Managing stress with relaxation strategies
Strategies that address the symptoms of stress are typically relaxation strategies. They reduce the stimulation that occurs during the body's fight-or-flight response. These strategies don't remove the source of stress — they only provide short-term relief, so they should be used with long-term strategies that address the cause of stress. Effective relaxation strategies for short-term stress management include:
- Breathing exercises
- Progressive muscle relaxatioin
- Enjoying a hot bath, sauna or hot tub
- Engaging in a hobby
- Spending time with loved ones, including pets
Read on to learn more about each of these strategies and how they can help reduce the symptoms of stress.
Breathing exercises are easy to do and can be done anytime and anywhere. Several techniques have been studied for their relaxation effect. One method called the "relaxing breath" or the "4-7-8 technique" comes from yoga and has been scientifically proven to elicit the relaxation response. Another technique supported by science is Resonance Frequency Breathing.
The goal of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is to progressively tense and then relax muscle groups, thereby achieving greater overall relaxation. There are many resources online to help you learn the technique, such as this progressive muscle relaxation video, this autogenic relaxation audio and the description of How to do Progressive Muscle Relaxation.
Massage relaxes tense muscles and reduces stress in the body — and can even be done at home with self-massage for stress relief. To learn more about massage, search the internet using the keywords "massage techniques" or "self-massage."
Although exercise stimulates the body, a relaxed state follows. When you are feeling stressed, take some time to go for a brisk walk or run, hit the gym, do some yoga or any type of physical activity you enjoy. Physical activity enhances mental AND physical well-being, especially when done regularly. For more information, consult the physical activity section of our website.
The mind and the body are connected: your thoughts can lead to changes in your body. With visualization, you use the power of your imagination to create feelings of relaxation.
Close your eyes and imagine things that make you feel good or that are relaxing. Imagine yourself sitting on the beach, watching a waterfall or looking out at a lake surrounded by mountains. Don't just visualize this scene, feel it as if you were there. When negative thoughts creep in, acknowledge them and go back to your relaxing scene. There are many guided imagery audio files available online; try this one from University of Minnesota or this series from Dartmouth University.
You can also visualize tension fading away. Get in a comfortable position, close your eyes and imagine the tension in your body as a tight rope. Then visualize that rope loosening up as the tension leaves your body.
Another way to benefit from visualization is to imagine a situation you're worried about, such as giving a presentation, and visualize yourself performing well.
Meditation involves focusing attention and awareness to gain greater control over your thoughts. There are different methods of practicing meditation. Some key steps are:
- Assume a comfortable position in a place where you won't be disturbed.
- Close your eyes.
- Relax your muscles.
- Clear your mind.
- Focus on the present moment (e.g., focus on your breathing).
The goal is to reach a point where your thoughts disappear and you are left with a clear mind. There are hundreds of resources online to help you learn and practice meditation. If you don't know where to begin, try the top 25 best meditation resources. The Honest Guys; YouTube channel has video playlists such as guided meditations, pure relaxation music and meditations to help mental health (the playlists are on the right of the video that starts playing).
Mindful meditation is an adaptation of traditional meditation. The goal is to train your mind to observe your thoughts non-judgementally. You are aware of all the information that your senses pick up, but you apply an accepting attitude to your thoughts and emotions. You become an impartial observer of what is going on around you. Jon Kabat-Zinn has adapted mindfulness into a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). You can find out more in the book A Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Workbook by Bob Stahl. Kabat-Zinn talks you through a mindfulness session in this video.
When you are stressed, your blood vessels constrict, which increases blood pressure. The warmth of a hot bath, a sauna or a hot tub opens up blood vessels and helps you relax. Besides feeling good, simply taking time to have a hot bath or sit in a sauna or hot tub can be relaxing.
Sex can release tension and take your mind off your problems for a while. After an orgasm, an intense wave of calm and relaxation can overcome you. The fight-or-flight response decreases libido (i.e., sexual interest), so it can be difficult to be ready for sex when you are stressed.
Sex for relaxation does not mean anonymous or unsafe sex. This can contribute to more stress because of the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, the risk to your personal safety or the risk an unwanted pregnancy. For information on safer sex practices, consult the sexuality section of our website.
Many people put hobbies aside when they get busy. A hobby can take your mind off stress-producing thoughts and can be relaxing. However, a hobby that is too demanding, time-consuming or expensive will probably add to stress, as will hobbies that are overly stimulating, such as playing fast-paced video games or gambling.
Hobbies that reduce stress are ones that are creative, productive or build a skill. Some ideas include crafts, gardening, playing non-competitive sports, playing an instrument, writing, dancing or listening to calming music.
The time we spend with people (or animals) we love promotes feelings of calmness and relaxation.