How to Stretch for Stress Relief

If you’ve lately found yourself wondering how to stretch your tense, aching body, you’re not alone. One thing we’ve learned after weeks and weeks of coronavirus life is that being cooped up in one place is, weirdly, physically hard. There are some obvious culprits: You might be working long days sitting in a dining chair that you bought more for its mid-century good looks than ergonomics. (Anyone else?)

More than that, though, is the fact that ambient anxiety expresses itself physically. It’s a stressful time, and when stress builds up, it can have a slew of negative effects ranging from increased muscular inflammation to the shoulder and back pain that’s a natural consequence of tense muscles.

The good news is that this works in reverse: addressing the physical side of things is a great way to feel better mentally. “When you stretch, your brain produces endorphins that help you to relax,” says Jeff Brannigan, program director at Stretch*d, a dedicated stretching studio in New York. Of course, “When done correctly, it can also help to promote circulation which eases muscle and joint pain in the targeted area.”

Now, the science of how to stretch has come a long way since you were doing 10-counts at the start of gym class. Static stretching, where you assume an uncomfortable position and try to stay still, is totally out. So is thinking of stretching to prevent injury when you’re actually working out—that’s been thoroughly debunked. The new wave is stretching with active movements, as more of a stand-alone workout than a warm up or cool-down.

Ready to try it? We asked Brannigan to put together a quick 10-minute dynamic stretching routine to help ease stress and muscle tension throughout the body. Do 10 controlled 2 to 3-second reps of each movement per side and tell us you don’t feel just a bit better.

1. Maybe & Maybe So

This pair of movements targets the sternocleidomastoid and extensors in the neck, the muscles that stabilize your head. “Many of us have a hard time keeping the shoulders low and relaxed—that’s only going to get worse when you’re stressed,” says Brannigan. “This works on muscles in the neck but will also help to relieve tension in the head, shoulders, and back.”

The move: Start sitting with your feet flat on the ground, gazing forward as normal. Starting with the right side, gently lower your right ear down to your right shoulder, placing your right hand over the head on the left side, and assisting the push down toward your right shoulder. Release head back to start for one rep. Repeat on the opposite side.

Next, turn the head to the right 45 degrees. Then, bring your left ear down toward your left armpit, using your left hand for the assist. Relet head back to start for one rep. Repeat on the opposite side.

2. Trap Tapper

Because it targets the trapezius, the large muscle that connects your neck, shoulders, and upper back, Brannigan says this one is an effective one-two punch with Maybe & Maybe So.

The move: Start sitting with your feet flat on the ground, gazing forward. Bend your right arm, placing your right hand on your left shoulder. Using the left hand, push your right elbow in and up, closer to your body, extending your right fingertips further down your trap. Release once you feel tension build in your shoulder and repeat.

3. Twist and Dipper

Here you’re going to be working your quadratus lumborum, a deep abdominal muscle. “This is often the culprit for a lot of back pain,” says Brannigan. If it’s loosened up, “it will also help you stand more upright and free up tension in your hips.”

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