Feeling frazzled? Maybe you need to relax. And no, we don’t mean plopping down on the couch to binge-watch your favorite television show. Instead, think deep breathing, meditation, or yoga.
Research suggests that certain relaxation techniques may help your body relax and even help you manage stress. It might take some time and practice to learn how to do them, but it can be worth the effort.
How do Relaxation Techniques Help?
Everyone knows that feeling stressed doesn’t feel good mentally or emotionally. But it can be bad for your physical health too. When you’re stressed, your body releases hormones that raise your blood pressure and heart rate. Over time, ongoing (or chronic) stress can increase your risk of health problems such as high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression.
Studies suggest that relaxation techniques may have real health benefits, as they can lower your blood pressure and heart rate and slow down your breathing. Though more research is needed, some studies suggest that certain relaxation exercises can even help with anxiety related to illnesses, insomnia, and nausea caused by cancer treatments.
The Many Types of Relaxation Exercises
Deep breathing. A lot of relaxation techniques can calm you down by helping you focus on your breathing. Breathing exercises are simple and easy to do anywhere—even with a few spare minutes at work. Try it now:
- Sit or lie down
- Put one hand on your stomach and your other hand over your heart
- Inhale slowly until you feel your stomach rise
- Hold your breath for a moment
- Exhale slowly, feeling your stomach fall
- Repeat a few times
Guided imagery. In this approach, you imagine positive images to replace negative thoughts and feelings. You can learn to do it on your own, or you can try it with a therapist (or an audiobook or video). Here’s one type of exercise:
- Set aside 10 or 20 minutes
- Find a quiet place and close your eyes
- Take a few slow breaths to relax
- Imagine being somewhere that makes you feel calm, like sitting on a tropical beach, or on a favorite park bench. Think about what you might experience there. Imagine what you’d see, the sounds you’d hear, the feel of the breeze on your skin. Repeat a positive statement, such as “I have nothing to worry about right now, right here.”
Meditation. If you’ve never tried it, meditation might seem intimidating or complicated. But it doesn’t have to be. Meditation usually involves a combination of relaxed breathing and focused attention to calm your thoughts and help you feel more at ease. There are lots of ways to do it—read about one popular approach called mindfulness. This is one way to do it:
- Sit down in a comfortable position
- Notice and relax your body, paying attention to your body’s weight and how it feels
- Focus on your breath. Don’t change how you’re breathing, just notice your natural breath, the sensation of breathing in and out
- When your mind strays, notice the thoughts and let them pass through. Go back to noticing your breath
- Keep at it for about 5 minutes
Progressive relaxation. This technique involves tightening and relaxing the muscles throughout your body. Here’s how to do it:
- Start with the muscles in your toes and feet
- Tighten them for a few moments and then relax them
- Move up your body, tightening and relaxing one muscle group at a time
Yoga and Tai Chi. These approaches combine elements of other relaxation techniques—like breathing and meditation—with physical movement. Tai Chi is typically low-impact and gentle. Yoga can range from easy to intense. To learn more, you can take a class or get a feel for it by watching videos online.
Biofeedback. The goal of biofeedback is to teach you how to control some of your body’s basic functions—like your heart rate or the tight feeling in certain muscles—to help you relax. With biofeedback, you will need to work with a therapist, who attaches sensors to your body to measure your temperature, muscle tension, and brain waves. With practice, you can learn how changing your thoughts and emotions can affect these specific measures and your body’s responses.
Get Serious About Relaxation
This might sound like a contradiction, but getting good at relaxation might take some work. Keep these tips in mind as you find a relaxation technique that works best for you.
- Learn. You can do some more research about the practices described in this article. Look for local classes, books, online videos, or smartphone apps.
- Practice. The more you practice relaxation techniques, the more likely you are to benefit from them. Long-term and consistent use of these practices is more effective than short-term or occasional use.
- Experiment. In addition to the techniques described in this article, there are many other ways you can learn to relax. Be open to trying different approaches. In time, you’ll find the technique—or combination of techniques—that works best for you.
Caroline Pak, PharmD, is a pharmacist and the Medical Editor-in-Chief for Get Healthy Stay Healthy at Pfizer.