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Stretching exercises for stress and anxiety

A few moments of stretching can do your physical and mental health a whole lot of good. Everyday Health

Take a quick second and lift your arms high above your head. That felt pretty good, right?

For most of us, feeling at least some stress at some point during the day is probably inevitable — whether it’s thanks to too many emails in your inbox, too many appointments on your calendar, too many at-home chores to keep up with, or a problem you have to deal with, like a clogged sink or an illness or injury.

And what ultimately helps us keep stress under control isn’t necessarily eliminating all of those potential stressors that might come up (because that’s probably not possible); it’s a matter of having the right tools and skills to manage it so it doesn’t overwhelm you. Stretching is just one of a number of tools you can use to manage stress.

RELATED: Special Report: The United States of Stress 2019

One of the reasons stretching is so effective for stress is that our (generally) more sedentary lifestyles promote stiffness, which exacerbates that stress in the first place, explains Jessica Matthews, an assistant professor of kinesiology and integrative wellness at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego and the author of Stretching to Stay Young. “Restriction in range of motion caused by tight, stiff muscles not only negatively affects how you move when exercising and when going about everyday activities but it also negatively affects how you feel physically and mentally.”

RELATED: Why Exercise Boosts Mood and Energy

On the other hand, stretching is an accessible way to unwind and de-stress during or after a busy day, says Matthews, who is also a yoga instructor certified by Yoga Alliance, the world’s largest nonprofit yoga association that certifies teachers and schools. Stress in your muscles manifests as tightness — and when you relax those muscles, you can tap into your body’s ability to release mental stress, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

“Stretching and movement provide proper circulation, increase oxygen, and release tension in your muscles,” says Kelsey Decker, a personal trainer certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and an education coordinator for StretchLab in Orange County, California.

Together, all of these effects help you simmer down, she says. Increasing circulation relaxes muscles, sending mood-elevating blood flow to the brain. A higher oxygen level (a result of breathing deeply through stretches) slows your heart rate and blood pressure. And finally, letting go of the physical tension of a stretch (when you leave the posture) sends the message to your brain to relax.

RELATED: How to Become More Flexible (Because Yes, It’s Important)

When performing stretches, Matthews recommends holding each for 15 to 30 seconds; repeat each two to four times, per guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine. Matthews suggests taking a total of five slow, controlled breaths when holding each rep of a stretch, which should be about 15 seconds.

Note: If you experience tingling, numbness, or pain when you try any of the following stretches, or any illness or injury prevents you from doing them safely, skip them or ask your doctor for an appropriate modification.

Here are seven stretches that help your body and mind relax:

Why it’s beneficial

Many people turn to yoga when feelings of anxiety start to creep in or during times of stress. You may find that focusing on both your breath and your ability to be present in each pose can help quiet negative mental chatter and boost your overall mood.

It’s all about meeting yourself where you are. Practicing one or two postures for just a few minutes a day can have a major impact, if you’re open to the practice.

To get the most out of your session, take note of the sensations that move throughout your body as you come into each pose. Allow yourself to feel and experience whatever emotions arise.

If you feel your thoughts start to scatter, gently bring your mind back to the mat and continue your practice.

Read on to learn how to do some of our favorite anxiety-busting postures.

1. Hero pose

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Active Body. Creative Mind.

This seated posture can help you find your center. Focusing on your breath may help you find ease in the stillness of this pose.

Muscles worked:

  • erector spinae
  • quadriceps
  • knee muscles
  • ankle muscles

To do this:

  1. Get into a kneeling position. Your knees should be together, and your feet should be slightly wider than your hips.
  2. Keep the tops of your feet flat on the floor.
  3. Sit back so that your bottom reaches the floor in between your feet. If your bottom does not reach the floor, use a block or a book.
  4. Place your hands on your thighs.
  5. Sit up straight to open your chest and lengthen your spine.
  6. Hold this pose for up to 5 minutes.

2. Tree pose

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This classic standing pose may help you focus inward, quieting racing thoughts.

Muscles worked:

  • abdominals
  • psoas
  • quadriceps
  • tibialis anterior

To do this:

  1. From standing, bear your weight with your right foot and slowly lift your left foot off of the ground.
  2. Slowly turn the sole of your left foot toward the inside of your left leg.
  3. Place it on the outside of your left ankle, calf, or thigh.
  4. Avoid pressing your foot into your knee.
  5. Bring your hands into any comfortable position. This could be in prayer position in front of your heart or hanging alongside your sides.
  6. Hold this pose for up to 2 minutes.
  7. Repeat on the opposite side.

3. Triangle pose

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This energizing pose can help ease tension in your neck and back.

Muscles worked:

  • latissimus dorsi
  • internal oblique
  • gluteus maximus and medius
  • hamstrings
  • quadriceps

To do this:

  1. Come into a standing position with your feet wider than your hips.
  2. Face your left toes forward and your right toes in at a slight angle.
  3. Lift your arms to extend out from your shoulders. Your palms should face down.
  4. Extend your torso forward as you reach forward with your left hand.
  5. Hinge at your hip joint to bring your right hip back. Take your left hand to your leg, the floor, or a block.
  6. Extend your right arm up toward the ceiling.
  7. Gaze in any comfortable direction.
  8. Hold this pose for up to 1 minute.
  9. Then do the opposite side.

4. Standing Forward Bend

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This resting standing pose may help relax your mind while releasing tension in your body.

