Stress is an unavoidable part of life. Whether it’s work deadlines, relationship issues, or everyday responsibilities, we all experience stress at some point. While a small amount of stress can be healthy by keeping us focused and motivated, prolonged or chronic stress can negatively impact both our physical and mental health. That’s why having effective relaxation techniques and stress management skills are so important.
Relaxation techniques allow us to activate the body’s natural relaxation response. Physiologically, they decrease blood pressure, heart and breathing rates, and metabolic activity. They also increase blood flow to major muscles, change brain waves, and reduce psychological distress. Mastering relaxation techniques empowers us to relieve daily stress and be more resilient when facing life’s bigger challenges.
This article explores the top 11 relaxation techniques backed by research to help you better manage stress and anxiety. Try incorporating some of these practices into your daily life for improved calm, health, and well-being. Click the links for more detailed information on each of the relaxation methods.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
- Guided Imagery and Visualization
- Autogenic Training
- Floating Therapy
- Meditative Drawing and Art
- Binaural Beats and Sound Therapy
- Massage Therapy and Self-massage
- Mindfulness Meditation
- Vibration Therapy
Relax Your Body with Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Mastering relaxation techniques provides lasting benefits for your physical and mental health. They counter the effects of chronic stress when incorporated into your daily routine.
- Progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, meditation, mindfulness, massage, art, float therapy, and other science-backed techniques can produce the relaxation response.
- Each method creates physiological changes like lowered blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate along with mental benefits such as reduced anxiety, pain, and fatigue.
- Experiment with multiple relaxation practices to determine which works best for your needs. Consistency is key in making them lifelong habits.
- Take time each day to relax, and your mind and body will thank you. Managing stress proactively helps you be resilient during life’s tougher times.
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a stress management technique that involves systematically tensing and relaxing different muscle groups throughout the body. It was developed in the 1920s by American physician Edmund Jacobson.
During PMR, you intentionally apply tension to certain muscle groups, holding them tight for anywhere from 5 to 10 seconds. Pay close attention to the tension in the contracted muscles. Then you release the tension quickly and notice how the muscles relax and become loose and limp. This is done in a head-to-toe sequence.
By tuning into the sensations in your body, you increase mindfulness. Focused breathing enhances the relaxation response. Any stress or anxiety gradually flows out of your body, leaving you in a deep state of calmness.
PMR therapy is used to reduce chronic pain, fatigue, stress, anxiety, and depression. Research shows it can rapidly produce a relaxation response by significantly lowering heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels.
To try basic PMR at home, set aside 10 to 20 minutes where you won’t be disturbed. Loosen any tight clothing and find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Then slowly and deliberately tense and relax each muscle group starting with your feet and ending with your head. Remain relaxed for 1 to 2 minutes when finished. Practice daily.
- Activating the body’s natural relaxation response
- Lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate
- Reducing muscle tension
- Decreasing anxiety, pain, fatigue, and insomnia
- Improving overall well-being
Imagine Your Way to Relaxation with Guided Imagery
Guided imagery is a stress reduction technique where you envision soothing scenes, places, or experiences in your mind to relax the body and mind. You can do self-guided imagery by using a script or being led by cues from a therapist. Or you can create your own peaceful visualizations.
During guided imagery, you imagine sights, sounds, smells, textures, and any other sensations involved in your calming scene. This immersion into a tranquil environment elicits a relaxation response. Your heartbeat and breathing slow, muscles relax, and blood pressure decreases.
In studies, guided imagery has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and pain. It’s also used with cancer patients to help strengthen the immune system and counter nausea from chemotherapy. Athletes use imagery to enhance sports performance.
To relax with guided imagery, get comfortable in a quiet spot and close your eyes. Picture your calming scene in as much sensory detail as possible. For example, lying in warm sand by the ocean, hiking a lush forest trail, or kneeling by a trickling creek. Focus on the images for 10 to 20 minutes.
