How does relaxation work? What are some of the best relaxation techniques for anxiety? Are these techniques as effective as experts say they are? Are there any side effects?
These are some of the questions my clients ask me when I suggest relaxation techniques as a solution to their anxiety and stress.
And I’m guessing each one of you have had some doubts or dilemmas when you first heard about the incredible benefits of relaxation.
In my opinion, one of the main reasons why we tend to be somewhat reluctant when it comes to this approach is that it sounds too easy and good to be true.
So, before I go into the five relaxation techniques that will help you ease anxiety, I want to talk about what relaxation is and how relaxation techniques work.
What Are Relaxation Techniques?
In broad lines, a relaxation technique is any strategy or trick that helps you achieve a state of calm or tranquility. From this perspective, we could argue that there are hundreds of ways to achieve relaxation.
Some do it by engaging in various hobbies, while others prefer to clear their mind by taking a short walk around the neighborhood.
There are also techniques specifically designed and tested for this purpose; techniques that experts believe can have a positive effect on most individuals.
A meta-analysis which included all studies on relaxation published between 1997 and 2007 revealed what many experts already knew but did not have the science to back up.
As the authors concluded: the results show consistent and significant efficacy of relaxation training in reducing anxiety.
So we have scientific proof that it works!
But how exactly does relaxation work?
To answer this question, first we need to look at how anxiety and stress affect our mind and body.
Whenever you feel anxious or stressed out, it’s because, for some reason, your mind is on alert. When a potential threat is on the horizon, your anxious mind begins to jump from one catastrophic scenario to another.
As a result, a series of hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol) are released into your body, triggering the “fight or flight” system.
And this is where relaxation techniques come in handy.
By getting involved in specific activities or practices that promote relaxation, you can ‘shut down’ the alarm (anxiety) and exit the “fight or flight” mode.
Here’s how you can do it.
5 Fool-Proof Relaxation Techniques to Help You Battle Anxiety
#1 Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This is the most commonly studied and used type of relaxation therapy. In fact, you may already be familiar with it.
If not, here’s how it works.
When you feel anxious or stressed out, your entire body feels tense. The “fight or flight” response triggered by anxiety puts your body on alert meaning that your muscles contract and your heart pumps blood at a rapid pace.
And since it’s impossible to relax your mind while having a tensed body, you need to begin by relaxing your muscles.
Progressive muscle relaxation involves the mental ‘skimming’ of muscle groups, first tensing them, and then relaxing each one. The idea is to give yourself a chance to observe the difference between tension and relaxation.
You can start with the muscles in your arms and legs, then continue with your abdomen and chest.
Strangely, many of us often do not notice the first physical signs of anxiety. By practicing this technique, you will become more aware of the moments when anxiety kicks in, and your body gets tensed.
When anxiety reaches alarming levels, it’s important to get out of this state of tension and restlessness as soon as possible.
One promising technique to escape anxiety and achieve relaxation is mindfulness meditation.
In recent years, a considerable body of scientific literature has drawn attention to the benefits of mindfulness meditation on mental health. For example, a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Mental Health Promotion revealed that mindfulness meditation could enhance job performance and reduce work-related stress.
In fact, researchers and mental health professional believe this technique could become a new frontier in the treatment of anxiety, stress, and other mental disorders.
Mindfulness meditation is rooted in 2500-year-old Buddhist practices. It’s a simple technique of concentration and relaxation that consists of focusing your attention on present experiences with openness, curiosity, and acceptance.
The easiest way to practice this form of meditation is through breathing. In other words, find a comfortable position and focus on your breath. Notice the air flowing in and out of your lungs. Allow your thoughts to come and go without judgment, and make sure to remain focused on your breathing.
Although it may sound easy, keep in mind this was just a ‘sample.’ The positive effects of mindfulness begin to appear only after we practice it often enough that it becomes a way of life.MINDFULNESS: Allow your thoughts to come and go without judgment, and make sure to remain focused on your breathing Click To Tweet
For decades, napping was considered a sign of laziness. In fact, many of us still believe only people who have too much free time tend to engage in daily napping sessions.
