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Understanding stress, self-care, and relaxation

Stress. Stress management. These buzz words are all around us but what is stress really and how does it affect a client’s needs?

Stress is a reaction to change that requires a physical, mental, or emotional response, and can be positive or negative. The human brain is constantly assessing threat in our lives for the purpose of survival, and that assessment of change determines our response. Expectations, history, knowledge, and environment all play a role here.

Aside from threat assessment, the cumulative amount of stress makes a difference. Think of stress as a bucket filled with physiological, environmental, emotional, mental, and professional factors. The contents vary from person to person and from time to time. As the bucket fills, we experience fatigue, lethargy, mood changes, decreased immunity, etc. When it gets to the top, the cascade of responses becomes very evident, with physical pain, anxiety, mood swings, and more significant health concerns.

It is evident then that the management of stress is critical to improving quality of life. Unfortunately, aside from individual choice, we are also affected by the world around us, and are often faced with difficult situations. To address this, we have a few options: (a) removal of major factors of stress, (b) altering our reaction to change, (c) implementing supporting strategies to manage the existing stress and decrease threat. Clearly (a) is not viable in most cases, and so we are left with the other two options. Changing habits and mindset, while ideal, takes a lot of energy, both mental and physical. It is something we resist for this reason, and so stress management needs to start simply with self-care.

Since much of what we deal with originates in or at least affects the mind, the pain we experience is largely resistance to change.

Relaxation is a great place to start in self-care for this reason, as it allows us to be present, to decrease physical discomfort, and thereby begin to address the mental resistance.

Breathing and physical touch, such as that in many passive therapies, are key. In fact, pairing those two yields the best results. Touch is healing from an emotional perspective, but also neurologically provides an enormous amount of sensory stimulus to the brain that can help to decrease threat, as long as it is positive and pleasant for a client. Breath work has a similar calming effect, and since the brain needs fuel, can work to decrease threat.

Incorporating breath work in the spa can be as simple as instructing clients to perform or pair different types of breathing exercises during passive treatments. Getting clients involved in a treatment teaches mindfulness, and promotes learning, which, neurologically, will ensure the therapy or treatment “sticks” more. Providing meditation and breath work classes in between treatments or as a part of a package is also a good option.

Note that some breath work modalities may have contraindications in pregnancy, or for those with circulatory or respiratory conditions, so a proper health history assessment prior to treatment is recommended. Aside from this, different techniques can be appropriate for different clients, depending on their specific needs. Assessing and reassessing responses is key. To learn more about breath, movement, pain, and stress, I recommend “Let Every Breath” by Vladimir Vlasiliev, and various Pranayama resources, or visit

Finally, practice makes perfect. I like to say that relaxation is good, but regular relaxation is best. In other words, regular care combined with providing home exercises in mindfulness between sessions will improve results.

Often, when clients come with the goals of weight loss or pain management, what they are really looking for is stress management. Understanding what this means and providing for those needs via relaxation techniques will improve their results and help them achieve their goals.


Barbara Kapran is a Toronto-based holistic nutritionist, personal trainer, and neural re-education specialist.

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