- Visualizing peaceful scenes and experiences
- Decreases stress, anxiety, depression, pain
- Improves sleep quality
Achieve Deep Calm with Biofeedback Training
Biofeedback training teaches you to control physiological responses that are normally involuntary, like heart rate, brain waves, and muscle tension. In biofeedback, electronic sensors attached to your skin feed biological signals to a monitoring device. The readings allow you to observe small changes in your body. With practice, you gain awareness and learn to purposefully relax tense muscles and regulate heart rate and breathing for whole-body calm.
There are different types of biofeedback therapies. Heart rate variability biofeedback reduces stress and anxiety. Neurofeedback tracks brain waves associated with relaxation and wakefulness. Electromyography sensors monitor muscle activity during progressive muscle relaxation.
Biofeedback is effective for treating stress, anxiety, headaches, chronic pain, and ADHD. It empowers patients to play an active role in their health and gives them tools to control symptoms. Daily relaxation practice helps sustain results. Biofeedback training is offered by health practitioners and therapists. Home biofeedback devices are also available.
- Monitors the body’s signals like heart rate to gain control over them
- Effective for stress, anxiety, headaches, chronic pain
|Heart Rate Variability||Reduces stress and anxiety|
|Neurofeedback||Regulates brain waves|
|Electromyography||Monitors muscles during PMR|
Autogenic Training for Releasing Tension
Autogenic training is a relaxation technique based on hypnosis and autosuggestion. It was developed in the 1930s by German psychiatrist Johannes Schultz who studied hypnotism and Eastern meditation.
The goal of autogenic training is to achieve a deep state of relaxation by repeating calming phrases that influence physiological responses. This self-hypnosis therapy reduces stress and anxiety. It can also help treat migraines, hypertension, and some digestive disorders.
An example phrase is “My arms and legs feel heavy and warm.” Repeat each phrase silently while sitting comfortably with eyes closed. Focus on passive concentration by letting the words create the response, rather than forcing it. Sensations may include warmth, heaviness, calm breathing, slowed heartbeat, and tranquility. Work your way through a series of 6 to 10 autogenic phrases a few times a week.
- Uses self-hypnosis and repetition of calming phrases
- Reduces stress, anxiety, migraines, hypertension
Float Your Stress Away in a Sensory Deprivation Tank
Sensory deprivation tank therapy provides deep relaxation for both the mind and body. Also called Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST), it involves effortlessly floating in a shallow pool of skin-temperature water saturated with Epsom salt. The high salt content makes you buoyant. The water and the sides of the tank are soundproof and kept dark.
Devoid of external stimuli inside the capsule, you experience a calming weightless state. This environment allows you to relax your nervous system in minutes versus the 20-30 minutes typically needed for meditation. The anti-gravity environment releases muscle tension. Your mind enters a meditative theta brain wave state associated with creativity and healing.
Studies confirm REST therapy reduces stress and anxiety, relieves pain, improves sleep quality, and elevates mood. The profound relaxation and restored energy can have lasting benefits for overall well-being. Sessions last about an hour and many spas and wellness centers offer float therapy. Some athletes and Silicon Valley executives use it preventively to maintain peak performance.
- Floating in Epsom salt water isolates you from stimuli
- Reduces stress, anxiety, pain, and elevates mood
Find Mindful Relaxation Through Meditative Art
Expressive arts like painting, drawing, coloring, sculpting, or clay work provide stress relief through creative mindfulness. The goal isn’t to produce great art but rather to be fully present in the moment-to-moment process. This immersion in the senses induces a relaxation response.
Focusing on rhythmic art activities lowers anxiety and worry. The act of blending colors, shaping pottery clay, or crafting patterns takes you out of a thinking mode and into “the flow.” Making art for just 10 to 20 minutes can calm emotions. Creating visual journals, doodling during phone calls, or using adult coloring books can relax as well.
A 2011 study found that visiting an art museum for an hour lowered blood pressure and heart rate among study participants, indicating a reduction in anxiety. Other research shows making art helps cancer patients and their caregivers cope with stress. Don’t judge your work. Just fully engage in the soothing, meditative art activity.
