Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief
RELAXATION EXERCISES TO REDUCE STRESS, ANXIETY, AND DEPRESSION
The body’s natural relaxation response is a powerful antidote to stress. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, and yoga can help you activate this relaxation response. When practiced regularly, these activities lead to a reduction in your everyday stress levels and a boost in your feelings of joy and serenity. What’s more, they also serve a protective quality by teaching you how to stay calm and collected in the face of life’s curveballs.
Source: University of Michigan Health Center
The relaxation response is not:
§ laying on the couch
§ being lazy
The relaxation response is:
§ a mentally active process that leaves the body relaxed
§ best done in an awake state
§ trainable and becomes more profound with practice
You can’t avoid all stress, but you can counteract its negative effects by learning how to evoke the relaxation response, a state of deep rest that is the polar opposite of the stress response.
The stress response floods your body with chemicals that prepare you for “fight or flight.” But while the stress response is helpful in true emergency situations where you must be alert, it wears your body down when constantly activated.
The relaxation response brings your system back into balance: deepening your breathing, reducing stress hormones, slowing down your heart rate and blood pressure, and relaxing your muscles.
In addition to its calming physical effects, research shows that the relaxation response also increases energy and focus, combats illness, relieves aches and pains, heightens problem-solving abilities, and boosts motivation and productivity. Best of all – with a little practice – anyone can reap these benefits.
Starting a relaxation practice
A variety of relaxation techniques help you achieve the relaxation response. Those whose stress-busting benefits have been widely studied include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, visualization, yoga, and tai chi.
Learning the basics of these relaxation techniques isn’t difficult. But it takes practice to truly harness their stress-relieving power: daily practice, in fact. Most stress experts recommend setting aside at least 10 to 20 minutes a day for your relaxation practice. If you’d like to get even more stress relief, aim for 30 minutes to an hour.
Getting the most out of your relaxation practice
Set aside time in your daily schedule. The best way to start and maintain a relaxation practice is by incorporating it into your daily routine. Schedule a set time either once or twice a day for your practice. You may find that it’s easier to stick with your practice if you do it first thing in the morning, before other tasks and responsibilities get in the way.
Don’t practice when you’re sleepy. These techniques can relax you so much that they can make you very sleepy, especially if it’s close to bedtime. You will get the most out of these techniques if you practice when you’re fully awake and alert.
Choose a technique that appeals to you. There is no single relaxation technique that is best. When choosing a relaxation technique, consider your specific needs, preferences, and fitness level. The right relaxation technique is the one that resonates with you and fits your lifestyle.
Do you need alone time or social stimulation?
If you crave solitude, solo relaxation techniques such as meditation or progressive muscle relaxation will give you the to quiet your mind and recharge your batteries. If you crave social interaction, a class setting will give you the stimulation and support you’re looking for. Practicing with others may also help you stay motivated.
Deep breathing for stress relief
With its focus on full, cleansing breaths, deep breathing is a simple, yet powerful, relaxation technique. It’s easy to learn, can be practiced almost anywhere, and provides a quick way to get your stress levels in check. Deep breathing is the cornerstone of many other relaxation practices, too, and can be combined with other relaxing elements such as aromatherapy and music. All you really need is a few minutes and a place to stretch out.
How to practice deep breathing
The key to deep breathing is to breathe deeply from the abdomen, getting as much fresh air as possible in your lungs. When you take deep breaths from the abdomen, rather than shallow breaths from your upper chest, you inhale more oxygen. The more oxygen you get, the less tense, short of breath, and anxious you feel. So the next time you feel stressed, take a minute to slow down and breathe deeply:
§ Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
§ Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
§ Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
§ Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.
If you have a hard time breathing from your abdomen while sitting up, try lying on the floor. Put a small book on your stomach, and try to breathe so that the book rises as you inhale and falls as you exhale.
Progressive muscle relaxation for stress relief
Progressive muscle relaxation is another effective and widely used strategy for stress relief. It involves a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body.
With regular practice, progressive muscle relaxation gives you an intimate familiarity with what tension—as well as complete relaxation—feels like in different parts of the body. This awareness helps you spot and counteract the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies stress. And as your body relaxes, so will your mind. You can combine deep breathing with progressive muscle relaxation for an additional level of relief from stress.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Sequence
§ Right foot
§ Left foot
§ Right calf
§ Left calf
§ Right thigh
§ Left thigh
§ Hips and buttocks
§ Right arm and hand
§ Left arm and hand
§ Neck and shoulders
Most progressive muscle relaxation practitioners start at the feet and work their way up to the face. For a sequence of muscle groups to follow, see the box to the right:
§ Loosen your clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable.
