It’s easy to fall into a rut where stress and anxiety gets the most of us. If we aren’t careful, these debilitating states of mind start integrating themselves into our personality as the years go by, which slowly but surely makes us function worse both mentally and physically. Luckily, we’re creatures that are conscious and aware. So then, let’s be smart and put this essential feature of ours to good use.
First of all, why should we focus on relaxation when it comes mental health, like in the case of relieving ourselves from stress and anxiety?
When you’re in a challenging situation or when you’re preoccupied with anxious thoughts, your body often responds by tightening the muscles in different parts of the body, the face, neck and shoulders in particular. Chronic muscle tension can lead to all sorts of unpleasant consequences, ranging from general tiredness, headaches and irritability to diverse sleeping and heart problems.
How relaxation can improve your health
Relaxation works its magic mostly by reducing overall stress levels present in the body and mind, consequently relieving the symptoms of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and even schizophrenia. Here are the some of the ways relaxation can benefit your overall health:
- lower your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate 1
- alleviate depression and anxiety 2
- lessen insomnia and sleeping problems 3
- helps with managing pain
- reduces anger, frustration and irritability
- boosts confidence and self-esteem
Therefore, learning a couple relaxation techniques can be a real advantage when it comes to dealing with stress and anxiety. The best thing is that they don’t generally take too long and most of the techniques can be performed just about anywhere!
Now, there are as many ways to relax as there are ways to get stressed or anxious, and different relaxation techniques work better for different people. However, don’t let that stop you from trying most or all of them to see which one’s suits you most. With that said, here are a handful of relaxation techniques that you might find helpful in lessening your stress and anxiety while boosting your overall well being.
1. Conscious breathing
Breathing techniques that involve deeper and slower breathing are one of the best ways of inducing relaxation in the body and the mind. When you breathe slower and deeper, you trigger a “relaxation response” in the brain and body. This response or shift in the nervous system is most likely due to repeatedly stimulating the arteries around the heart and the vagus nerve which occurs during the expansion of diaphragm (inhalation), long exhalations and slower breathing.4
Many people, me included, have found that an average of 5-6 breaths a minute, that is 10-12 seconds per breath, is the sweet spot for activating the relaxation response. Here’s a simple way to do it:
- Sit somewhere comfortably.
- Breathe in (through your nose) for a count of 4 seconds.
- Breathe out (through the nose or mouth) for a count of 4 seconds.
- Maintain the state of “vacuum” i.e. no air in the lungs for 2-4 seconds.
- Repeat the steps 2-4.
2. Body scan
The ability you have to direct your mind’s eye or focused attention towards different objects and phenomena arising in your consciousness is one of the best relaxation tools you have at your disposal. The ability to be aware of different parts of the body and mind at will can be used to “scan” the body for dispersed tense spots present in the body. The most fascinating aspect of this technique is that just by mere awareness of a body part is enough to relax and relieve it from tension and stress.
The body scan technique, as a habit, is an easy way to consciously choose relaxation over stress and anxiety. By cultivating and directing conscious awareness you’re freeing yourself from many unconscious processes taking place in your body and mind that aren’t necessarily good for you. Here is how to do a simple body scan:
- Lie down somewhere comfortable on your back
- Place your arms and hands alongside your body.
- Close your eyes and start scanning the body from the toes up to your head.
- Go through every part of the body, stay put in each part as long as necessary.
- When you’ve gone through the entire body, simply behold the whole body as one unit, many parts, but one entirety.
I’ve found that the body scan is especially efficient when it comes to relaxing the eyes, the eyelids and the facial muscles. Feel free to try it out and tell me what you’ve found.
3. Visualization or guided imagery
Visualization techniques are powerful ways of allowing the brain to influence different processes taking place in the body. Placebo works, though we’re not completely sure how, some part of what makes placebo work is definitely to be found in visualization techniques.
By creatively visualizing different parts of your body work in a certain manner, can actually influence those parts of the body to work differently. One common visualization technique is to use the phenomena of light to relax and relieve different parts of the body. This light could be a bright glowing orb that you direct to different tense spots or it could be a stream or wave that moves around in the body to find and dissolve the dark, unenlightened and tense spots present in the body.
You could and should combine visualizations with the body scan technique to create a super technique that will bring you one step closer to total relaxation.Your imagination is your limit.It truly is! Our human imagination has the potential to both aid us in our quest to living a fulfilled life or it can be detrimental. Use it wisely!
4. Progressive muscle relaxation
Although the body scan technique and different kinds of mental visualizations are great and effective in their own way, a technique like the progressive muscle relaxation technique is a much more palpable way of actualizing the relaxation steps of a body scan. Similarly, when you’re doing progressive muscle relaxation, you’ll also go through the different parts of body step-by-step but instead of simply bringing your attention and awareness to that part you’ll exert your will to consciously tense up a muscle in order have it relax moments after. This is an especially effective technique for people who’re struggling with too much tension in the body, either as a result from years of overthinking and self-inhibiting behavior.
