Life is stressful and sometimes the stress can overwhelm you, but there are steps you can take to learn how to relax.
Normal everyday activities like grocery shopping or traffic jams can make you tense. You might find it hard to unplug from digital devices and streaming services in a 24/7 world. Work deadlines, handling the kids or dealing with a difficult relationship can get you down.
The coronavirus pandemic, a chronic illness, or caring for an elderly relative might be a strain.
“Stress is really how your body and brain respond to challenges, such as pressure at work, [handling] the pandemic, increasing family responsibility, other negative experiences that may impact and create stress,” says David Shurtleff, PhD, deputy director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the concerns around stress.
What Is Stress?
When you feel overwhelmed or can’t handle a situation, your body might respond in a bad way. The so-called “fight or flight” response kicks in to get you ready to run, and that creates stress.
“Experiencing short periods of stress is just fine, in fact, it’s even healthy,” says Jonathan C. Smith, PhD, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University, founding director of the university’s Mindful Initiative, and a prolific author of books on relaxation practices.
“Living a stress-free life is unhealthy and dangerous. We need a little bit of challenge to keep us alive,” Smith says.
But too much stress isn’t good for you. Some situations, like the isolation you may have faced during the pandemic, for example, can cause ongoing stress, which, in turn, can bring on health problems.
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed by something like a global pandemic, but it’s also important to find ways to relax, Shurtleff says. He practices yoga about three times a week and uses a treadmill daily to help keep worries under control.
“Stress over time can really impact our bodies and our brains and lead to really devastating chronic conditions such as anxiety and depression,” he says
Types of Relaxation Techniques
However, a whole range of relaxation practices can help you power down and de-stress.
“There’s no one shoe that fits all,” Smith says. He points to “five or six” approaches based on scientific observation and experience that really do work for stress reduction. There are other therapies, too, that you might find helpful. You can do one at a time or you can practice some together.
This is one of the easiest stress reduction practices because you simply focus on your breathing.
Sit or lie down in a quiet place, take a deep breath through your nose and breathe out slowly through your mouth, or your nose if it feels better.
Texas psychiatrist Gregory Scott Brown, MD, suggests the 4-7-8 approach. Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, then exhale for 8 seconds.
Deep breathing can help you calm down and relax, he says.
“When I’m talking to patients, I typically start with breath work because, again, we all breathe every single day, but many of us don’t realize that breath work, you know, done in a specific way, is medicine,” says Brown, who’s founder and director of the Center for Green Psychiatry in Austin, TX.
Mindfulness and Mantra Meditation
Mindfulness is an ancient form of meditation that promotes awareness of what’s happening in the moment.
It encourages you to focus on your body, your thoughts, and what’s going on around you.
Mantra meditation, on the other hand, is the opposite of mindfulness. In this practice, you place all your attention on a single target, like a mantra, a candle flame, or a phrase.
In both types of meditations, whenever your mind wanders — and it will Smith says — you simply re-focus.
It’s a brain skill, he says. In that in the first 2 weeks you won’t be able to do it very well. Your mind will constantly chatter and distract, and that’s normal, that happens.
But as you practice, you’ll get better at it.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
In this technique, you focus on slowly tightening and relaxing muscle groups. You can practice it along with breathing exercises and guided imagery.
Find a comfortable place to sit or lay down, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Expand your stomach as you breathe in and contract it as you exhale.
You can either start with your head and face muscles and work your way down your body or you can start with your toes and work your way up. While you focus on each muscle group, tense and hold for about 5 seconds and relax for 30 seconds, then repeat.
“Tensing certain muscle groups while you’re combining breath work with that can, again, instill a sense of calm and relaxation,” Brown says.
If you have heart disease, talk to your doctor before you start progressive muscle relaxation therapy.
Guided Imagery or Visualization
Imagine yourself lying on a sandy beach with a soft breeze gently stirring the warm air. Use your senses to smell the saltwater and feel the sun as you transport yourself there. That’s guided imagery or visualization.
