Whether you're feeling overwhelmed, a little anxious, or completely stressed out, relaxation is the antidote to stress. And now more than ever, learning how to relax is as essential to your wellbeing as drinking water or breathing. Using relaxation techniques that work for you can help ease anxiety and soothe your stress.
Stress is an adaptive response that's necessary for human survival. When met with a stressor, your body has a physiological response, and your brain releases stress hormones that allow you the best chance of survival in a life-threatening situation. And it releases the same chemistry whether the stressor is small or large, so even the mild stress of someone cutting you off in traffic causes a whole cascade of hormones that are productive in the short-term, but destructive in the long-term.
Fortunately, you can interrupt the stress response through relaxation, which is healthier for your body, emotions, and mind. How, you ask? Try any of our best ways to relax to soothe acute or chronic stress and get your brain chemistry back on track.
One of the most immediate ways to tame stress quickly is to stop and take a few deep breaths. When your body is in a stress response, it's extremely difficult to take a deep breath (because you're fleeing or fighting), so breathing deeply serves as a signal to your body that you are not in immediate danger. As you continue to breathe, it quiets the cascade of stress hormones. It also removes your mental focus from the stressful situation because you have to focus on breathing in and out instead.
To breathe effectively, place your hand on your belly and breathe in, imagining you're pulling the air all the way into your stomach just beneath your hand. As you breathe out, expel the air completely and bring to mind a mantra such as "relax" or "peace" to strengthen the relaxation response.
Meditate or Visualize
A great addition to your deep breathing exercise is meditation or visualization. The two aren't necessarily the same thing. Meditation usually involves trying to clear the mind of everything except maybe for a word or phrase (mantra) that you're focusing on (such as "calm," "peace," or "I am in control" if you're trying to nip stress in the bud), while visualization calls on you to focus on a particular scene that brings you calmness, such as a favorite place or an imagined mountain, stream or forest.
Whichever of these techniques you choose, they can help you relax quickly because along with slowing or reversing the cascade of stress hormones, they take you mentally away from the stressful situation, which may help you gain some perspective on your problem and realize it's not as horrible as you first imagined.
For a longer-term solution to stress, you can engage in mindfulness.
Spiritual teachers such as Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, teach that stress arises because you're either thinking about the pain about the past or worrying about the future. When you are mindful, however, you're present and in the moment.
To be mindful, notice the sensations you have with your five senses. If thoughts of the past or the future arise, gently bring your mind back to what you're doing and let those thoughts drift away.
Use Progressive Muscle Relaxation
When we feel stress, we tend to tense up our muscles, particularly those in the shoulders, neck, and back. A technique known as progressive muscle relaxation can help tame the tension and make you feel more relaxed really quickly.
This is another good one to combine with deep breathing.
- Inhale deeply, then exhale and relax your feet. Feel all the tension release from your feet as you empty your body of breath.
- Inhale, then exhale again, feeling the stress move from your lower legs.
- Continue in this manner, moving up the body to the upper legs, the low back, mid back, shoulders, arms, neck and head, taking as much time as you need to feel all the muscles relax and the stress drain out of your body.
Unwind With an App
There are several great relaxation apps that have short and longer recordings for quick stress relief, meditation, relaxation, and more. These apps have a ton of health and stress-busting benefits.
Movement practices are a great way to relieve long-term stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, any type of exercise - whether it's a slow, chill session of tai chi or a sweaty hour of hot yoga - will increase endorphins, improve mood, and reduce the negative effects of stress.
For immediate stress release, do something slow and easy with lots of breathing like taking a gentle stroll, performing some easy yoga poses, or flowing slow and easy with qigong or tai chi.
Go on a Social Media Fast
If you're someone who feels your blood pressure rising every time you scroll through your feeds, then a social media fast may be the quickest path to relief and relaxation. Instead of reaching for your phone as soon as you wake up or scrolling yourself to sleep at night, try staying off social media for a week. Take the time to do something that nourishes you, such as reading, connecting with friends IRL, or spending your usual social media time in meditation or creative pursuit. You may feel so good you never go back, or you might realize it's time to adopt healthier strategies for your social media use.
