The following relaxation skills are presented in three sections:
- cognitive (mental)
Physical Relaxation Skills
1. Breathing Techniques:
- Slowed breathing involves observing the pace of your breath and intentionally slowing it down. For example, you can slow your breath by gradually breathing in through your nose for five seconds, and slowly breathing out through pursed lips for five seconds. Or you can slow your breath while walking by extending the number of steps per breath.
- Deep breathing involves deliberately breathing all the way in and all the way out, filling up the entire lungs and then gently pushing all the air out.
- Mindful breathing involves quietly observing all the various sensations and movements associated with breathing. When your mind wanders, simply notice this, and gently bring your attention back to your breath, over and over again.
2. Muscle Relaxation
- Body Scan: This technique is also sometimes called passive muscle relaxation. Mindfully scan your body, look for areas of tension, and then deliberately relax any tense muscles that you find. You can do this systematically, from head to toe, or you can do a quick random scan, and focus only on a few tense areas that are particularly noticeable. Try to release tension and relax a little more with each exhale.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): This technique involves tensing and releasing muscle groups, systematically, one at a time, throughout your body. By giving you practice in feeling the contrast between tension and relaxation, it helps you to more readily recognize tension. Even though the exercise involves tension, people feel more relaxed at the end. See the audio samples of PMR exercises above.
- Posture Adjustment: Arrange your body, head and limbs so that they are as relaxed as possible. Drop your shoulders, uncross your arms and legs, square up your frame, relax your jaw, etc. You may want to start by doing a “rag doll shake” to loosen your body up, and then sit or lay down in a relaxed posture. Also, be aware that the positioning of your computer screen, book, keyboard, mouse, driver’s wheel, car seat, chair, musical instrument, and bed can cause chronic tension, and make adjustments as needed for ergonomic comfort.
- Stretching: Do a whole-body stretching routine regularly to reduce and prevent stiffness, tension and aches. Take your time and avoid bouncing. Gently hold your stretches for a few breaths, and go through your stretching routine two or three times (time permitting), releasing your muscles just a little bit more each time. Try to stretch all major muscle groups regularly. If you don’t have much time, you can just gently stretch your neck in all directions, or stretch your hands, arms and shoulders briefly.
- Smiling: If you tend to furrow your brow or clench your jaw, then a gentle, under-stated smile can relax your facial muscles. Remember that when relaxed, your upper teeth should not be touching your lower teeth, even when your lips are closed. Also, notice any tension in your eyes, scalp and tongue, and relax those a little more with each exhale.
3. Physical Warmth: Warmth is comforting and helps to relax your muscles. Try to make your body warmer by sitting for a little while in the sun, a sauna, a hot tub, or a bath. You can also increase your body temperature with exercise or clothing; or simply by increasing room temperature. It may be comforting to place a blanket over yourself while relaxing, especially a heated blanket. A hot water bottle can soothe tense muscles. Holding and sipping a hot beverage can warm you up. Also, cuddling with a loved one or a pet shares body heat as well as affection.
4. Massage and Body Work: Physically massaging your muscles can help you relax, and you don’t necessarily need someone else to do it for you. For example, you can massage your temples, neck, jaw, shoulders, and feet. Body work, including various alternative medicine approaches such as acupuncture, may also help you release tension and increase relaxation.
5. Calming Types of Exercise:
- Yoga, Qi-gong, Tai-chi and Pilates are some examples of exercise that involve breathing techniques, balance, stretching, and relaxation. It is recommended that you do these with professional instruction.
- Walking: Taking a walk in your neighborhood park, at the mall, on a track or at a nature preserve can be very relaxing. The more relaxing the environment, the more relaxing the walk. You can start out briskly to release any excess tension or energy, and slow down in the second half to create a soothing and calming effect. Raising your heart rate for a half hour each day, or for an hour three times per week, is proven to improve mood and reduce stress, but even a five minute walk can make you feel better.
6. Sensory Soothing: Focus your attention on pleasant sensations, using some or all of your five physical senses. Here are some examples:
- Sight: look at a beautiful landscape, at water, clouds, nature, art, flowers, decorations, open spaces, soothing colors, birds flying, soft and indirect lighting, candles, etc.
- Sound: play or listen to music (especially ambient music), listen to nature sounds, rhythmic sounds (like a heartbeat or crickets), water, birds singing, a soothing voice, or “white noise” like a fan, far away sounds, a cat purring, etc.
- Touch: feel pleasant materials such as sand, fur, a pillow, water, cool surfaces, warm surfaces, being near a campfire, massage, lotion, foot soak, bath, shower, comfortable clothes, brushing your hair, etc. Movement can also be soothing, such as rocking, tapping, walking, dancing, or creating art (clay, knitting, drawing, painting, etc.)
- Smell: flowers, perfumes, lotions, scented oils, foods, beverages, herbs, environments (forest, earth/soil, seashore), familiar places, people or pets, candles, fresh air, etc.
- Taste: favorite treats, comfort foods and beverages, chocolate, herbal teas, spices, etc. (Quick reminder: Any of these skills can become problematic if used too much.)
