Using the Relaxation Response to Relieve Stress
For many of us, relaxation means zoning out in front of the TV at the end of a stressful day. But this does little to reduce the damaging effects of stress. To effectively combat stress, we need to activate the body's natural relaxation response. You can do this by practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, rhythmic exercise, and yoga. Fitting these activities into your life can help reduce everyday stress, boost your energy and mood, and improve your mental and physical health.
What is the relaxation response?
When stress overwhelms your nervous system, your body is flooded with chemicals that prepare you for "fight or flight." This stress response can be lifesaving in emergency situations where you need to act quickly. But when it’s constantly activated by the stresses of everyday life, it can wear your body down and take a toll on your emotional and physical health.
No one can avoid all stress, but you can counteract its detrimental effects by learning how to produce the relaxation response, a state of deep rest that is the polar opposite of the stress response. The relaxation response puts the brakes on stress and brings your body and mind back into a state of equilibrium.
When the relaxation response is activated, your:
- heart rate slows down
- breathing becomes slower and deeper
- blood pressure drops or stabilizes
- muscles relax
- blood flow to the brain increases
In addition to its calming physical effects, the relaxation response also increases energy and focus, combats illness, relieves aches and pains, heightens problem-solving abilities, and boosts motivation and productivity. Best of all, anyone can reap these benefits with regular practice. And while you may choose to pay for a professional massage or acupuncture session, for example, most relaxation techniques can be done on your own or with the aid of free audio downloads or inexpensive smartphone apps.
The important thing to remember is that simply laying on the couch, reading, or watching TV—while sometimes relaxing—isn’t enough to produce the physical and psychological benefits of the relaxation response. For that, you’ll need to actively practice a relaxation technique.
Finding the relaxation technique that’s best for you
There is no single relaxation technique that is best for everyone. The right relaxation technique is the one that resonates with you, fits your lifestyle, and is able to focus your mind and interrupt your everyday thoughts to elicit the relaxation response. You may even find that alternating or combining different techniques provides the best results. How you react to stress may also influence the relaxation technique that works best for you:
The “fight” response. If you tend to become angry, agitated, or keyed up under stress, you will respond best to stress relief activities that quiet you down, such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, or guided imagery.
The “flight” response. If you tend to become depressed, withdrawn, or spaced out under stress, you will respond best to stress relief activities that are stimulating and energize your nervous system, such as rhythmic exercise, massage, mindfulness, or power yoga.
The immobilization response. If you’ve experienced some type of trauma and tend to “freeze” or become “stuck” under stress, your challenge is to first rouse your nervous system to a fight or flight response (above) so you can employ the applicable stress relief techniques. To do this, choose physical activity that engages both your arms and legs, such as running, dancing, or tai chi, and perform it mindfully, focusing on the sensations in your limbs as you move.
Do you need alone time or social stimulation?
If you crave solitude, solo relaxation techniques such as meditation or progressive muscle relaxation will help to quiet your mind and recharge your batteries. If you crave social interaction, a class setting will give you the stimulation and support you’re looking for—and may also help you stay motivated.
With its focus on full, cleansing breaths, deep breathing is a simple yet powerful relaxation technique. It’s easy to learn, can be practiced almost anywhere, and provides a quick way to get your stress levels in check. Deep breathing is the cornerstone of many other relaxation practices, too, and can be combined with other relaxing elements such as aromatherapy and music. While apps and audio downloads can guide you through the process, all you really need is a few minutes and a place to stretch out.
How to practice deep breathing
The key to deep breathing is to breathe deeply from the abdomen, getting as much fresh air as possible in your lungs. When you take deep breaths from the abdomen, rather than shallow breaths from your upper chest, you inhale more oxygen. The more oxygen you get, the less tense, short of breath, and anxious you feel.
- Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
- Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
- Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.
If you find it difficult breathing from your abdomen while sitting up, try lying down. Put a small book on your stomach, and breathe so that the book rises as you inhale and falls as you exhale.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body. With regular practice, it gives you an intimate familiarity with what tension—as well as complete relaxation—feels like in different parts of the body. This can help you to you react to the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies stress. And as your body relaxes, so will your mind.
Progressive muscle relaxation can be combined with deep breathing for additional stress relief.
Practicing progressive muscle relaxation
Consult with your doctor first if you have a history of muscle spasms, back problems, or other serious injuries that may be aggravated by tensing muscles.
Start at your feet and work your way up to your face, trying to only tense those muscles intended.
- Loosen clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable.
- Take a few minutes to breathe in and out in slow, deep breaths.
- When you’re ready, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to focus on the way it feels.
- Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
- Relax your foot. Focus on the tension flowing away and how your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
- Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
- Shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
- Move slowly up through your body, contracting and relaxing the different muscle groups.
