Stress is an unavoidable part of life. Over time, chronic stress can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure, weaken your immune system, and harm both your physical and mental health. While you may be tempted to binge-watch TV or scroll through social media on your phone at the end of a long day, staring at a screen does little to reduce the damaging effects of stress on your mind and body. Practicing relaxation techniques is a much healthier and more effective way to reduce stress.
How stress affects your body and mind
Stress causes your body to engage in the fight-or-flight response. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones that cause your heart to pound, your breathing to speed up, and your muscles to grow tense. To effectively combat stress, you need to activate your body’s natural relaxation response, which slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and calms your mind.
One way to accomplish this is to practice relaxation techniques. By allowing you to feel calm and in control, relaxation techniques can help you cope with stress and promote long-term health. Relaxing even for just a few minutes each day will create a reserve of inner calm you can dip in to whenever you need.
You can practice most relaxation techniques by yourself. All you need is to find a quiet place where you can sit or lie down without interruption.
Types of relaxation techniques
As a simple relaxation technique that’s easy to learn, you can practice deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, on your own. The key is to take slow, deep breaths and try to free your mind from distracting thoughts. Breathe in through your nose, inhaling as much air as you can, and exhale through your mouth.
If you have a respiratory or health problem that makes breathing difficult, talk to your doctor before trying this technique.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Muscular tension is often one of the first signs of stress. Progressive muscle relaxation helps you become aware of physical sensations as you slowly tense and relax different muscle groups. Over time, this technique can help you better recognize the physical effects of tension and stress on your body so you can respond to it in a positive way.
Visualization, or guided imagery, involves closing your eyes and imagining a peaceful setting that calms you—a park near your home, a site you visited on vacation, a special place you remember from childhood. The technique is most effective when you immerse yourself in the sensory details—everything you can see and hear, but also whatever you can smell, taste, and touch.
You may find that soothing music, a sound machine, or a recording of a natural landscape that matches the peaceful setting enhances your experience.
Similar to visualization, autogenic training for relaxation involves using visual imagery and body awareness to reduce stress and produce a deep state of relaxation. (Autogenic means something that comes from within you.) As you imagine a peaceful place, you focus on different physical sensations, moving from your toes to your head.
Too often, we dwell on the past or worry about the future, which adds to our stress and anxiety. The goal of mindfulness meditation is to be fully engaged in the present moment. This may seem simple, but if you’re new to the practice, you may find that you become distracted by stray thoughts. The key is to gently draw your focus back to the present, without judgment, and pay attention to how your body feels right now.
You can also apply mindfulness to other activities, such as eating. When you slow down and chew your food carefully, paying particular attention to the textures and flavors, you’ll enjoy the meal more and be less likely to overeat.
Yoga is an ancient practice rooted in Indian philosophy that emphasizes deep breathing combined with gentle poses and stretches. In addition to improving your mental focus, this activity can also improve your flexibility and balance.
However, practicing yoga incorrectly can lead to injuries, so be sure to learn by attending a class, working with a private instructor, or carefully following video instructions.
Tai chi is another ancient practice that uses low-impact, gentle movements and focused breathing to improve health. Like other relaxation techniques, the practice encourages you to focus on the present moment.
While people of all ages and fitness levels can practice tai chi, it’s best to learn by taking a class or working with a private instructor.
How to practice relaxation techniques
Practicing relaxation techniques for even just a few minutes a day can help relieve stress, but the longer and more often you practice, the greater the benefits you’re likely to receive. It may take weeks or even months to find techniques that work best for you—and your most effective techniques may change over time.
Your ability to master particular techniques will improve as your grow deeper into the practice. Be patient and flexible. Practice relaxation in a way that fits your lifestyle. No single technique works for everyone. The right technique for you is one that focuses your mind and activates your body’s relaxation response.
Here are some tips for practicing relaxation techniques:
- Set aside 10 to 20 minutes a day for your relaxation practice. Only through regular, consistent practice can you truly benefit from the stress-relieving powers of most techniques.
- Download an app. You may find it easier to practice specific relaxation techniques by using an app that guides you through the process. However, you can also practice on your own in silence.
- Incorporate relaxation techniques into other activities. If you’re too busy to add a relaxation practice into your schedule, try incorporating deep breathing or meditation into another activity. For example practice mindfulness as you walk during your lunch break.
- Track your progress. From some, this can be motivational.
- Accept that you don’t have to be perfect. If you skip a day or even a week, start back up when you’re ready and slowly build your momentum.
Relaxation techniques are a safe, effective way to counter the negative effects of stress. In addition to boosting your energy and helping you focus, relaxation can help improve your sleep, build your self-confidence, and enhance your overall health and wellbeing.