You can also try doing the techniques 1-4, in sequential order, for maximum benefit and relaxation. That is, first do the conscious breathing technique, the body scan, the visualization of the light pulsating through your body and end with progressive muscle relaxation. If that doesn’t do the trick, this next technique will.
Self-massage is the ultimate form of relaxing the body and to a certain degree the mind. By using both your hands and you’ll physically address each and every accessible part of your body, and when doing so apply different self-massaging techniques appropriate for that body part. Just like body scanning and progressive muscle relaxation, you can go through each part step by step, from the toes up, or you can choose one specific body part to focus on solely.
There are many different types of self-massaging techniques, ranging from feathering and deep strokes to pressures, holding and kneading. Depending on where you carry most tension, you’ll need to choose and apply accordingly.
Meditation is a big word, but for our intents and purposes, we’ll simplify it to mean conscious awareness of yourself as you are, without intention to change nor influence any specific process. Meditation is to allow things to flow as they would without the interference of your separate sense of will or what have you. By cultivating the skill to stay put as a witness to both internal and external processes you’ll prime yourself for deep relaxation of the psyche, which will in turn lead to more relaxation in the body. Because remember muscle tensions present around the body is often a consequence of an unhealthy preoccupation with anxious thoughts.
There are many meditation techniques to try out, if you’re more serious about meditation I recommend that you try developing a meditation practice of some sort. Meditation is a long-term endeavor, even though changes in the brain take place after 8 weeks or so, the benefits are both instant and dependent on how long you practice.
7. Mantra repetitions
Repeating mantras or specific positive utterances, words, sounds and syllables can influence your internal machinery more than you think. Having been used in spiritual traditions around the world for millennia, most notably in India, the benefits of using mantras against negative thinking, anxiety, stress, self-doubt and whatever else that’s mentally blocking you from living more happily, are many.
Here’s a couple tips on how to begin with mantras:
- Sit somewhere comfortably, like on a meditation cushion, although you can do it wherever you want to.
- Choose one word, sound or sentence that you feel connected with. A timeless sacred syllable like Om can do wonders for your inner peace. Being one of the most sacred mantras in Hinduism, Om refers to the innermost self, the Atman and its indivisibility with the ultimate godhead, Brahman.
- Repeat your chosen mantra internally in your mind’s eye or externally by producing the sound with your vocal cords.
- Focus all of your mental faculties (attention, belief and will) on the reverberations of that sound and let it sink in deeper and deeper, into the far reaches of your unconscious mind and beyond.
Self-hypnosis, also known autohypnosis, is when the state of hypnosis is achieved through your own volition. The state of hypnosis can be described as a state of increased focused attention with heightened suggestibility. Self-hypnosis can be use for a variety of different purposes, ranging from modifying behavior, emotions and attitudes to lessen stress, anxiety and pain.
Hypnosis isn’t about achieving some transcendent or significantly altered state of mind, it’s about controlled and directed awareness combined with visualization and affirmations to achieve a specific goal in mind.
Prayer is a powerful way of dissolving stress and anxiety. Used mostly as a spiritual tool in different religious and spiritual contexts, prayer is an ancient way to connect with the divine that we believe to be present in nature and the universe.
By focusing on subjectively communicating an intention or a deep impersonal desire with something that is vastly more intelligent than your psychological mind and intellect, you allow your sense of separate self and all the negative tendencies it has to dissolve in the vastness of the universe. There is indeed a more spiritual element to this “relaxation technique” in comparison to the others mentioned in this list, but that doesn’t make it less effective nor stop us from sharing it with you in this article.
Contrary to what most people believe, you need not be a religious person to pray. In fact, prayer has often been a great aid whenever my meditative sessions came up short, and I’m not a religious person by any means.
10. Hot & cold alternating showers
Hot and cold showers are easy and accessible ways of increasing relaxation and boosting overall wellbeing. The benefits are many and diverse, ranging from relaxation, improved circulation, pain relief to increased vigor and energy.
When your body is exposed to cold external temperatures, the blood circulation moves inward towards the internal organs. In contrast, when the external temperature rises and gets hotter, the flow of circulation moves outward toward the skin. By alternating hot and cold when you shower next time, you stimulate different responses in the body, responses which among other things increases the rate of detoxification and moves nutrients more smoothly to different parts of the body.
However, hot & cold alternating shower is not recommended for everyone, especially those with underlying medical conditions should consult their physician before attempting this technique.
