02/17/19: There are a lot of relaxation techniques out there that we can all learn and practice. However, I have found that many of my clients (and myself) struggle with the way these are presented, and they also have problems motivating themselves to use them. In response to that, I researched the types of relaxation techniques that have the most research support, and presented them below in a way that I hope is easy to apply. A good companion piece to this article is Build a Coping System.
Stress, Emotions, & The Brain
We usually need to relax when we are feeling tense, anxious, or angry. Biologically, these feelings rely on something called the sympathetic nervous system, which includes parts of your brain that detect and respond to threats and stress. Without getting too deep into the physiology, when you are tense, anxious, afraid, or angry, your sympathetic nervous system is activated, and your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow, your blood pressure increases, your digestion stops, your muscles tense, your circulation changes, stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline, among others) are released in your blood stream, and your thoughts speed up and focus on a target (read more about that in Three Frames of Mind). When this is happening, our bodies feel unpleasant and we look for ways to feel better.
For almost everyone, after some period of time, our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) kicks in, which brings all of these physiological changes back down to normal. Your heart rate returns to baseline, your blood pressure lowers, digestion starts again, the stress hormones are metabolized, your breathing slows and deepens, and your muscles relax. When this completes, you are back to a pleasant, slower, and more in-control state.
Below are a variety of techniques involved in creating your own relaxation process. The key here is finding the things that work for you, and putting them together in a way that is practical for your life. So some of these will speak to you and others won’t be. Just focus on what will work for you.
Stopping: this is a universal part of any relaxation process. Stopping, pausing, or taking time out from the flow of the day is important because it allows us to focus on down-shifting our stress level or emotional intensity. For every relaxation effort, I’d suggest finding a comfortable place to sit, ideally with your feet flat on the floor, which helps regulate blood pressure. Sit up straight with your shoulders relaxed, while supported by a chair or other structure. Alternatives may be poses from yoga, Tai Chi, or meditation.
Orienting: this is when we consciously orient ourselves to our present surroundings. Sometimes when we experience strong emotions or stressful events, we lose touch with where we actually are. A way I will do this is that after I stop to relax, is that I will intentionally notice my surroundings, and tell myself things like “you are in your office right now and things are calm” or “you are in the park right now and you are safe.” This helps us start to relax by attuning to our environment, which is often stable and peaceful. When that isn’t true, this shouldn’t be used.
Grounding: this is when we make an effort to reconnect our minds and bodies. When we get really activated (anxious, angry, etc.) or stressed, we can become consumed with thoughts and lose touch with our bodies. A standard grounding technique is that after you stop to relax, intentionally notice the experience from one of your senses. For example, for your sense of touch, pay attention to the chair supporting you, the way your shirt sleeves feel on your arms, and the sunlight hitting your face. You can do this for any of our senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, etc). Staying with these sensations, especially if they are pleasant, should provide a sense of calm and connectedness.
Breathing: another near universal component of a relaxation process is some change to breathing. The reason for this is that breathing is the easiest physiological process for us to control, and it is important for many other biological systems. For relaxation, there are dozens of published breathing techniques. I highlight two of the most popular here, and I’d suggest searching the web for others if they don’t do the trick. Additionally, most of these techniques suggest breathing in through your nose and then out through your mouth, but it isn’t mandatory. Furthermore, if at any point you feel dizzy doing these, just return to your normal breathing pattern, and try again after it subsides (this is sometimes caused by the amount of carbon dioxide that is being exhaled).
- Abdominal Breathing: this is also known as “belly breathing” or “yoga breathing.” Basically it is when we breathe by expanding our diaphragm rather than our upper respiratory system. This has been found to interrupt the stress response, engage our parasympathetic nervous system, and thus calm us down. To try it, sit as described in the “Stopping” section, and place one hand on your chest and the other on your bellybutton. Now try to breathe in a way that allows your bottom hand to expand with your stomach, and your top hand to stay in place. It can take some practice, but one you get it, you should notice considerable changes after a few breaths. To super-power this technique, combine it with the next one.
- 4-7-8 Breathing: the key here is to add a pattern to your breathing as a way to control it. Once you are settled and notice your breathing, inhale through your nose for a count of 4, hold it for a count of 7, exhale through your mouth for a count of 8, and repeat. The pace doesn’t matter, it should just be something that feels good to you. The key is having the exhale really stretch out much longer than the inhaling. Try and make the exhale smooth and have almost all of the air leave your body.
Muscle Relaxation: another classic that has been taught since the 1920s (!) is called “progressive muscle relaxation.” The idea is to focus on tensing muscle groups throughout your body, holding it, and then releasing the tension. Many people have an experience of being very relaxed after doing this. To try it, start with tensing the muscles in your feet, hold it for a count of 5, and then let go. Next move up to your lower legs and do the same. Keep progressing until you cover your entire body, and then repeat in areas that remain tense. I usually add in a long exhale each time I release the muscle tension. You also don’t have to do the full-body progression to get the effect.
Coaching: the key here is giving yourself positive, reassuring, and calm messages, rather than continuing with the tense, anxious, and angry thoughts. When I do this, I think things like “I can get through this. It will be OK. I can handle whatever happens. I am going to calmly do my best.” Everyone will have a different way of doing this, and some people like to imagine this in the voice of someone who cares about them, or with the image of that person telling them those things.
Mindfulness: this is a larger concept with its own set of principles. Ultimately it is a way to observe yourself, and tune-in, without getting attached to the thoughts and feelings that flow through your mind. There is enormous research support for mindfulness helping with stress, chronic pain, anxiety, and a range of other things. A way to do some mini-mindfulness for relaxing is to take a moment to focus on the present moment, what your surroundings are, or what you are currently experiencing, without judgment. Much of our day is spent thinking about things other than what we are doing (were you really consciously thinking about the drive to work or walk to class, or was your mind on something else?). When we take those in-between times to do mindfulness, we give our bodies and minds a break from the flow of stress, and it costs us no time at all.
Emerging: the key in this step is calmly reentering the world. Rather than just stopping your relaxation time and jumping back in to the flow of your day, focus on going back to what you need to do with the same peace you might have when you wake up from a nice sleep. Just gently getting back into the flow of your day. This should keep your mind and body in relaxed and positive states for longer.
Once you get some of these down and learn what parts work for you, I’d encourage you to innovate and find little tricks that will specifically make this more powerful for your life, as well as blend some of them together. I would also suggest practicing this everyday for 5-10 minutes, especially during times of lower stress, because the effect is cumulative. Meaning, there will be a faster and greater impact the 20th time you do these things compared to the first when you are still learning them. If it doesn’t work right away, stay with it and keep going, and consider adding in an extra part to it. Finally, if this process isn’t preferred for you, try doing the 5-step Processing Emotions as an alternative.
Previous versions: 10/13/13, 04/19/14