§ Take a few minutes to relax, breathing in and out in slow, deep breaths.
§ When you’re relaxed and ready to start, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to focus on the way it feels.
§ Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
§ Relax your right foot. Focus on the tension flowing away and the way your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
§ Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
§ When you’re ready, shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
§ Move slowly up through your body — legs, abdomen, back, neck, face — contracting and relaxing the muscle groups as you go.
Mindfulness meditation for stress relief
Meditation that cultivates mindfulness is particularly effective at reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions. Mindfulness is the quality of being fully engaged in the present moment, without analyzing or otherwise “over-thinking” the experience. Rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, mindfulness meditation switches the focus to what’s happening right now.
For stress relief, try the following mindfulness meditation techniques:
§ Body scan – Body scanning cultivates mindfulness by focusing your attention on various parts of your body. Like progressive muscle relaxation, you start with your feet and work your way up. However, instead of tensing and relaxing your muscles, you simply focus on the way each part of your body feels without labeling the sensations as either “good” or “bad”.
§ Walking meditation - You don’t have to be seated or still to meditate. In walking meditation, mindfulness involves being focused on the physicality of each step — the sensation of your feet touching the ground, the rhythm of your breath while moving, and feeling the wind against your face.
§ Mindful eating – If you reach for food when you’re under stress or gulp your meals down in a rush, try eating mindfully. Sit down at the table and focus your full attention on the meal (no TV, newspapers, or eating on the run). Eat slowly, taking the time to fully enjoy and concentrate on each bite.
Mindfulness meditation is not equal to zoning out. It takes effort to maintain your concentration and to bring it back to the present moment when your mind wanders or you start to drift off. But with regular practice, mindfulness meditation actually changes the brain – strengthening the areas associated with joy and relaxation, and weakening those involved in negativity and stress.
Starting a meditation practice
All you need to start meditating are:
§ A quiet environment. Choose a secluded place in your home, office, garden, place of worship, or in the great outdoors where you can relax without distractions or interruptions.
§ A comfortable position. Get comfortable, but avoid lying down as this may lead to you falling asleep. Sit up with your spine straight, either in a chair or on the floor. You can also try a cross-legged or lotus position.
§ A point of focus. Pick a meaningful word or phrase and repeat it throughout your session. You may also choose to focus on an object in your surroundings to enhance your concentration, or alternately, you can close your eyes.
§ An observant, noncritical attitude. Don’t worry about distracting thoughts that go through your mind or about how well you’re doing. If thoughts intrude during your relaxation session, don’t fight them. Instead, gently turn your attention back to your point of focus.
Guided imagery for stress relief
Visualization, or guided imagery, is a variation on traditional meditation that can help relieve stress. When used as a relaxation technique, guided imagery involves imagining a scene in which you feel at peace, free to let go of all tension and anxiety. Choose whatever setting is most calming to you, whether a tropical beach, a favorite childhood spot, or a quiet wooded glen. You can do this visualization exercise on your own, with a therapist’s help, or using an audio recording.
Close your eyes and let your worries drift away. Imagine your restful place. Picture it as vividly as you can—everything you can see, hear, smell, and feel. Guided imagery works best if you incorporate as many sensory details as possible. For example, if you are thinking about a dock on a quiet lake:
§ See the sun setting over the water
§ Hear the birds singing
§ Smell the pine trees
§ Feel the cool water on your bare feet
§ Taste the fresh, clean air
Yoga is an excellent stress relief technique. It involves a series of both moving and stationary poses, combined with deep breathing. The physical and mental benefits of yoga provide a natural counterbalance to stress, and strengthen the relaxation response in your daily life.
What type of yoga is best for stress?
Although almost all yoga classes end in a relaxation pose, classes that emphasize slow, steady movement and gentle stretching are best for stress relief. Look for labels like gentle, for stress relief, or for beginners. Power yoga, with its intense poses and focus on fitness, is not the best choice. If you’re unsure whether a specific yoga class is appropriate for stress relief, call the studio or ask the teacher.
Since injuries can happen when yoga is practiced incorrectly, it’s best to learn by attending group classes or hiring a private teacher. Once you’ve learned the basics, you can practice alone or with others, tailoring your practice as you see fit.
Tips for starting a yoga practice:
§ Consider your fitness level and any medical issues before joining a yoga class. There are many yoga classes for different needs, such as prenatal yoga, yoga for seniors, and adaptive yoga (modified yoga for disabilities). “Hot” or Bikram yoga, which is practiced in a heated environment, might be too much if you are just starting out.
§ Look for a low-pressure environment where you can learn at your own pace. Don’t extend yourself beyond what feels comfortable, and always back off of a pose at the first sign of pain. A good teacher can show you alternate poses for ones that are too challenging for your health or fitness level.