- It may take some practice at first, but try not to tense muscles other than those intended.
Progressive muscle relaxation sequence
- Right foot, then left foot
- Right calf, then left calf
- Right thigh, then left thigh
- Hips and buttocks
- Right arm and hand, then left arm and hand
- Neck and shoulders
Body scan meditation
This is a type of meditation that that focuses your attention on various parts of your body. Like progressive muscle relaxation, you start with your feet and work your way up. But instead of tensing and relaxing muscles, you simply focus on the way each part of your body feels, without labeling the sensations as either “good” or “bad”.
- Lie on your back, legs uncrossed, arms relaxed at your sides, eyes open or closed. Focus on your breathing for about two minutes until you start to feel relaxed.
- Turn your focus to the toes of your right foot. Notice any sensations you feel while continuing to also focus on your breathing. Imagine each deep breath flowing to your toes. Remain focused on this area for one to two minutes.
- Move your focus to the sole of your right foot. Tune in to any sensations you feel in that part of your body and imagine each breath flowing from the sole of your foot. After one or two minutes, move your focus to your right ankle and repeat. Move to your calf, knee, thigh, hip, and then repeat the sequence for your left leg. From there, move up the torso, through the lower back and abdomen, the upper back and chest, and the shoulders. Pay close attention to any area of the body that causes you pain or discomfort.
- After completing the body scan, relax for a while in silence and stillness, noting how your body feels. Then slowly open your eyes and stretch, if necessary.
Rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, mindfulness meditation switches the focus to what’s happening right now, enabling you to be fully engaged in the present moment.
Meditations that cultivate mindfulness have long been used to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions. Some of these meditations bring you into the present by focusing your attention on a single repetitive action, such as your breathing or a few repeated words. Other forms of mindfulness meditation encourage you to follow and then release internal thoughts or sensations. Mindfulness can also be applied to activities such as walking, exercising, or eating.
A basic mindfulness meditation:
- Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted or distracted.
- Sit on a straight-backed chair or cross-legged on the floor.
- Find a point of focus, such as your breathing—the sensation of air flowing into your nostrils and out of your mouth or your belly rising and falling—or an external focus, such as a candle flame or a meaningful word that you repeat throughout the meditation.
- Don't worry about distracting thoughts that go through your mind or about how well you're doing. If thoughts intrude during your relaxation session, don't fight them, just gently turn your attention back to your point of focus.
Rhythmic movement and mindful exercise
The idea of exercising may not sound particularly soothing, but rhythmic exercise that gets you into a flow of repetitive movement can be very relaxing. Examples include:
For maximum stress relief, add mindfulness to your workout
While simply engaging in rhythmic exercise will help you relieve stress, if you add a mindfulness component on top, you’ll get even more benefit.
As with meditation, mindful exercise requires being fully engaged in the present moment—paying attention to how your body feels right now, rather than your daily worries or concerns. In order to “turn off” your thoughts, focus on the sensations in your limbs and how your breathing complements your movement, instead of zoning out or staring at a TV as you exercise. If you’re walking or running, for example, focus on the sensation of your feet touching the ground, the rhythm of your breath, and the feeling of the wind against your face. If you’re resistance training, focus on coordinating your breathing with your movements and pay attention to how your body feels as you raise and lower weights. And when your mind wanders to other thoughts, gently return your focus to your breathing and movement.
Visualization, or guided imagery, is a variation on traditional meditation that involves imagining a scene in which you feel at peace, free to let go of all tension and anxiety. Choose whatever setting is most calming to you, whether it’s a tropical beach, a favorite childhood spot, or a quiet wooded glen.
You can practice visualization on your own or with a therapist (or an app or audio download of a therapist) guiding you through the imagery. You can also choose to do your visualization in silence or use listening aids, such as soothing music or a sound machine or recording that matches your chosen setting—the sound of ocean waves if you’ve chosen a beach, for example.
Close your eyes and imagine your restful place. Picture it as vividly as you can—everything you can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. Just “looking” at it like you would a photograph is not enough. Visualization works best if you incorporate as many sensory details as possible.
For example, if you are thinking about a dock on a quiet lake:
- See the sun setting over the water
- Hear the birds singing
- Smell the pine trees
- Feel the cool water on your bare feet
- Taste the fresh, clean air
Enjoy the feeling of your worries drifting away as you slowly explore your restful place. When you are ready, gently open your eyes and come back to the present.
Don't worry if you sometimes zone out or lose track of where you are during a visualization session. This is normal. You may also experience feelings of heaviness in your limbs, muscle twitches, or yawning. Again, these are normal responses.
