When I’m really stressed, I feel it in my body. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve also been feeling super tense lately. But there are relaxing exercises we all can do to both reduce total-body tension and calm our worried minds. They might not be a cure-all, but they may make you feel better for the moment.
“We tend to separate out the mind and the body, and they’re so linked,” clinical psychologist Charlynn Ruan, Ph.D., founder of Thrive Psychology Group in Los Angeles and New York, tells SELF. Mental stress can cause your muscles to tighten as your body tries to protect itself against injury and pain, according to the American Psychological Association. But relaxing your muscles—say, with a sequence of gentle stretches—can send calming signals to your brain that help alleviate mental stress.
That’s where this sequence of eight relaxing exercises, created for SELF by Marianna DeCaro, D.P.T., C.S.C.S, a certified yoga teacher and physical therapist at Spear Physical Therapy in New York City, comes in. These moves are really great for relieving tension, she says, and the sequence is designed to slowly warm up your body, improve mobility, boost core stability, and alleviate tightness in key areas, including your arms, shoulders, hips, and back.
This routine is super helpful for when you already feel tight and anxious and just want a release—like, um, now—but it’s also something you could do to prevent both mental and physical tension from coming on in the first place, explains DeCaro. Because this routine is pretty gentle on the body, it’s OK to do it every day.
As for when during the day is best? Well, that’s really up to you. DeCaro likes doing this stretch routine in the morning as a nice way to wake up. But you can also incorporate some or all of these moves at pretty much any point during the day, whether on your lunch break, after work, before bed, or basically anytime you feel tense and anxious and need help grounding yourself back in the present.
This routine is designed so that you can seamlessly move from one exercise to the other without taking breaks, explains DeCaro. But it’s also totally OK to do this at your own pace, she adds. However you approach the routine, don’t worry about warming up beforehand; there’s a one built in.
To maximize the mental and physical perks of this sequence, focus on controlling your breath throughout. Controlling your breath can help you keep your heart from racing, explains Ruan, which can in turn help ward off this classic physical manifestation of stress.
You could take the mental benefits a step further by reciting gratitudes to yourself as you perform these stretches. Thinking about what you’re appreciative for as you gently move your body can help you stay present in the moment and prevent your mind from anxiously wandering, says Ruan. Simple phrases like, “I’m grateful that my friend texted me today” or “I’m grateful that I’m taking the time to do these exercises,” can provide a powerful mental and emotional boost.
What You Need: Just your bodyweight. For comfort, however, you may want a yoga mat, block, and towel.
- Perform each exercise for 30 to 60 seconds. You can perform each exercise in one single push, or take mini breaks and then go back into the same movement.
Demoing the moves below are Jessica Rihal (photos 1, 3-4, 7-8), a plus-sized yoga instructor (200-HR) and a strong advocate of fitness/wellness for all bodies; Shauna Harrison (photo 2), a Bay-area based trainer, yogi, public health academic, advocate, and columnist for SELF; Caitlyn Seitz (photo 5), a New York-based group fitness instructor and singer/songwriter; and Amanda Wheeler (photo 6), a certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-founder of Formation Strength.