Writing can be extremely cathartic, and research shows that writing in a journal can relieve stress. So next time you're feeling stressed, grab a pen and some paper (or even pop open a doc on your computer) and pour everything you're thinking and feeling onto the blank page. Don't worry about grammar, spelling, or anything else. Nobody's going to read it - this is just for you. Chances are as you write, you'll notice your stress levels decrease, and you'll feel more relaxed.
Snuggle Up to a Pet
Get an instant emotional boost by loving on your pet. Studies have shown that interacting with a pet decreases levels of stress hormones, and all that love you feel for your snuggle buddy will help you feel more relaxed, joyful, and at peace. So next time you need your mood boosted, snuggle up to the cuddliest, warmest stress reducer you can find, and you'll soon feel more relaxed and at peace.
Give Someone a Hug
Did you know there's all kinds of biochemistry behind the stress-reducing benefits of hugging? It turns out that loving touch is a great way to relax. So, when you're feeling super stressed, find somebody you love and give them the most awkardly long hug you can possibly sustain. You'll both walk away feeling more relaxed.
Get Out in Nature
If the American Heart Association recommends it, you know it's true. It turns out that nature is more than just a feast for the senses. It's also a great way to reduce anxiety and relax. Whether you're standing on the rim of the Grand Cayon or sitting with your back against a tree in a neighborhood park, your body, mind, and spirit will benefit from a connection with the great outdoors.
Creating and engaging in the creative process releases dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical that's released in response to pleasure. And a good hit of dopamine can help modulate anxiety, helping you feel more relaxed and at peace. So find something to create that you enjoy - whether it's knitting, cooking, or writing poetry.
Want to feel relaxed right away? Find something to laugh at. It turns out that a vigorous bout of hilarity first activates your stress response and then calms it, leaving you feeling super chill and at peace. So whether you gather with your besties and spend a girls' weekend laughing the entire time, or you spend an hour watching your favorite comedian's latest Netflix special, make laughter a regular part of your relaxation regimen.
Stop and Smell the Lavender
The scent of lavender can be extremely relaxing. Studies find that lavender reduces the stress response and increases relaxation. And it smells good, too. So whether you have a lavender-scented massage, take a warm lavender aromatherapy bath, or sip on a steaming cup of lavender tea, the next time you want to feel a little more chill, take a whiff of lavender.
Grounding is a mindfulness practice that connects you to the Earth. It's also a great way to destress and relax. The easiest way to ground is to stand on grass with bare feet (or touch it with bare hands), but let's face it. The weather isn't always appropriate for that. However, for an instant destressing technique, you can use the mindful sensory grounding 5-4-3-2-1 technique.
- Take two deep breaths and look around you.
- Notice and name five things nearby you can see.
- Notice and name four things nearby you can touch.
- Notice and name three things nearby you can hear.
- Notice and name two things nearby you can smell.
- Notice and name one nearby thing you can taste.
- Take two more deep breaths.
This is a great exercise when you need to relax quickly from acute upset, as it helps you be more mindful and takes you out of your stress response while grounding you in physical reality.
Try Heart Coherence
Heart coherence is a heart-centering technique developed by the HeartMath Institute. It is a studied method to improve coherence between the heart and brain, increasing higher emotions such as love, compassion, and peace. It's also incredibly relaxing, and it's easy to do virtually anywhere.
- Start by breathing slowly in and out.
- As you breathe, imagine that you're breathing in and out through your heart.
- Once you can breathe in and out through your heart, bring to mind a positive emotion, such as love, joy, or gratitude. To do this, you can imagine someone or something you love, such as a pet, friend, or family member.
- Once you feel the emotion flowing in and out with your breath, visualize radiating the feeling from your heart center through your whole body and out into the surrounding space.
You only need to do this technique for a few minutes, and you'll notice the immediate relaxation effects.
Stop Stressing and Start Living
We get it - life can be stressful. But all that stress isn't healthy for your body, mind, or spirit, which is why it's helpful to have several relaxation techniques in your back pocket. Relaxing is one of the ultimate forms of self-love and self-care, and you're definitely worth the effort.