Yesterday was just one of those days again. I woke up and felt anxious for no reason. That’s the tricky thing with anxiety, you never know when it strikes. I can go several days feeling confident and just great and then I wake up one morning and whoosh it’s all gone again. Stretching has helped me tremendously with my anxiety.
I was never diagnosed anxiety professionally. So maybe I don’t suffer from what is understood under the clinical term. Nevertheless, I comply with most of the symptoms. I mostly experience a cramped and very painful gut holding lots of gas, an uncofmortable tightness and tingly feeling on the right side of my neck, a feeling of insecurity, low self-esteem, and general hopelesness for the future.
I tried many different methods from a soothing epsom salt bath to meditation but found that the only thing that helps is outdoor movement, especially running. Walking on the other hand doesn’t help at all. Probably because it has too less an impact on my body to actually stop my mind from spiraling.
But lately, I found something else that has an immediate calming effect on me: deep stretching. Stretching (next to physical activity) is something I’ve enjoyed since my childhood years. And to this day, I admire the flexibility of dancers, yogis, and acrobats.
With my desire to become more flexible and finally conquer the splits (I’m getting close, you guys!), stretching became part of my daily routine. Sometimes twice a day. It even replaced my beloved workouts when I realized how much additional stress I put on my body doing only high intensity exercises (I now switched to a more low-impact Pilates- and Yoga-inspired training that I share with you in my videos).
Stretching has a soothing effect on your nervous system
You are probably asking yourself right now how stretching and anxiety go together. Well, I first experienced the benefits when I was at my parents’ house during March Madness, also called the COVID-19 induced qaurantine life (I vlogged about it here). On one day, that I felt especially anxious again, I rolled out my mat, turned on one of my favorite TV shows, and stretched it out.
While in pigeon pose, I suddenly felt a deep relaxation wash over my body. The constipated gas in my gut immediately began to flow free (you can’t imagine how freeing this feels). The negative feelings and emotions that had riddled my body until then, vanished and were replaced with a feeling of lightness and calm.
What made the difference, I realized, was that I let myself sink fully into the stretch instead of forcing my body into it as I would do when wanting to master a certain pose.
So yesterday when nothing seemed to help, I applied this method again. And it worked! A little bit during the stretching but especially afterwards I felt incredibly calm and relaxed.
There must be a connection, I thought, and immediately began my research. Surprisingly, not many studies have examined the relationship between stretching and relaxation. Of course, several studies suggest the benefits of yoga on the mind-body-connection. But having practiced yoga for several years now, I have to say that I never experienced it in a way as I did with deep stretching.
What I also found intriguing was that anxiety can lead to less flexibility as anxious or negative thoughts lead to emotional responses in our bodies like tightening our jaws or unconsciously raising our shoulders. Because these muscles work overtime, they simultaneously tighten. Now I know why my harmstrings never seem to get looser.
It’s all about the breath
So what’s the best tactic here? The reason why yoga is so beneficial is not only the physical movement but also the meditation and breathework. My yoga teacher always tells us that every yoga practice should entail these three parts to be called yoga. In fact, I found that when I do these stretches while breathing deeply into them and telling myself to let go, it has a more relaxing effect on my body.
I also said in the beginning that I experience the most relaxation during pigeon pose, a hip opening stretch. Something we also need to take a closer look at if we want to understand how stretching can help with calming anxiety.
We store Tension in Our Hips
We generally hold a lot of tension in our hips. This is due to our primary instinct of fight-or-flight. Originally, when faced with a threat (like a very hungry lion), we would run as fast and far away as we could.
Now in our modern world, this danger doesn’t come in form of wild animals but of our computers, our boss, our co-workers etc. We don’t get up and run away from our computers when faced with a daunting task or a frustrating email (why actually not?). But our nervous system nonetheless preapares to escape. So it sends the information to our psoas muscle. It’s the deepest muscle in your core and is the only muscle that connects your spine to your legs.
The psoas in return contracts because it prepares for you to run away. But you obviously don’t do that. So depending on how many times throughout the day you experience stressful or fearful thoughts, your psoas muscle contracts with no ability to release. Guess what happens? The muscle becomes tight and stiff causing many more unpleasant chain reactions in your body (If you want to know more, I found this very informative article).
You see, stretching (especially your psoas muscle) and opening your hips can do wonders to calm your mind. And with the current situation and all the insecurities it brings, it’s more important than ever to do so.
If you also suffer from anxiety or feel anxious every now and then, why not give deep stretching a try. I recently filmed my calming stretching routine which you can find below. Let me know how you liked it and if it also had a soothing effect on you.
Stay fit & fabulous!