5 Good Ways to Relax
Looking for good ways to relax? I certainly am! And I’m not alone. Research finds that stress and anxiety affect 40 million adults in the U.S. In other words, 1 in 6 of us is walking around in desperate need of relaxation.
It is also worth noting that adults are not the only ones suffering. Anxiety disorders affect 31.9 percent of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18. Untreated, anxiety disorders in children lead to a higher risk for poor school performance, negative social experiences, and substance abuse.
To say stress is a national epidemic is not an exaggeration. Adults and children need actionable solutions to manage their dis-ease. So let’s take a minute to review the effects of stress and anxiety, plus explore five proven ways to promote relaxation.
Is stress normal?
The answer to this question is a bit complicated.
Stress is a normal part of our lives. It can be an incredible motivator, pushing you to get off your duff and get stuff done. Humans likely would not be very productive if they lived in a constant state of metabolic nirvana.
When stress is healthy, it is in balance. That means you have just enough of it to motivate you without causing relentless suffering. When your body enters a state of tension too often – and stays there for too long – it floods your bloodstream with stress hormones that trigger a “fight or flight” response. Your body is convinced it is in danger, so it responds accordingly. Your heart races. Your muscles tense. Your blood pressure rises. Your mind cannot focus.
Chronic stress puts your health at risk. You can develop a multitude of symptoms and diseases when your body constantly is subjected to stress and anxiety, including:
- Confusion and forgetfulness
- Erectile dysfunction
- Intestinal issues (upset stomach, diarrhea, constipation)
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Low energy
Finding ways to relax and return your body to a more balanced state can help preserve your overall health and well-being.
Are the benefits of relaxation real?
Absolutely. Stress is a strain on your body. When you relax, it gives your body time to recharge so it can function optimally. Here are just some of the natural responses your body has to relaxation.
- Your cortisol levels decline. Remember that “fight or flight” response mentioned earlier? When your body thinks it needs to defend itself, one of the ways it prepares is by producing higher levels of cortisol. High levels of cortisol are great for the short term, pushing our bodies toward a state of self-preservation. When cortisol levels remain high, you can rapidly gain weight, develop high blood pressure, experience mood swings, and a host of other health complications. When you relax, your body has a chance to recover.
- Your heart rate drops. This is another one of those “fight or flight” responses. Your heart seemingly pounds from increased beats. Relaxing helps lower your heart rate, which in turn helps us focus better.
- You gain mental clarity. Stress creates overactive brainwaves. When they occur in short bursts, it can help you think faster. If the brain stays overactive too long, it can struggle to regain calm. Regular relaxation quiets brainwaves and provides anxiety and stress relief. As with your heart rate, balancing your brainwave activity is key to achieving relaxation.
Five ways to promote relaxation
There are many effective ways to promote relaxation. The trick is to find one – or a combination – that works for your lifestyle. Not all methods of relaxation are created equally. Some things you may consider relaxing – like binge-watching Netflix on the couch – do little to reduce the damaging effects of stress on your body.
For your body to recognize activity as promoting relaxation, it must slow your breathing and heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and help your mind regain its balance. Here are five easy ways to help jumpstart your body’s relaxation response. Consider trying more than one of them to help stave off boredom.
The age-old advice to “take a deep breath” is spot on. Deep breathing and other mindfulness techniques are centered on the science behind the health benefits of lowering your heart rate. Resonant breathing combats the effects of stress and tension.
How to do it: Focus on taking five breaths per minute and maintain this breathing pattern until you feel calmer. Each inhalation and exhalation must last for six seconds to achieve the five breaths per minute goal. You can breathe in and out through your nose or mouth, or any combination of the two. For the best results, breathe gently. Breathing too hard can add to the stress your body already feels. Controlled breathing balances the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system controls your body’s stress response. The parasympathetic nervous system controls how your body functions when it is at rest. When you balance them out, your body is alert and prepared, but calm and open. It is harder to achieve resonant breathing than it looks. You may not do it perfectly on the first attempt. Just keep practicing.
