To-do lists, fears and anxieties, and general discomforts have a way of sneaking into our lives and preventing us from relaxing when we need to. These days, 25 percent of Americans experience high levels of stress, and another 50 percent report moderate levels.
The Oxford dictionary defines "relaxation" as reaching a state of freedom from these physical and mental tensions—easier said than done. Thankfully, there are plenty of holistic techniques that can help us unwind after a long day and recover from stressful moments that leave us less-than-Zen.
Here's a comprehensive guide to crafting a surrounding that promotes relaxation and using mind-body techniques to unwind:
The root of relaxation.
First, let's go over the chemicals that control the body's stress response so you can recognize when they're out of whack and do something about it.
The fight-or-flight response.
Fear (the feeling that you are in danger) and anxiety (the anticipation of fear) cause the body to go into a fight-or-flight response, also known as an acute stress response. This activates our sympathetic nervous system, signaling our adrenal glands to release hormones that spring us into action mode. Our ancestors developed this response eons ago in order to adapt to life-threatening situations in the wild, but today it doesn't take an oncoming bear to send us into panic mode. Everything from a big presentation at work to a tense interaction can send our stress hormone production into overdrive.
One of the most ubiquitous stress response hormones is cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels can lead to everything from headaches to sugar cravings. High cortisol levels also impede sleep, so if you're constantly stressed during the day you might find it hard to get some shut-eye, even when you physically feel exhausted.
Adrenaline and norepinephrine are two other biggies that are responsible for the racing heart and high blood pressure of stress. When your body senses danger, it produces these hormones to divert blood flow away from nonessential areas and toward the major muscle groups so we can flee or fight.
Setting the scene.
We don't need to resign to a life of sweaty palms and panicked minds. Though more research still needs to be done, we now have reason to believe that it's possible to counteract stress-response symptoms using a variety of holistic interventions (aka, not pills). One study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that 50 percent of people with chronically high blood pressure were able to significantly lower it using mind-body relaxation techniques like meditation, visualization, and breath work. Another in Psychoneuroendocrinology found that just 25 minutes of mindful meditation over a three-day span regulated participants' cortisol response and reduced self-reported psychological stress.
The first step in harnessing the power of these techniques is crafting an atmosphere that you find relaxing, whether it's a room of your house or a corner of your desk.
Let's go over what to use—and what to avoid—when you're setting the scene to Zen out.
Address the five senses as you craft your space, starting with the nose. Soothing essential oils like lavender, rose, and bergamot are accessible, affordable tools for stress relief. (These essential oils are also great for sleep.) You can throw them in a diffuser, combine them with water and witch hazel for a homemade room spray, or apply them directly to your pulse points after mixing them with a carrier oil like jojoba or grapeseed.
Next up is sound, as music has been shown to promote mental health and well-being in some cases. Play around with soundscapes that you find soothing; maybe it's the waves of the beach or a chorus of tuning forks and Himalayan singing bowls.
Now let's move on to sight. Your space shouldn't be too stimulating, so keep distractions to a minimum, but consider dotting your space with houseplants. These little relics of nature can remove toxins from the surrounding environment and may even reduce physiological and psychological stress in the process. Spider plants, pothos, and philodendron are lovely, low-maintence greens to start with. Ditching the fluorescents and keeping your lighting as natural as possible can also prepare your body for relaxation.
It's important to feel physically comfortable as you settle in, so you may want to pull in a meditation cushion, plush blanket, or supportive pillow. Turn the thermostat down to between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit to enhance the cozy vibes.
As far as taste goes, well, eating while conducting breath work sounds pretty difficult, so let's skip that one for now.
How to relax anytime, anywhere.
When relaxation is your end goal, breath is the most important thing to focus on. Simply taking deeper, more controlled breaths can be enough to lower your cortisol levels. That's because breathing into the diaphragm brings more oxygen into the body, which in turn slows heartbeat and lowers blood pressure. This is known as the relaxation response, and it directly combats that acute stress response mentioned earlier, helping the body achieve balance.
The following exercises all build upon this idea of mindful breathing to deliver major stress-busting benefits.
If you're new to the mindful meditation arena, phone apps like Headspace, Calm, and Insight can be really valuable since they have someone on the other end reminding you to come back to your breath every so often. Many of them also come with meditations specifically designed to combat stress and evoke relaxation. You can do the quicker, five-minute exercises in a pinch when you feel your stress response triggered, or make a habit of listening to a longer one to unwind for bed.
If you're a more experienced meditator, challenge yourself to ditch the app and craft a personal de-stress mantra instead. Let your intuition guide you to a phrase that brings you peace, such as "I am in control of my destiny" or "I do not let outside triggers affect my inner self." Whatever your mantra may be, repeat it with each inhale, letting it regulate the breath and mask the lingering worries that may creep in during your practice.
Breath work involves tweaking your breathing to achieve even more therapeutic effects. There are hundreds of different techniques and routines for doing so, but LA-based breathwork expert Ashley Neese swears by taking a long, deep breath through the nose and exhaling out of the nose for two to three counts longer than you inhaled. You should begin to unwind within 60 seconds or less. "The slower you breathe the quieter the mind will become," she says.
Dr. Robin Berzin, functional medicine physician and founder of Parsley Health, recommends inhaling for a count of two, holding the breath for a count of one, exhaling gently for a count of four, and finishing by holding the breath again for a count of one. If the two-to-four count feels too short, she recommends increasing the length of the breath to four in and six out, or six in and eight out, etc. "But if longer breaths create any anxiety, there is no need to push yourself," she reminds us. At the end of the day, it's all about what pattern makes you feel the most comfortable and at ease, so play around with different combinations of inhales and exhales until you find your sweet spot.
Adding visualization to your breath work practice is another powerful way to combat stress and unease. That's right: Simply imagining that you're more relaxed could ultimately help your body calm down. Hypnotherapist Grace Smith often calls upon visualization when working with clients. She encourages them to imagine that stress is a physical being and politely asking it to leave your life to make way for more flow. Then, she says to see in full detail what you want to replace it with. So, if you're looking to boost creativity, imagine a fountain: "I love visualizing a fountain or a faucet turning on—one that continues to flow and flow and flow with ideas. All you need to do is fill up your pail, carry it back to desk or studio, and see where these new ideas lead you. Imagine both accessing new ideas as well as following through with their execution easily and effortlessly, all the while being kind to yourself," she says.
Yoga, tai chi, and calming exercise.
How to get started.
Like most things, these techniques take practice, so don't expect to feel like a pro right away. Start by carving out a few minutes every day to practice; think of it as building up your relaxation arsenal so you'll be better equipped to handle a stressful situation the next time it arises. No. 1 rule: Be kind to yourself, and thank yourself for every effort.
And are you ready to learn more about what anxiety, brain health, and your diet all have in common? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.