Now, in case you’re not sure how to perform a hot & cold contrast shower but have decided to try it out, here are some guidelines:
- First and foremost, make sure that the water you will shower with is clean and doesn’t contain toxic chemicals like chlorine, fluoride or others, sometimes used in public water supplies. If you can’t do anything about the water supply before it reaches your home, a shower head filter can help do the job for you.
- Start getting yourself comfortably and completely wet with a lukewarm water temperature.
- Slowly and gradually increase the temperature of the water. Increase the warmth to the point where it almost becomes unbearable. When you’ve done this expose each and every part of your body to the hot water, including your face and the top of your head, although make sure you’re gentle with these and the more sensitive parts of your body.
- Now gradually turn the water to colder temperatures, as cold as you can tolerate. Similarly expose each and every body part to this ice-cold temperature.
- You can end the therapy here or you can do additional alternations. I personally like to do one set only, that is 3-5 minutes hot in the beginning and 3-5 minutes cold at the end. The reason is that I start feeling a bit dizzy when doing too many alternations.
- However, if you wish to alternate, just gradually go back from cold to hot temperatures exposing each body part before reversing back to cold. You could do this up to seven times, though do as many times you feel sufficiently comfortable with.
- Remember to always start with hot and end the shower with cold water, this will energize and revitalize you to stay wake and aware after the shower.
Relaxing lifestyle habits
If you want to introduce relaxation to your everyday life in the form of habits and lifestyle changes, here are a couple of healthy things that can contribute to living more stress-free.
1. Gratitude journal
A gratitude journal is wonderful way of implementing the various healing benefits associated with gratitude into your life. Gratitude lessens stress and anxiety by focusing your mind on the things that make you happy. The little and the big things that are already present in your life, which means that nothing new is needed, only a recognition of the good things that make your life worth living.
By writing in your gratitude journal, once or twice a week, you allow yourself to smile more often while delighting in the blessed life you find yourself in.
2. Yoga, stretching & qigong
Yoga and stretching combined with movement-based meditations like qigong are excellent ways of relaxing the body and aligning the mind with the body. You also enhance your physical health to such a degree that stress and anxiety are lessened from that alone. The tendons in your body loosen and soften, which inevitably also affects your overall mental state.
Yoga, which etymologically means to unify or union, is an effective way of combining many techniques already mentioned in this list, ranging from conscious breathing techniques (known as pranayama in yogic traditions), body scan and visualization techniques to meditation, prayer and the repetitions of mantra. If you’re looking for one method that has it all, yoga is definitely one of the best ways to go.
Having said that, qigong is yet another ancient way of achieving many good things in one go, especially if you’re ambitious enough to combine it with yoga, to create yet another super-combo.
3. Physical exercise
Physical exercise is a must for maintaining health and wellbeing in the long term. When it comes to relaxation in particular, physical exercise, like yoga and qigong, attack the stress present in the body indirectly. That is, when you’re out getting a good exercise session, you release the existing stress and anxiety levels in the body through mere physical exertion which also protects you from future stress.
There are countless ways to exercising, ranging from walking, jogging and calisthenics to bicycling and swimming. Have your pick!
4. Digital detox
Stress, anxiety and the inability to concentrate is a expected outcome of living in today’s digital information age. I’ve said many times in previous articles, living in the information age also means to live in the age of distractions. By regularly doing digital detoxes, you inoculate yourself from the incessant buzz present in the digital world. Give yourself a break now and then.
5. Forest bathing
Forest bathing is one of the best ways to soothe the body and mind. Go out into the forest and simply spend more time there. You’ll intuitively feel your stress and anxiety levels dropping just by merely being in the green of the forest. This is built-in to us, breathing in that fresh oxygen while the senses take in their own respective dose of the healing qualities of the forest.
Living in these hectic times we need relaxation more than ever. Our body and minds are always in contact with innumerable distractions, ranging from our phones, computers and TV to our own incessant internal monologue, all of which inevitably causes deep-rooted tensions in our consciousness.
Don’t let yourself fall victim to the hustle and bustle of modern society, do your best to find your own eye of the storm, a center within yourself which you can retreat to and lean on. I firmly believe that relaxation is the cure to many of the troubles and ailments that plagues our societies today, both at an individual and collective level. Hopefully these relaxation techniques will prove helpful to that cause.
- 1) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0002914917306185
- 2) https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353/full
- 3) https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00780/full
- 4) https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200303-why-slowing-your-breathing-helps-you-relax
Daniel Seeker is a wandering dervish and lifelong student of the past, present and future. He realized deep relaxations of the psyche when meditating in his hermit cave on the island of Gotland. His writings are mostly a reflection of that realizaton. Daniel currently studies history and philosophy at Uppsala Universitet, as he is currently writing his B.A. thesis in history which explores how Buddhist, Yogic and Hindu texts were first properly translated and introduced to the western world in the late 18th and 19th century.