Yoga and tai chi
Yoga involves a series of both moving and stationary poses, combined with deep breathing. As well as reducing anxiety and stress, yoga can also improve flexibility, strength, balance, and stamina. Since injuries can happen when yoga is practiced incorrectly, it’s best to learn by attending group classes, hiring a private teacher, or at least following video instructions. Once you’ve learned the basics, you can practice alone or with others, tailoring your practice as you see fit.
What type of yoga is best for stress?
Although almost all yoga classes end in a relaxation pose, classes that emphasize slow, steady movement, deep breathing, and gentle stretching are best for stress relief.
- Satyananda is a traditional form of yoga. It features gentle poses, deep relaxation, and meditation, making it suitable for beginners as well as anyone primarily looking for stress reduction.
- Hatha yoga is also reasonably gentle way to relieve stress and is suitable for beginners. Alternately, look for labels like gentle, for stress relief, or for beginners when selecting a yoga class.
- Power yoga, with its intense poses and focus on fitness, is better suited to those looking for stimulation as well as relaxation.
If you’re unsure whether a specific yoga class is appropriate for stress relief, call the studio or ask the teacher.
If you’ve seen a group of people in the park slowly moving in synch, you’ve likely witnessed tai chi. Tai chi is a self-paced, non-competitive series of slow, flowing body movements. By focusing your mind on the movements and your breathing, you keep your attention on the present, which clears the mind and leads to a relaxed state.
Tai chi is a safe, low-impact option for people of all ages and fitness levels, including older adults and those recovering from injuries. As with yoga, it's best learned in a class or from a private instructor. Once you’ve learned the basics, you can practice alone or with others.
You’re probably already aware how much a professional massage at a spa or health club can help reduce stress, relieve pain, and ease muscle tension. What you may not be aware of is that you can experience many of the same benefits at home or work by practicing self-massage—or trading massages with a loved one.
Try taking a few minutes to massage yourself at your desk between tasks, on the couch at the end of a hectic day, or in bed to help you unwind before sleep. To enhance relaxation, you can use aromatic oil, scented lotion, or combine self-message with mindfulness or deep breathing techniques.
A five-minute self-massage to relieve stress
A combination of strokes works well to relieve muscle tension. Try gentle chops with the edge of your hands or tapping with fingers or cupped palms. Put fingertip pressure on muscle knots. Knead across muscles, and try long, light, gliding strokes. You can apply these strokes to any part of the body that falls easily within your reach. For a short session like this, try focusing on your neck and head:
- Start by kneading the muscles at the back of your neck and shoulders. Make a loose fist and drum swiftly up and down the sides and back of your neck. Next, use your thumbs to work tiny circles around the base of your skull. Slowly massage the rest of your scalp with your fingertips. Then tap your fingers against your scalp, moving from the front to the back and then over the sides.
- Now massage your face. Make a series of tiny circles with your thumbs or fingertips. Pay particular attention to your temples, forehead, and jaw muscles. Use your middle fingers to massage the bridge of your nose and work outward over your eyebrows to your temples.
- Finally, close your eyes. Cup your hands loosely over your face and inhale and exhale easily for a short while.
Starting a regular relaxation practice
Learning the basics of these relaxation techniques isn’t difficult, but it takes regular practice to truly harness their stress-relieving power. Most stress experts recommend setting aside at least 10 to 20 minutes a day for your relaxation practice. If you’d like to maximize the benefits, aim for 30 minutes to an hour.
Set aside time in your daily schedule. If possible, schedule a set time once or twice a day for your practice. If your schedule is already packed, remember that many relaxation techniques can be practiced while you’re doing other things. Try meditating while commuting on the bus or train, taking a yoga or tai chi break at lunchtime, or practicing mindful walking while exercising your dog.
Make use of smartphone apps and other aids. Many people find that smartphone apps or audio downloads can be useful in guiding them through different relaxation practices, establishing a regular routine, and keeping track of progress.
Don't practice when you're sleepy. These techniques are so relaxing that they can make you very sleepy. However, you will get the most benefit if you practice when you’re fully alert. Avoid practicing close to bedtime or after a heavy meal or alcohol.
Expect ups and downs. Sometimes it can take time and practice to start reaping the full rewards of relaxation techniques such as meditation. The more you stick with it, the sooner the results will come. If you skip a few days or even a few weeks, don’t get discouraged. Just get started again and slowly build up to your old momentum.
Resources and references
Stress Management: Enhance your well-being by reducing stress and building resilience – Harvard Medical School Special Health Report
An Introduction to Tai Chi: A gentle exercise program for mental and physical well-being – Harvard Medical School Special Health Report
Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress – Mayo Clinic
Mindful Meditation Audio Exercises – UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center