You can combine these. For example, a candle gives soothing light, scent and warmth. Putting on body lotion gives soothing touch and scent. Also, you may find movement soothing, as when you move your body to relaxing music.
Cognitive (Mental) Approaches to Relaxation
Your mind can be a very powerful tool to help you down-shift from the stress response to the relaxation response, and can often be used in conjunction with the physical skills to help you calm down quickly. Not only can you problem-solve and examine your situation rationally in order to make decisions, but you can also use your mind to relax.
7. Making a Conscious Decision about When to Relax: Relaxation gets your mind off the problem for a while, allowing you to calm down. But sometimes you may need to address the problem before you take a break. Tension may be trying to motivate you to do something necessary. But you may need to relax before you can act effectively. Therefore, it is important to make a conscious decision about what to do. Once you’ve decided that it’s time to relax, you can more easily let go of worries, knowing that you made a careful decision and it’s okay to let go for now.
8. Focusing Your Mind: This technique is also sometimes called anchoring. When stressed, your mind will tend to jump around and feel scattered. Focusing on just one thing at a time can help you calm down. Focus your attention on one “anchor.” Examples of anchors include:
- your breath (the sensations, movements, sounds and pacing)
- an action (walking, washing dishes, gardening, etc)
- a sensation (see sensory soothing in physical skills)
- music or a mantra
- an image in your mind (see imagery below)
When your attention drifts away from your anchor, notice the distraction without judging yourself, and gently bring your attention back to where you want it. Practice bringing your attention back to your anchor over and over again for ten minutes.
9. Thinking about Something Neutral: When emotions are about to spill over, but it’s not the right time for emotional processing, you can briefly think about something that is completely neutral and unemotional. For example:
- Silently in your mind, count slowly to 10, one count per breath (making each breath slower), or “count sheep,” or count backward by threes from 200, etc.
- Silently in your mind, name or count the objects, colors or shapes you see around you.
- List things silently in your mind. Remember your grocery list, or name the vegetables you’re likely to find in the produce section, or any other such random list of items.
This can switch your mind out of emotional mode, and help you to maintain your composure or to remain relaxed. It’s especially useful when emotions emerge in public.
10. Focusing on Something Positive: This skill overlaps with several other relaxation skills. For example sensory soothing (one of the physical skills) involves focusing on pleasant sensations. And doing a pleasant activity (one of the behavioral skills) involves focusing on something positive. So we will list only cognitive examples here:
- focus on a pleasant memory
- focus on a pleasant mental image (see also “imagery or visualization” below)
- focus on an uplifting story
- focus on a pleasant or encouraging thought (see also “affirmations” below)
- focus on something humorous (see also “humor” below)
- focus on a positive or pleasant plan, idea or expectation
- focus on a beautiful song or tune in your mind
11. Affirmations: Affirmations are positive, calming and encouraging thoughts or slogans. They can be used to challenge any negative thinking patterns that you notice, especially when you’re facing a difficult challenge. Here are a few examples:
- I am worthy of happiness.
- It’s okay to relax and enjoy this moment.
- I’ve made it through harder things before, so I know I can get through this.
- This situation is temporary, I can deal with it one day at a time.
- Keeping calm will help me manage my stress.
- I have the (skills, support, resources, strength) to get through this.
- My body is my oldest friend and steadiest companion.
Affirmations need to be personal and relevant specifically to your situation. They can be individually tailored to challenge whatever negative thoughts you tend to repeat. The possibilities are infinite. Think of an affirmation that is especially meaningful to you.
12. Counting Your Blessings: Acknowledging what you do have, rather than focusing on what you don’t, can shift your mood in a positive direction and help you to relax. Try to acknowledge and enjoy any comforts, resources, relationships, joys and opportunities.
13. Acceptance: Sometimes accepting that things are the way they are, can help you to let go of fighting reality. Try to accept by relaxing your body, and then turning your mind toward acceptance. This may also involve being kind, gentle and patient with yourself and others. You may need to turn toward acceptance over and over until you can give yourself permission to relax into acceptance. Acceptance can relieve a lot of tension.
14. Finding Meaning and Purpose in a Situation: Finding meaning in the situation can help you to accept it. There may be spiritual meaning, or an opportunity for growth, insight or learning in your situation.
15. Imagery or Visualization: Picture a detailed image with all your senses:
- imagine a peaceful, calm place, like a beach or a familiar safe place
- imagine a fun or funny memory, scene or experience
- imagine successfully completing a task that you want to do
- imagine your pain melting away, or your body healing
- imagine your body becoming so relaxed that it turns to sand that softly crumbles into the warm beach (starting at your toes and working your way up to the top of your head)
- imagine visiting a wise person who can answer all your questions
- imagine being surrounded by everyone who has ever cared for you
There are many relaxation CDs and online videos that can walk you through relaxing visualizations. Looking at pictures in your photo album or a book of illustrations can also help.
16. Autogenic Training: A technique called autogenic training has you imagine your body as warm and heavy. Imagining this sends messages to your brain and body to relax. You can also add soothing images of sunlight, a cozy bed, or warm water, etc.
