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Stress Reduction Exercises

Roslyn Hernández, M.Div.
Resource Innovation Lead, Headington Institute, 2020.


As a humanitarian or community responder, your job creates an environment with plenty of daily stressors. And, a global pandemic is not making things any better. Meditation as a way to relieve mental stress (1) and improve overall health has become increasingly popular in recent years (2). But, does meditation still seem elusive and difficult to you?

Believe me, you are not alone. 

A quick online search on meditation instantly becomes overwhelming. I found numerous meditation theories and techniques, books, scientific research, scholarly articles, blogs and phone apps. But, don’t worry. I found a couple of techniques just for you. 

These two meditation techniques are easy and practical. They have also been scientifically researched by schools, including John Hopkins and Harvard, and have been found to help reduce stress.

  1. Focus on Your Breath. Find a quiet space. Sit comfortably straight, rest your hands on your lap and close your eyes. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth making your exhales longer than your inhales. You can inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of 6, or 8. If thoughts come into your mind, notice them without judgement. Then, focus on your breath again. You can start this practice with five minutes per day and work your way up to 10 or 20 minutes at your own pace. As you continue practicing you will find yourself intuitively focusing on your breathing in times when you feel stress.
  2. Scan Your Body. This technique has been found to have positive effects on your sleep (3). Again, find a quiet place, sit up straight. Comfortably rest your hands on your thighs, and close your eyes. To scan your body, start with a couple of minutes of the first exercise, Focus on Your Breath. After you settle in to a breathing rhythm, turn your thoughts to your physical body. Are you holding any tension in your body? Where is the tension? How does it feel? You don’t need to do anything about it. Just notice. Once you’ve taken note of your tension, begin to progressively  tense and relax different muscle groups in your body. Start with your feet, then move onto your legs, your torso, your back, your arms, your shoulders, your neck and your face. To engage each muscle group, you can tense, clench, or flex the muscles. Then, release and let the muscles relax fully before moving onto the next muscle group. As you do this practice remember to keep breathing and notice how your muscles move, react and feel. When you’ve finished attending to your muscles return to Focus on Your Breath for a minute or two.

Science aside, as an aid worker or first responder you are constantly showing up for others. But, how often do you show up for yourself? Meditation is an invitation to do just that. It is an invitation to a moment free of judgement, a moment to give your mind some rest, a moment to take a breath. It is a moment to show up for yourself.

I have found that approaching meditation as a practice of showing up for myself is incredibly helpful. 

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes better. In practice, perfection is not the goal and consistency is key. In my own meditation practice, sometimes my mind wanders. Sometimes I fall asleep while listening to guided meditations. But, I have found that the more I practice focusing my breathing and being aware of my body, the easier it becomes to notice and relieve different types of stress.

You can reap the benefits of meditation on your schedule and at your own pace by practicing these techniques regularly. Take a moment each day to take some breaths, listen to your body, and show up for yourself. 



(1) Z., Sleicher, D., Maron, D. D., Shihab, H. M., Ranasinghe, P. D., Linn, S., Saha, S., Bass, E. B., & Haythornthwaite, J. A. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA internal medicine, 174(3), 357–368.


(3) Hubbling, A., Reilly-Spong, M., Kreitzer, M., & Gross, C. R. (2014). How mindfulness changed my sleep: focus groups with chronic insomnia patients. Biomed Central Ltd.


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