Stretching when you’re wound up is immediately satisfying — and effective.
There’s good reason for this: Stress shows itself both mentally and physically. And when we’re anxious, our bodies almost always make our frazzled state clear before our noggins register it. Many of us know that, but, for me at least, it helps to be reminded.
When we move around, stretching and expanding our physical selves, it feels great for wherever we’re holding tension, melting it away. Our foreheads soften, our shoulders drop, our lower backs relax.
And then our mental selves reap the benefits too. The mind-body connection is ever present, and science has shown its massive impact not just in everyday moods but also in our ability to live long healthy lives and avoid disease.
Each of the stretches below has inherent elements specifically capable of bringing on calm. Consider the noted durations to be suggestions, and then do what feels right for you. You can do all, some or just one of the stretches; each relieves mental tension. May your stress ease, both mentally and physically.
Stretches to Relieve Stress
Start walking, my friend. After a couple minutes, take a big step forward with one leg and then bend your back knee so that it almost touches the ground. Your front knee shouldn’t move much, staying over your front ankle. Take a few more steps, and then repeat the process leading with your other leg. Keep switching — and, if you’d like, pause in the lunges, and then drop your back knee all the way down and hold the low lunge for a while.
duration: 5-10 minutes
tip: Don’t do lunges if you’re walking on a significant hill, meaning that 30ish seconds going up it at a quick clip makes it hard to have a conversation. Instead, take long strides, which will stretch your legs from glutes to calves. Do this going both up and down the hill.
why it works: Walking — a gentle form of aerobic exercise — is one of the best paths to stress relief through physical activity, a verity that has been confirmed time and again in studies, though you need only do it to know it’s true. And if you’ve been sitting around all day, walking will actually stretch you. But incorporating lunges (or long strides) into your walk stretches your legs even more, particularly your hamstrings and quadriceps.
Stand comfortably with your feet wide apart, toes pointing ahead; wider is better if your hamstrings and glutes tend to be tight. As you inhale, lengthen your torso, pressing your chest up and out a bit. As you exhale, hinge from your hips as you fold toward the ground, eventually dropping your hands down for support.
duration: up to 1 minute
tip: If needed, bend your knees, so that you are sure to hinge from your hips instead of rounding your lower back, which you absolutely do not want to do in order to fold forward. If your legs are straight, press into the balls of your feet so that you don’t hyperextend your knees. Place blocks, books, cushions or the like under your hands if they don’t reach the ground.
why it works: Forward folds activate your parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” part of your autonomic nervous system. Your heart rate slows and your blood pressure lowers, both actions that counteract stress. The sensation of turning the body inward on itself also has an intuitive calming effect.
Wall-assisted shoulder stretch
Stand about an arm’s length from a wall. Place your palms on the wall shoulder-distance apart. Draw in a full inhale. As you exhale, step your feet away from the wall so that you can hinge from your hips, allowing your torso to come toward parallel to the ground. Bend your knees as much as you need to in order to create the hinge forward at your hips, not your lower back.
duration: up to 1 minute
tip: The higher you place your hands before folding forward and the deeper you fold, the more intense the stretch is for your chest, arms and shoulders; it’s less intense if your hands are lower and/or your torso is higher. Look for a nice pulling sensation in your armpits, hitting your lats and triceps.
why it works: This stretch opens your shoulders, neck and chest, in particular. These areas commonly hold stress and send tension up to your jaw and forehead, creating a debilitating ripple effect. When you relieve tension in your neck and shoulders, you relieve tension in your face, potentially keeping headaches at bay too.
Lie on your back, and stretch your arms out from your shoulders. Keep your right leg straight (or straight-ish) and bend your left leg so that the sole of your left foot is down and ahead of your left hip. As you inhale, place your right hand on your left knee. As you exhale, draw your bent knee to the right, creating a gentle twist through your spine. Feel free to tuck your outer right hip under you if that’s more comfortable, though it’s best to be in a position where your left arm — or at least your left wrist — is fully supported by the surface beneath so that you don’t strain your left shoulder. If it feels comfortable to do so, turn your head to the left, away from your bent knee. Otherwise keep your head wherever is comfortable. Repeat on the other leg.
duration: 10 to 30 seconds per side
tip: With each exhale, soften your shoulders away from your ears and toward the ground. Feel free to place cushions under your bent knee if it doesn’t reach the ground, in order to make the stretch more passive.
why it works: You’re lying down, which eases stress. What’s more, you’re letting gravity do its work, helping the stretch along; when you passively relax, you exert less physical effort, and that allows your muscles to relax more readily. It also translates to more space and time to mentally relax.
Mitra Malek is a former Yoga Journal senior editor and contributing editor and has taught yoga regularly since 2006. She loves to stretch.