However, the recently demonstrated benefits of afternoon sleep have placed napping among the healthy habits that lead to a happier and healthier life.
In the last decade, researchers have published numerous papers highlighting the surprisingly positive effects napping can have on performance, emotional health, creativity, and cognitive processing.
A study on the benefits of napping, published in the Journal of Sleep Research, revealed that a quick nap could boost performance on tasks. In other words, people who take naps tend to get better results when it comes to logical reasoning, symbol recognition, and reaction time.
But for many of us, napping can also be an excellent relaxation strategy.
Nothing helps you relax and forget about the worry-filled thoughts associated with anxiety like a short but satisfying nap.
Even though napping is not a definitive solution to your anxiety, it’s good to give yourself a break from time to time.
#4 Doing Nothing
In today’s fast-paced, fast-growing society, doing nothing might sound like a crazy idea.
From an early age – under the influence of our culture and society – we begin to learn the value of productivity and hard work.
But while these two elements play a crucial role in your day-to-day life as well as your future success, it’s important to remember that there’s more to life than work and productivity.
Our existence is not defined solely by the observable and measurable results that we achieve in our personal and professional life.
Sometimes, sitting on the couch, staring at the ceiling might be the best way to relax and take your mind off all the tasks and chores that generate anxiety and stress.
If you’re planning to use this relaxation technique, make sure you do ABSOLUTELY nothing. That means, no TV, no texting, no playing video games, NOTHING. Just sit in silence and let your mind wander.
Last but not least, make sure you don’t get lost in this activity. There’s a difference between doing nothing to clear your head and doing nothing to avoid doing something.
Although it might not sound like a typical relaxation technique for anxiety, doing nothing will relieve some of the stress generated by a busy schedule and help you relax.
#5 Nature Walks
When was the last time you went for a walk in the woods or on the beach?
When was the last time you immersed in the breathtaking and ‘raw’ beauty of nature?
No smartphone, no tablet, no distractions.
It is said that that nature has its own way of giving up comfort when we need it most. It ‘resets’ our thoughts, clears away our worries, and puts us in a state of calm.
In a study on the benefits of nature experience, researchers discovered that regular nature walks can have a positive impact on cognition and affect.
In other words, not only do nature walks decrease anxiety and rumination, but also boost cognitive processes such as memory.
If you want to escape the noisy city and enjoy some peace of mind, go on a nature walk at least once a week.
It will work miracles on your anxiety!One study showed that not only do nature walks decrease anxiety and rumination, but also boost cognitive processes such as memory Click To Tweet
When anxiety becomes unbearable, a set of full-proof relaxation techniques can help you achieve that much-needed state of calm and mental clarity.
What you need to do is:
- Practice progressive muscle relaxation to calm your body, and consequently the mind.
- Use mindfulness meditation to ‘disconnect’ from all the thoughts that are racing through your head when anxiety is at its peak.
- Take a refreshing nap that will help you clear your head.
- Go on a relaxing nature walk at least once a week.
- And, when the stress and anxiety caused by your daily tasks begin to feel unbearable, take some time off your busy schedule to do nothing.
So, what do you think about our five relaxation techniques for anxiety? Have you ever tried one of the strategies mentioned above? Which one did you find most useful? Are there any other strategies that have worked well for you?
Share your story by leaving a comment below!
Clinical Psychologist, Licensed CBT Therapist.
I’m a Clinical Psychologist and a licensed Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy practitioner. My work focuses mainly on strategies designed to manage and prevent the most common mental issues – anxiety, depression, and stress.
When I’m not busy with my therapeutic practice or other work-related activities, I enjoy going out for a jog or hit the nearby gym.
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via LinkedIn (link below), or through the Contact Us page.