- Painting, drawing, and sculpting promote creative mindfulness
- Lowers anxiety, worry, blood pressure, and heart rate
Harmonize Your Mind with Binaural Beats
Binaural beats use sound technology to relax your mind by synchronizing your brain waves. When you listen to different low-frequency tones in each ear, your brain responds by creating a third tone to bridge the difference between the two. This synthesized tone places your brain in a lower frequency, alpha, or theta range, inducing a deeply relaxed state.
Different binaural programs are produced to tap into states of improved focus, lessened anxiety, or meditation. Some studies confirm binaural beats’ effects on relaxation, mood, attention, pain perception, and memory, while others are inconclusive. Listening before bedtime promotes more restful sleep. But they shouldn’t replace medication treatment for health conditions.
Binaural beats are best heard through headphones. Sessions last 10 to 30 minutes. Make sure to allow time afterward to integrate these profound mind states into daily life. Many free or low-cost programs are available online. Beware of programs that induce extremely low or high frequencies outside the safe zone.
- Listening to different tones in each ear synchronizes brain waves
- Promotes relaxation, lowered anxiety, better sleep
Destress with Meditation’s Healing Power
The deep, meditative breathing practiced during meditation rituals elicits a relaxation response and offers science-backed benefits. Studies show meditation helps reduce anxiety, depression, insomnia, chronic pain, PTSD symptoms, emotional reactivity, and stress while increasing focus, memory, emotional intelligence, and empathy. MRI scans reveal meditation increases grey matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy.
Although meditation is commonly practiced sitting cross-legged on the floor, you can meditate lying in bed, sitting in a chair, walking, or in other postures. To start, choose a quiet environment with minimal distractions. Set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes. Focus on slow abdominal breathing or a mantra. If your mind wanders from the point of focus, gently redirect it. Perfecting your technique takes time. Be patient and meditate consistently. Apps like Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer provide guided programs.
- Focusing on mantras or breath elicits a relaxation response
- Reduces anxiety, depression, pain, emotional reactivity
Knead Out Stress with Massage Therapy
Massage is an ancient healing therapy that promotes deep muscle relaxation while increasing blood flow, reducing pain, and lowering heart rate and blood pressure. Studies confirm massage boosts immune function and reduces anxiety, fatigue, depression, and pain in cancer patients.
Swedish, aromatherapy, hot stone, shiatsu, and Thai massage are shown to reduce stress hormones like cortisol. Massage therapy activates the parasympathetic nervous system to counteract chronic stress and fatigue. Techniques like kneading, percussion, friction, vibration, and range-of-motion exercises relax tense muscles and stiff joints while stimulating the circulation of blood and lymph. Licensed massage therapists can target specific problem areas to relieve discomfort.
Massage therapy offers a healing touch at all stages of life from newborns to the elderly. While deep tissue massage may cause minor muscle soreness, massage is one of the few therapies with almost no downsides when performed by a licensed practitioner. Many massage studios have recurring specials if the standard rates are cost-prohibitive.
- Kneading muscles boosts circulation and immunity
- Lowers anxiety, fatigue, depression, and pain
|Swedish||Improves flexibility and reduces muscle tension|
|Aromatherapy||Essential oils enhance relaxation|
|Hot Stone||Heated stones loosen tight muscles|
Immerse in Relaxation with Hydrotherapy
The soothing properties of water have relaxation benefits all their own. Hydrotherapy therapies like hot tubs, mineral baths, contrast baths, Scotch hose treatments, and saunas help unwind. They increase blood flow to the muscles and reduce tension in joints and soft tissues. The buoyancy and warmth of water offset the effects of gravity and cold to relieve stress.
Hot baths before bedtime help lower your core body temperature by drawing blood outward and help you fall asleep faster. Add Epsom salts to soothe sore muscles. Cold water triggers your vagus nerve to lower your heart rate and blood pressure almost immediately. Contrast baths-alternating soaking your feet in hot then cold water-stimulate circulation. Cool showers refresh you after a stressful day.
- Water therapies like baths, saunas, hot tubs increase circulation, lower blood pressure
Cultivate Awareness for Relaxation with Mindfulness
The practice of mindfulness teaches present-moment awareness to achieve relaxation. By narrowing our focus to the current experience, we push aside regrets about the past and worries for the future to find calm. Studies show a regular time spent practicing mindfulness reduces stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and chronic pain while boosting overall well-being.