Muscles worked:

  • spinal muscles
  • piriformis
  • hamstrings
  • gastrocnemius
  • gracilis

To do this:

  1. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and your hands on your hips.
  2. Exhale as you hinge at the hips to fold forward, keeping a slight bend in your knees.
  3. Drop your hands to the floor or rest them on a block.
  4. Tuck your chin into your chest.
  5. Release tension in your lower back and hips. Your head and neck should hang heavy toward the floor.
  6. Hold this pose for up to one minute.

5. Fish pose

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Active Body. Creative Mind.

This backbend can help relieve tightness in your chest and back.

Muscles worked:

  • intercostals
  • hip flexors
  • trapezius
  • abdominals

To do this:

  1. Sit with your legs stretched out in front of you.
  2. Place your hands underneath your buttocks with your palms facing down.
  3. Squeeze your elbows together and expand your chest.
  4. Then lean back onto your forearms and elbows, pressing into your arms to stay lifted in your chest.
  5. If it’s comfortable, you may let your head hang back toward the floor or rest it on a block or cushion.
  6. Hold this pose for up to one minute.

6. Extended Puppy pose

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This heart-opening pose stretches and lengthens the spine to relieve tension.

Muscles worked:

  • deltoids
  • trapezius
  • erector spinae
  • triceps

To do this:

  1. Come into a tabletop position.
  2. Extend your hands forward a few inches and sink your buttocks down toward your heels.
  3. Press into your hands and engage your arms muscles, keeping your elbows lifted.
  4. Gently rest your forehead on the floor.
  5. Allow your chest to open and soften during this pose.
  6. Hold this pose for up to two minutes.

7. Child’s pose

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This relaxing pose may help ease stress and fatigue.

Muscles worked:

  • gluteus maximus
  • rotator muscles
  • hamstrings
  • spinal extensors

To do this:

  1. From a kneeling position, sink back onto your heels.
  2. Fold forward, walking your hands out in front of you.
  3. Allow your torso to fall heavy into your thighs, and rest your forehead on the floor.
  4. Keep your arms extended forward or rest them alongside your body.
  5. Hold this pose for up to 5 minutes.

8. Head-to-Knee Forward Bend

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Active Body. Creative Mind.

This pose may help soothe your nervous system.

Muscles worked:

  • groin
  • hamstrings
  • spinal extensors
  • gastrocnemius

To do this:

  1. Sit on the edge of a cushion or folded blanket with your left leg extended.
  2. Press the sole of your right foot into your left thigh.
  3. You can place a cushion or block under either knee for support.
  4. Inhale as you extend your arms overhead.
  5. Exhale as you hinge at the hips, lengthening your spine to fold forward.
  6. Rest your hands anywhere on your body or on the floor.
  7. Hold this pose for up to 5 minutes.
  8. Then repeat on the opposite side.

9. Seated Forward Bend

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This pose is thought to calm the mind while relieving anxiety. If you feel that your thoughts have been scattered throughout your practice, take this time to turn inward and come back to your intention.

Muscles worked:

  • pelvic muscles
  • erector spinae
  • gluteus maximus
  • gastrocnemius

To do this:

  1. Sit on the edge of a folded blanket or cushion with your legs straight out in front of you.
  2. You may keep a slight bend in your knees.
  3. Inhale to lift up your arms.
  4. Slowly hinge at your hips to extend forward, resting your hands anywhere on your body or the floor.
  5. Remain in this pose for up to 5 minutes.

10. Legs-Up-the-Wall pose

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Active Body. Creative Mind.

This restorative pose allows for complete relaxation of your mind and body.

Muscles worked:

  • hamstrings
  • pelvic muscles
  • lower back
  • front torso
  • back of the neck

To do this:

  1. Sit with your right side against a wall.
  2. Then lie back as your swing your legs up along the wall.
  3. Your buttocks should be as close to the wall as is comfortable for you. This could be right up against the wall or a few inches away.
  4. Relax and soften in your back, chest, and neck. Allow your body to melt into the floor.
  5. Hold this pose for up to 10 minutes.

11. Reclining Bound Angle pose

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Active Body. Creative Mind.

This relaxing pose can help you let go of anxiety while promoting a sense of calmness. You can make it more of a heart opener by placing a block or cushion under your back.

Muscles worked:

  • adductors
  • groin muscles
  • pelvic muscles
  • psoas

To do this:

  1. Lie on your back and bring the soles of your feet together.
  2. Place cushions under your knees or hips for support.
  3. Place one hand on your stomach area and one hand on your heart, focusing on your breath.
  4. Stay in this pose for up to 10 minutes.

Does it really work?

Active Body. Creative Mind.

When researchers compared the results, they found that yoga significantly reduced feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.

Another small study from 2017 found that even a single session of hatha yoga was effective in reducing stress from an acute psychological stressor. A psychological stressor is a task or event that prompts an immediate response, like a fight-or-flight reaction.

In this study, the stressor was a math task. After completing a video-instructed yoga session, participants experienced reduced blood pressure and reported increased levels of self-confidence.

While this research is promising, larger, more in-depth studies are needed to expand upon these findings.

The bottom line

Although recent research supports yoga practice as a way to relieve anxiety, it may not be suitable for everyone.

You should always talk to your doctor before starting a new yoga or exercise program. They can help you identify any possible risks and recommend appropriate modifications.

Keep in mind that practicing yoga can sometimes bring uncomfortable feelings and emotions to the surface. Make sure you practice in a space that feels comfortable and safe. This may mean doing yoga at home or joining a class specifically tailored toward stress relief or emotional healing.

If you feel that practicing yoga is triggering your anxiety instead of alleviating it, discontinue the practice.

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