8 Expert-Backed Relaxation Techniques For When Life Gets Stressful
In a world where our days are filled to the brim with stimuli, stress is an unavoidable part of the experience. The good news is that stress isn't always the bad guy (it actually helps us sometimes), and when we have a relaxation technique or two under our belts, we have a much better chance of quickly calming down.
What relaxation really means.
According to an article published in the Journal of Holistic Nursing1, relaxation, in its simplest form, means "to loosen again."
During a stress response, the body enters a sympathetic state and may release stress hormones like cortisol or norepinephrine. Spending too much time in this tense fight-or-flight state can create issues for our physical and mental health.
Certain relaxation techniques can help us return to a parasympathetic, rest-and-digest, state. "Relaxation techniques reset and reboot the nervous system so people can feel good within their own bodies and shut down racing thoughts," Roseann Capanna-Hodge, M.D., an integrative mental health expert, tells mbg.
Learning how to curb stress responses before or when they happen can improve your quality of life. The key is turning relaxation into a practice. "Relaxation techniques only calm the brain when you do them consistently, and that means taking 10 minutes or more every day to intentionally practice them," says Capanna-Hodge.
The benefits of focusing on relaxation.
"Relaxation techniques are critical for self-care," Sharonda "Nya B" Brown, MA, NCC, LPC, a licensed therapist and mental health clinician, tells mbg. "Being able to control your moods and set the tone for proper brain function begins with relaxation techniques." Relaxation can bring the body back to baseline.
"Relaxation is your body's way of combating those stress hormones," says Andreas Michaelides, Ph.D., chief of psychology at Noom. Being in a state of relaxation decreases your heart rate, clears your mind, and loosens the tension in the body.
Putting your energy into developing healthier coping mechanisms for the stress that enters your life will help you live rather than simply exist.
Here are eight relaxation techniques supported by experts.
8 techniques to try.
Because our brains process stressors differently from other people's brains, there is no one-technique-fits-all approach. Instead, Michaelides suggests entering the process of practicing relaxation with a growth mindset and figuring out which ones land for you:
When you're stressed, your heart rate speeds up and your breathing quickens. This limits the amount of oxygen the rest of our organs2 receive. Research shows that consciously changing the way you breathe can send a signal to the parasympathetic nervous system and trigger relaxation3, slowing the heart rate and improving blood flow to the rest of the body.
Where breathwork focuses on your breathing, meditation focuses on your thoughts. Our thoughts have a bigger influence on our reality than we may believe. Sitting in stillness is a natural remedy to stress that puts all of your attention on the present moment, decreasing the stimulation4 of the perceived threat and improving the way you respond to stressful stimuli.
Brown notes, "If [you're] uncomfortable with silence or being still, [you] probably shouldn't choose meditation or any kind of technique where noise isn't involved."
Reconnecting with the body can also be incredibly helpful for those experiencing stress. The intention with somatic movements is to pay close attention to what is happening in your body as you move it around.
"In a time when we are so disconnected and distracted by devices and choose to avoid uncomfortable situations," starts Capanna-Hodge, "it's a tool that builds resiliency within the mind and helps people cope with stressors instead of avoiding them."
The slower, the better is a good rule of thumb. Restorative yoga, dance, and mobility training are a few of many somatic movements that release the tension in your body.
When you're stressed, the body produces higher levels of cortisol. While it's unclear how effective a one-and-done massage session is, a scientific review in the journal Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine5 found that repeated visits with a massage therapist may help lower cortisol levels, lower blood pressure, and loosen tension in the body.
A change in surroundings when things feel dim can make a world of difference. There are a lot of theories out there about why being outdoors feels so restorative, including: because our ancestors evolved in the wild, we have a natural inclination to connect with nature. Whatever the reason, many6 studies7 have found that immersing ourselves in the natural world can help melt away cortisol levels, worries, and unhelpful thought patterns.
Part of soothing stress involves making sure we feel safe. As adults, it can feel like we're carrying the weight of the world at times. Brown has found that encouraging her clients to add art and coloring books to their lists of relaxation techniques has given them "a mental escape from adult responsibilities or pressures of their roles." It's freeing to let go, engage a different part of the brain, and connect with our inner child.
Research has shown that singing in a choir can lower cortisol and improve mood8 in certain populations. You don't need to have professional singing experience for this to work for you. Singing in a low-stress environment, like in your car or in the shower, can provide a similar release. Simply listening to calming music and soundscapes9 also seems to make it easier for some people to return to their baseline.
Practicing gratitude activates the part of the brain that recognizes pleasure and connects to systems in our body that promote stress relief (like heart rate). Make it a habit by journaling on the things you're grateful for each morning or evening.
The bottom line.
We aren't meant to live in survival mode all day long. Teaching your body how to relax and step out of a stress response will help you find balance.
Some other physical tools that can help you manage your stress include herbal supplements like ashwagandha, a luxurious personal care product that brings you back to your senses, or a spiritual card deck that allows you to release control.* With these tools and techniques on hand, the next time a stressful period comes along, you'll be ready for it.
Alex Shea is a storyteller and generational healing life coach with words in Byrdie, Verywell Mind, HuffPost, Shape, and more. Outside of publications, Alex writes stories that touch on, and sometimes intertwine, themes of grief and magic.
With a unique view on life, she taps into her own experiences to guide folks to live life for themselves, empowering them to explore their inner wild and find their own way in adulthood. Her weekly newsletter is a tiny way she furthers her mission to hold space for the unfathomable, romantic, and messy parts of life that make it that much more beautiful.