Mindfulness meditation cultivates this state of engaged, nonjudgmental attention. You simply notice thoughts, emotions, and sensations without following or reacting to them. Sit quietly and focus on the current moment, your breathing, eating, walking, or tasks at hand. Start with a few minutes a day, and gradually increase.
If you have trouble sitting still, try walking meditations, mindfulness art projects, or body scans. Repeating mindfulness prompts like “breathe” or “relax” helps refocus wandering minds. Mindfulness apps like Headspace, Calm, InsightTimer, and Stop, Breathe & Think make practicing easy.
- Present moment focus calms mind
- Reduces anxiety, depression, pain, and insomnia
Vibration Therapy for Stress Relief
Vibration therapy, often termed whole-body vibration (WBV), is an innovative relaxation technique that involves exposing the body to gentle vibrations, typically by standing on a vibrating platform. These platforms produce uniform vibrations that are transmitted throughout the body. While originally developed to enhance bone density and muscle strength, its applications have expanded to include stress and anxiety relief.
Mechanism of Action:
The subtle vibrations stimulate muscle fibers, requiring them to contract and relax multiple times per second. This activity can increase blood flow, oxygenate tissues, and encourage the release of endorphins – the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. As a result, the body often feels more relaxed and rejuvenated after a session.
Benefits for Stress Relief:
- Endorphin Release: WBV stimulates the body to produce endorphins, which can help alleviate stress and pain, and enhance mood.
- Muscle Relaxation: The vibrations help in releasing muscle tension, which can accumulate due to stress. By soothing tight muscles and knots, it provides physical relief which can translate to mental relaxation.
- Increased Circulation: The enhanced blood flow can lead to better oxygenation and nutrient distribution, aiding in cellular function and overall body relaxation.
Life today is full of pressures and responsibilities that fuel unhealthy levels of stress. Left unchecked, this stress takes a cumulative toll on the body and psyche in the form of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and increased disease risk. Making time for relaxation every day is critical to counteract stress before it becomes destructive.
Research shows relaxation techniques are safe, cost-effective ways to elicit the body’s natural relaxation response. The most proven methods relax the muscles, calm the mind, slow breathing, lower blood pressure, and heart rate, and reduce damaging stress hormones. From meditation to massage, there are relaxing modalities to suit most needs and preferences.
Choose techniques that are convenient, enjoyable, and affordable for you. Try alternating practices so you don’t get bored. Consistency is key, so aim to integrate relaxation into your daily routine for lasting benefits. When practiced regularly, these empirically supported therapies empower you to better manage stress, heal both body and mind and enhance your overall well-being.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a relaxation technique?
A relaxation technique is a method, process, or activity that helps a person to relax, to attain a state of increased calmness, or to reduce levels of anxiety, stress, or anger. Relaxation techniques are often employed as one element of a wider stress management program and can decrease muscle tension, lower blood pressure, and slow heart and breath rates, among other health benefits.
What are some different relaxation exercises I can try?
There are many forms of relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga and tai chi. These exercises usually involve focusing attention on a single object or sound, increasing awareness of the body, and using deep, slow breathing techniques.
How is progressive muscle relaxation therapy applied?
Progressive muscle relaxation therapy involves tensing and then releasing different parts of your body, starting from your feet and working your way up. By focusing on the difference between tension and relaxation, you can become more aware of physical sensations. This technique may help you relax and alleviate stress when practicing regularly.
What is the role of visualization in relaxation techniques?
Visualization is a relaxation technique that involves imagining a scene in which you feel at peace, free to let go of all tension and anxiety. This technique is often used in combination with physical relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
Can these relaxation techniques be part of a healthcare routine?
Yes, relaxation techniques have been recognized by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health as an effective part of healthcare routines. Relaxation techniques can not only help in alleviating stress but also aid in managing symptoms of various health conditions like heart disease, depression, and anxiety. However, it’s important to consult your healthcare provider about complementary practices you are considering.