17. Humor: Looking at your situation from a humorous perspective, or exposing yourself to humor, can help you to relax. Laughter and smiling are both conducive to relaxation. So watch a sitcom or comedy. Read a funny book or magazine. Read jokes and funny greeting cards, or talk to that special someone who makes you laugh.
Behavioral Relaxation Skills
In addition to physical and cognitive relaxation skills, you can also try out some of the behavioral relaxation skills below. Behavioral skills may not be as quick to trigger a physical relaxation response, but can still be quite useful for stress management.
18. Distraction: You will notice that many of the physical, cognitive and behavioral skills have something in common… they can get your mind off a problem for a little while. Therefore distraction, although it overlaps with many of the other skills, deserves to be mentioned in and of itself. Taking your mind off of problems can help you relax.
19. Taking a Break: If you’re feeling tense in the middle of a stressful task or job, it may help to simply take a short break by getting a drink of water or a snack, stopping for a meal, using the restroom, or taking a short walk around the building or block. Then you can come back to the task more relaxed, focused and with fresh eyes. Sometimes you might need to take a longer time-out and return to the problem only when ready.
20. Slow, Low and Quiet: If you’re dealing with agitation while talking, slow down your speech, make your tone lower, speak quietly, and take more breaks between statements (to think and to listen). This can help prevent an argument from escalating.
21. Socializing: Spending time with people who are supportive, friendly, and uplifting can help you to feel at ease. Just chatting over a meal, or checking in with someone by phone or a social networking website, can brighten up your day and relieve stress. Also, taking some time to help someone else can help you relax, because it gets your mind off your problems and helps you to feel capable.
22. Reading: Why not kick back and read a good book? Of if you’re having difficulty concentrating, you could flip through an interesting magazine. There’s something out there for everybody. And if your eyes aren’t able to read, then try out the ever-growing selection of audio books that are available at your local library or online.
23. Time with Animals: If you have a pet, take some time to give them care, attention and affection. Take advantage of any opportunities to just spend some time petting a cat and listening to it purr, or to play with a dog, or to watch horses, etc. Birds and fish can be enjoyable and relaxing to watch too, whether they’re pets or out in the wild.
24. Gardening: Many people find it relaxing to tend to plants. Gardening doesn’t have to be elaborate. You can make it convenient for yourself and take on only as much as you want. Container gardening can be a relaxing and enjoyable option.
25. Time in Nature: It can be very soothing to watch the clouds while feeling a gentle breeze and enjoying the warmth of the sun. It’s all the more soothing if you can hear birds and watch a body of water. Whether it’s in your backyard, a nearby park, or out in a forest preserve, time in nature takes us back to our roots of just being human beings on the planet. Activities such as bird-watching and photography can also make for a relaxing afternoon.
26. Play: Life can be very serious and difficult at times. All the more reason, then, to take advantage of moments when you feel playful. Allow your playfulness to come out, embrace it, cherish it as a little jewel in your day. Share it with others to spread the joy. It can be something you say, with a wink and a smile, it can be tickling a baby, or it can be a structured activity like a game. Many people find card and board-games fun and relaxing. There are also individual options like solitaire, puzzles, word finds, computer games etc.
27. Creativity: It can be relaxing to fiddle with a creative project. Examples include sewing, painting, drawing, writing, music, decoration, pottery, embroidery, knitting, collages, scrap-booking, making jewelry, making models, and low-stress fix-it jobs.
28. Collecting: Many people enjoy seeking out new items for their collections, as well as managing and trading what they have. These may include stamps, coins, figurines, seashells, historic items, baseball cards… the possibilities are endless.
29. Spiritual Activities: Many people also find it calming to turn to a higher power through prayer, to spend time at a church, chapel, sanctuary or temple, or to read spiritual texts. The relief this can bring can help you to relax.
30. Time in a Soothing Environment: When you feel tense, go to a place where you can unwind. Ideally this would be someplace relatively quiet, with a comfortable temperature, with low lighting, with a place to sit or lay down, and either with privacy or with only people you trust.
31. Self-Care: Take care of yourself by attending to your needs like food, medication, appointments, and rest. Take a bath, sleep, get a massage, get some alone time, etc.
32. Entertainment: Whether you watch TV, catch a movie, listen to music, or see a play, entertainment can be a relaxing and enjoyable experience. These days we have the option of entertainment in the privacy of our own homes, which may be more relaxing than going out. Of course, how relaxing it is depends on what you choose to do. A horror movie might not be as relaxing as a favorite sitcom or an interesting documentary.
33. Journaling: Journaling can help you to process your emotions, clarify your thoughts, reflect on your day, vent, problem solve, and calm yourself down. You can also give yourself encouragement by writing to yourself as if you were talking to a good friend in the same situation. It gives you some time to yourself and helps to manage stress.
34. Shift to a Different Part of the Brain: Sometimes strain can result from spending too long doing one type of activity. Different types of activities use different parts of your brain (and body). If one activity has worn you out, try switching to something completely different. For example, follow reading with a shower (rather than writing), or follow house-cleaning with socializing (rather than gardening), or follow shopping with watching TV (rather than socializing), or follow writing with taking a walk (rather than sewing). Variety can help you stay relaxed.