Pocket This Anti-Stress Routine for Difficult Days
Flowing through a simple set of movements can help calm your nervous system down
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Between the pandemic, wildfires, and a presidential election cycle, collective stress levels are at an all-time high. Gentle practices that give your nervous system a chance to reset are more important than ever.
Childlike movements such as rocking, rolling, and crawling can help ease stress, explains Dani Almeyda, a personal trainer who teaches restorative movement to clients and trainers at the Original Strength Institute in North Carolina. The developmental movement patterns we learn as babies help us build the strength and coordination to walk and run. Now they can help disengage the sympathetic nervous system, commonly known as fight-or-flight mode, and bring the body into a parasympathetic state, or rest-and-digest mode, Almeyda explains. They can also relieve tension, get your joints moving smoothly, and offer moderate strengthening.
This restorative routine from Almeyda and Tim Anderson, a personal trainer and cofounder of the Original Strength Institute, can be done anytime, anywhere. Run through it whenever you feel like you need to press reset: the first thing in the morning, after a workout, or during a midafternoon slump. Roll out a yoga mat or blanket, or find a carpeted area to comfortably rotate through the exercises. Begin by focusing on your breath, and gradually cycle through the movements to wake up your muscles and joints without stressing your nervous system.
What it does: Slow, deep breaths lower your heart rate and blood pressure and deliver more oxygen throughout the body, all of which help shift your nervous system into a parasympathetic state.
How to do it: Lie flat on your belly, and let your forehead rest on your hands. Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth, which opens your airway and allows you to bring more air into your lungs, Almeyda explains. Take a deep breath in through your nose, inhaling on a five-count to fill your belly (not your chest) with as much air as possible. Then relax and breathe out through your nose on a five-count.
Volume: Continue breathing in and out of your nose for two minutes.
Head Nod and Rotation
What it does: Helps release tension in the neck and shoulders.
How to do it: While still lying on your belly, prop yourself up on your forearms so they’re straight out in front of you. Keeping your shoulders relaxed and your chest forward, slowly look up to the ceiling, letting your head follow your gaze. Then slowly move your gaze down to the floor and try to look at your belly button. Lift your head back to center, and gently look over one shoulder, then the other. That’s one rep. Stay relaxed, and continue breathing deeply in and out of your nose, filling your belly with air.
Volume: Do ten full rounds of head nods and rotations.
What they do: Physical contact is good for our brains and bodies. Hugging, for instance, is associated with a rise in oxytocin, a hormone that encourages relaxation and lowers anxiety. These movements mimic that sensation, no buddy required. The gentle motion of swaying back and forth is also a self-soothing technique (think: rocking a baby).
How to do them: Lie on your back and pull your knees into your chest, tucking yourself into a ball. Grab hold of your knees, and gently look to one shoulder. As you turn your head, allow your body to roll over to that side, like an egg. Once you’re lying on your side, keep rotating gently through your neck and upper back, looking down and past the shoulder touching the ground, getting an even deeper stretch. Only rotate as far as is comfortable, and make sure to breathe deeply. Then slowly look to the other shoulder, and allow your body to roll in the opposite direction. Keep your body tucked in tight.
Volume: Continue rolling for one minute.
What they do: These repetitive, gentle movements and deep breaths relax the nervous system. “Also, they feel great and help keep key joints—like your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles—moving,” Almeyda says.
How to do them: Get down on your hands and knees, with your feet flexed; your shoulders should be stacked over your hands and your hips over your knees. Keep your chest and head up, allowing your spine to settle into a slight curve. Slowly rock your hips back toward your heels until you feel a gentle stretch in your ankles. Then rock forward as far as you feel comfortable. Line up your movements with steady breaths.
Volume: Rock back and forth for one to two minutes.
What it does: Since most of us haven’t crawled in years, this may be a little challenging at first. Coordinating the movement of your opposing limbs really wakes up the brain, Almeyda explains. Hand-knee crawling also gently engages your hips and shoulders, which tend to get stiff from sitting for long periods of time.
How to do it: Like the previous move, begin on the floor on all fours, so your shoulders align with your hands and your hips align with your knees. Keeping your chest forward and head up, initiate the movement by stepping your opposite hand and knee forward. Allow your spine to curve naturally. Continue alternating sides, making sure to look straight ahead the entire time.
Volume: Keep crawling for one to two minutes.