It uses the power of your mind to change your focus to a peaceful time or event.
“If we’re in a stressful situation, you know, just shifting our mind and focusing on a time when we were really, really relaxed” is an effective way to calm down, Brown says.
In this practice you focus on feeling warmth and heaviness in different parts of your body. Then silently repeat pleasant words or statements for each body part, like my arms feel heavy and warm. This technique can create feelings of emotional and physical calmness.
Yoga and Tai Chi
These low-intensity exercises are similar and have been around for thousands of years. Both include physical and so-called “meditative” movements to ease stress and lower blood pressure.
In yoga, you perform different stretching and strengthening postures. You remain still and focus on your breathing as you do each posture.
Tai chi involves slow, graceful movements, like a dance. You’ll breathe deeply and concentrate on your body as you move your weight from one pose to the next.
Depending on your physical abilities, you can perform both exercises while sitting in a chair, although you usually do tai chi while standing.
Before you start yoga, it’s a good idea to find a licensed professional who can help you learn the basic postures and which form of yoga might work best for you.
Many people swear by exercise to help reduce stress in their daily lives.
Whether it’s walking, running, biking, hiking, or tennis, movement of any kind can boost your endorphins, the chemicals in your brain that make you feel good. When your body creates more endorphins, you may find it easier to forget your worries and find a lasting sense of well-being.
Atlanta-based life coach Trisha Harp says she often recommends exercise to people she counsels.
Harp and her husband work next to each other all day, she says. Several times a week they get up in the middle of the day when they’re feeling in a slump and do a walk and talk.
Exercising with someone else can get you out of your physical space and gives you another person to chat with, which is also a stress reducer, she says.
Other Types of Relaxation Techniques
Many de-stressing therapies have common goals. They aim to help you pay attention to your body and focus on aspects of your breathing or other exercises that will lower your blood pressure and increase feelings of well-being. You can try:
- Biofeedback, which measures body functions and helps you learn to control them.
- Self-hypnosis, in which a practitioner teaches you to relax when you hear a phrase or get a nonspoken cue.
- Massage therapy, which can include Swedish, sports, Shiatsu, or other types of massage.
- Music therapy, when a therapist uses music to accomplish health goals.
- Art therapy, which uses art to enhance your physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
- Aromatherapy, or using essential oils as a type of treatment.
- Hydrotherapy, which can include soaking, compresses, or even steam baths.
While relaxation practices are mostly safe for heathy people, there have been reports of negative impacts, such as increased stress, bad thoughts, or a fear of losing control. Talk to your doctor about what practice might be best for you, depending on the relaxation technique you want to try and your health.
- David Shurtleff, PhD, deputy director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH); acting scientific director, acting chief, Clinical Investigations Branch, Pain and Integrative Neuroscience Branch, Division of Intramural Research, Bethesda, MD.
- Jonathan C. Smith, professor of psychology, Roosevelt University, Chicago.
- Mayo Clinic: “Exercise and Stress: Get moving to manage stress,” “Mindfulness Exercises,” “Music Therapy,” “Relaxation techniques: Try these steps to reduce stress,”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response,” “Tai chi or yoga? 4 important differences.”
- National Institutes of Health: “Mindfulness Matters.”
- National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health: “Massage Therapy: What You Need To Know,” “Relaxation Techniques for Health,” “Yoga: What You Need to Know.”
- Arthritis Foundation: “Progressive Muscle Relaxation.”
- Gregory Scott Brown, MD, psychiatrist; director, founder, Center for Green Psychiatry; affiliate faculty member, University of Texas Dell Medical School, Austin, TX.
- Kaiser Permanente: “Autogenic Training.”
- Trisha Harp, certified professional coach, Atlanta
- Cleveland Clinic: “Art & Music Therapy.”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Aromatherapy: Do Essential Oils Really Work?”
- North American Journal of Medical Sciences: “Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body.”
- National University of Health Sciences: “Hydrotherapy Suite.”
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