Tai chi for stress relief
If you’ve ever seen a group of people in the park slowly moving in synch, you’ve probably witnessed tai chi. Tai chi is a self-paced, non-competitive series of slow, flowing body movements. These movements emphasize concentration, relaxation, and the conscious circulation of vital energy throughout the body. Though tai chi has its roots in martial arts, today it is primarily practiced as a way of calming the mind, conditioning the body, and reducing stress. As in meditation, tai chi practitioners focus on their breathing and keeping their attention in the present moment.
Tai chi is a safe, low-impact option for people of all ages and levels of fitness, including older adults and those recovering from injuries. Once you’ve learned the moves, you can practice it anywhere, at any time, by yourself, or with others.
Making tai chi work for you
§ As with yoga, tai chi is best learned in a class or from a private instructor.
§ Although tai chi is normally very safe and gentle, be sure to discuss any health or mobility concerns with your instructor.
§ Tai chi classes are often offered in community centers, senior centers, or local community colleges.
Massage therapy for stress relief
Getting a massage provides deep relaxation, and as the muscles in your body relax, so does your overstressed mind. And you don’t have to visit the spa to enjoy the benefits of massage. There are many simple self-massage techniques you can use to relax and release stress.
Source: Northwestern Health Sciences University
Place your thumbs behind your ears while spreading your fingers on top of your head. Move your scalp back and forth slightly by making circles with your fingertips for 15-20 seconds.
Easy on the Eyes
Close your eyes and place your ring fingers directly under your eyebrows, near the bridge of your nose. Slowly increase the pressure for 5-10 seconds, then gently release. Repeat 2-3 times.
Sinus Pressure Relief
Place your fingertips at the bridge of your nose. Slowly slide your fingers down your nose and across the top of your cheekbones to the outside of your eyes.
Shoulder Tension Relief
Reach one arm across the front of your body to your opposite shoulder. Using a circular motion, press firmly on the muscle above your shoulder blade. Repeat on the other side.
The most common type of massage is Swedish massage, a soothing technique specifically designed to relax and energize. Another common type of massage is Shiatsu, also known as acupressure. In Shiatsu massage, therapists use their fingers to manipulate the body’s pressure points.
Although self-massage is good for stress relief, getting a massage from a professional massage therapist can be tremendously relaxing and more through then what you can do yourself. When booking a massage, try types like Swedish or Shiatsu, which promote overall relaxation. Deep tissue and sports massages are more aggressive. They often target specific areas and may leave you sore for a couple of days, making them less effective for relaxation and stress relief.
Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Joanna Saisan, MSW, Melinda Smith, M.A., Ellen Jaffe-Gill, M.A, and Robert Segal, M.A. contributed to this article. Last modified: August 08.
Related links for stress relief and relaxation techniques
Progressive muscle relaxation for stress relief
Progressive Muscle Relaxation – In-depth look at progressive muscle relaxation, including suggestions for practice and a guide to the steps. (A Guide to Psychology and Its Practice)
Meditation for stress relief
Mastering Your Own Mind – Describes the way the mind can be trained through meditation, leading to less stress, depression, and anxiety. (Psychology Today)
The Power of Om – Covers the mind-body connection and how meditation can have positive effects on physical and psychological health. (Boston Globe)
Deep Relaxation Audio Program – A 6-minute and a 20-minute program, read slowly in a soothing female voice, that you can listen to online. (Best of Health Online)
Yoga for stress relief
Yoga – Introduction to the different types of yoga and how to begin practicing it. (Nemours Foundation)
Stress coping: Yoga – Covers the history of yoga, the different kinds, and tips for finding a teacher. (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center)
Yoga and Stress Relief – How yoga can relieve stress and related research studies (Yoga Alliance)
Tai chi for stress relief
Stress Coping: Tai chi – Description of tai chi and its efficacy as a stress reliever. (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center)
Tai Chi for Health Purposes – Introduction to tai chi and its mental and physical health benefits. (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine)
Tai Chi Benefits: How It Works – Detailed explanation of the energy theory behind tai chi and how it calms the mind and reduces stress. Also includes information about Qi gong. (Everyday Tai Chi)
Massage therapy for stress relief
American Massage Therapy Association: Consumers – Learn how to get the most out of a massage and find a certified practitioner. (American Massage Therapy Association)
Massage: A Relaxing Method to Relieve Stress and Pain – Lists the health and stress relieving benefits of massage and what to expect when you get one. (Mayo Clinic)
Other stress relievers and reducers
Exercise: Rev up your routine to reduce stress – Explains the stress-relieving benefits of vigorous exercise. (Mayo Clinic)
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