Ever have someone suggest you need to go to your happy place? Turns out, it is some sound advice for achieving relaxation. Visualization, also known as guided imagery, involves recalling a specific place where you feel most at ease. It is a form of meditation. Your place can be real or imaginary. The only requirement is it helps you feel at peace. Visualization works by replacing your high-level worries with detailed thoughts about your favorite soothing environment.
How to do it: Find a quiet space so you will not be distracted (or consider using noise-canceling headphones). Close your eyes and picture your ideal place for relaxing. Visualization works best when you include a lot of sensory details. Let’s say you choose your family cabin in the woods as your happy place. Here are some ideas on how to guide yourself through this scenario:
Imagine yourself walking up to the cabin from the woods, greeted by the familiar sight of smoke rising from the chimney.
Tune in to the sounds of nature that are common near the cabin: tweeting birds, the snapping of twigs under your feet, the sound of leaves swaying in the breeze.
Remember how clean and crisp the air smells outdoors, with the faint hint of the smoke from the cabin’s chimney.
Feel (and hear) the crunch of the leaves under your feet as you walk up to the cabin. The soft feel of the earth is replaced by the hard wooden steps and porch as you ascend to the cabin’s front door.
These are just some examples of how to guide yourself through the process. You can continue as you enter the cabin. Remember to picture all the things you find soothing about your happy place in as much detail as possible.
Your sense of smell is the strongest of all five senses. Scent, emotion, and memory are intertwined and have a profound effect on how your body processes things through the central nervous system. A growing body of research suggests that aromatherapy can ease stress and anxiety while promoting relaxation. Whether you are using a pre-mixed inhaler or mixing your own, make sure you use 100 percent pure essential oil only.
How to do it: Choosing an essential oil known for natural stress-relieving properties is the best way to get started. Bergamot, cassia, chamomile, lavender, sandalwood, and vanilla are all good choices. You can use essential oils in a diffuser that will disperse them throughout a room. For faster relief, you can try an aromatherapy inhaler like the RELAX Aromatherapy Pocket Inhaler. It contains a pre-mixed blend of the most calming essential oils. RELAX is safe for use in adults and children aged 5 and up.
The benefits of meditation are well-documented. One of the many forms of meditation is called mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness to control anxiety is shown to ease stress and improve attention control. Mindfulness is about being in the moment without judgment. It is a skill that takes practice. Here are some tips to help you step up your game and enjoy the benefits of mindfulness to the fullest.
How to do it: Find a quiet place and get into a comfortable position. You can close your eyes or keep them open, whichever works best for you. Focus on your breathing, paying close attention to every breath you inhale and exhale. The point is not to control respiration, but rather to become aware of your breathing. Once you are focused on your breathing, focus on the sensation of various parts of your body. Start at the tip of your toes and slowly work your way up to the top of your head. If your mind becomes distracted by other thoughts (especially negative ones), respond to them without judgment and with empathy, then return to focusing on your breath and body.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
This may sound weird, but it is an effective way to reduce your stress. Some studies suggest PMR is as effective as acupuncture for reducing feelings of anxiety.
How to do it: Sit or lie in a comfortable position and choose one or two muscles to get started. Take a deep breath and then tense one of the muscles and hold it tight until the count of 10. Then, breathe out and let go of the tension on the muscle. While exhaling, focus on the flow of relaxation as the tension is released in the muscle. It is OK if you have difficulty holding it for the full 10-count. You can slowly build up to it.
Stressing about stress
Stress is inevitable. Finding a balance between stress levels that motivate you and stress levels that cause tension and anxiety, is key. Using these five techniques can help you achieve stability. Try practicing one or more of them daily if you can. If not, squeeze them in as often as your schedule allows. A little bit of relaxation is better than none!