching life like a youngster, without passing judgment on what occurs. Mindfulness means focusing on one activity at a time. Staying in the present-tense can help promote relaxation and provide a buffer against tension and depression. Practice it by focusing on your immediate surroundings. If you're outdoors, enjoy the shape and colors of flowers, hear a bird's call, or consider a tree. In shopping mall, examine a piece of jewelry and focus on how it's made, or window-shop for furniture, checking out every detail of pattern and style. As long as you can keep your mind focused on something in the present, nervous tension will take a back seat.
4. Try meditation: Any repetitive action can be a source of meditation (e.g., walking, swimming, painting, knitting, etc.). Any activity that helps keep your attention calmly in the present moment qualifies as meditation. When you catch yourself thinking about your job, your marriage, or your long “to-do” list, simply let the thought escape, and bring your mind back the repetition of the activity. Try it for just 5 to 10 minutes a day and watch nervous tension levels drop.
5. Use visualization: Is your mind too talkative to meditate? Try creating a peaceful visualization. To start, simply visualize anything that keeps your thoughts away from current anxieties. It could be a favorite vacation spot, a fantasy island, or that penthouse in New York City. It could be something "touchable," (e.g., the feel of your favorite silk robe or cozy sweater). The idea is to take your mind off your tension, and replace it with an image that evokes a sense of tranquility. The more realistic your visualization (e.g., in terms of colors, sights, sounds, touch and feel), the more relaxation you'll experience.
6. Express affection: Induce the relaxation response by cuddling your dog, giving an unexpected hug to a family member, snuggling with your wife, or talking with an old friend about the good things in your lives. When you do, you'll be reducing your tension levels, because social interaction helps your brain think better, encouraging you to see new solutions to situations that once seemed impossible. Also, physical contact (e.g., hugging a friend, petting your cat, etc.) helps lower blood pressure and decreases tension hormones.
7. Time-outs: Grown-ups need time-outs, too. So when you sense your anger is about to erupt, find a quiet place to sit or lie down, and put the tense situation on hold. Take a few deep breaths and concentrate on releasing tension and slowing your heartbeat. Remember: time is always on your side, so relax …nervous tension can wait.
8. Change your attitude: Sixty seconds is enough time to shift your heart's rhythm from tension to relaxation. The way to do that is to engage your heart and your mind in positive thinking. Start by envisioning anything that triggers a positive feeling (e.g., a vision of your daughter, the image of your pet, that great piece of jewelry you're saving up to buy, a memento from a vacation, etc.). Whatever it is, conjuring up the thought will help slow breathing, relax tense muscles, and put a smile back on your face.
9. Listen to music: Music can calm the heartbeat and soothe the spirit. So, when the going gets rough, take a musical detour by aligning your heartbeat with the slow tempo of a relaxing tune (you may want to make that a classical song, because research shows that listening to 30 minutes of classical music produces calming effects equivalent to taking 10 mg of Valium).
10. Employ self-massage: When your muscles are tense and you don’t have time to visit a massage therapist, try this simple self-massage technique: Place both hands on your shoulders and neck. Squeeze with your fingers and palms. Rub vigorously, keeping shoulders relaxed. Wrap one hand around the other forearm. Squeeze the muscles with thumb and fingers. Move up and down from your elbow to fingertips and back again. Repeat with other arm.Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples