Feeling wired? Need to short-circuit your stress and just relax already? Here are a bunch of science-based strategies to help you relax and feel less anxious. Relaxation techniques include any strategy that you can implement in your life to have greater relaxation and lower stress. There are actually tons of things we can do to relax and induce a sense of calm in our bodies. So in this article we’ll talk about a variety of relaxation techniques so that you can choose the ones that you think will work best for you.
Need a “quick calm” before we start? Try this 3-minute relaxation video.
Why Might We Need Relaxation Techniques?
We’re glued to our phones 24-7, overwhelmed by work, and nervous about the future of our country and the planet. For these reasons and more, stress has become an epidemic in America. Stress is the full-body response that occurs in response to what we call a stressor—or some event that we perceive as threatening.
Stress includes activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the release of cortisol, and the release of the catecholamines norepinephrine and epinephrine. The adrenal glands then must turn off cortisol to help us get back to normal.1 But when we’re chronically stressed, our bodies have a harder time turning off the stress signals. So many of us are in great need of strategies to help us relax.
21 Relaxation Techniques to Induce a Sense of Calm
1. Try mindfulness.
2. Do positive visualizations.
3. Listen to relaxing music.
Cortisol is a key part of the stress response. And yoga is an activity that reduces cortisol. For example, in one study people did yoga for three months. The people who did fifty or more yoga sessions across a three-month period showed a significant drop in cortisol.4 So four yoga sessions per week could result in a meaningful increase in relaxation.
5. Generate positive emotions.
Positive emotions can actually undo negative emotions that make us feel stressed. In fact, positive emotions create upward spirals of positivity that may help us stay happy and relaxed, not just in the present moment but also more often throughout our lives.5 So creating more positive emotions can be a useful relaxation technique. Here are some strategies to try: practice gratitude, think positive, and find meaning.
6. Do activities that you enjoy.
Doing things we enjoy, like hanging out with family, going for a hike, or gardening can help our brains shift out of stress gear and into relaxation gear. We just have to be sure to prioritize positive activities and make sure we do them to ensure that we relax every now and then.
7. Try progressive muscle relaxation.
Progressive muscle relaxation is one technique that can help relieve tension and stress. It involves tensing a group of muscles as you breathe in and quickly releasing your contracted muscles as you breathe out. The goal is to proceed through one set of muscles at a time.
One study asked employees to spend twenty minutes doing progressive muscle relaxation in a quiet room during daily lunch breaks. After six months, they had lower cortisol at both lunchtime and upon waking in the morning. This suggests that progressive muscle relaxation may be helpful for relaxation both in the short term and longer-term.6
Video: How to do progressive muscle relaxation | View Here
8. Outsmart your smartphone.
These days we’re on our phones 24-7. But we have to be careful because spending too much time on our phones or the Internet is associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety. But don’t worry, if we implement good psychological habits while on our phones, they don’t have to stress us out. You can learn how to outsmart your smartphone and develop a relationship with technology that helps you feel better.
9. Try getting massages.
We know anecdotally that massages are relaxing. But the research supports it. For example, in one study, ten 30-minute massage therapy sessions over five weeks led to lower cortisol.7 This suggests that massages can help us relax in both the short and longer-term.
10. Use breathing techniques.
We can also increase relaxation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is largely responsible for stopping our fight or flight responses and helping us to regain a sense of calm.
One of the easiest ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system is with deep breathing. Although there are lots of breathing techniques that can increase relaxation, SKY breathing—a technique involving cycling slow breathing (2-4 breaths per minute) then fast (30 breaths per minute), then three long “Om”s, or a long vibrating exhale—has been shown to lower anxiety.8
Video: 3 breathing techniques for relaxation | View Here
11. Try not to imagine worst-case scenarios.
When we want to solve a problems, we sometimes think about the worst-case scenario. If we know how bad it can get, we assume we’ll be more prepared, but in fact we just make it harder to de-stress and relax. We feel more upset, anxious, or overwhelmed . So try not to imagine the worst, and instead, try to imagine the best.
12. Derail rumination.
Do you get stuck wondering what went wrong in the past or worrying about the future? You’re ruminating. How are you ever supposed to relax with all these thoughts buzzing in your head? To stop rumination, you just need to short-circuit your thoughts. We can do this by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
When we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, it can stop the stress response, and the mind can start to cool down into a place of calm. You could go for a high intensity run. Or, if it’s late in the evening, try to shift your thoughts with a meditation audio track like the following video:
How to fall asleep in 15 min (Male voice): A simple guided sleep meditation
13. Take a cold shower or swim.
One of the best ways to relax fast is to submerge yourself in cold water—a lake, ocean, river, bath, or shower. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Research has shown that spending twenty minutes in ~80 degree Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius) water significantly increased parasympathetic activity.9 So, if you’re in need of a fast calm boost, give this relaxation technique a try.
14. Use cognitive reappraisal.
Reappraisal can help us reinterpret a stressful situation in a way that helps us feel more calm. We can improve our reappraisal skills with practice. Just reappraise the stressful situation by listing things that are good in the situation and by generating gratitude that things aren’t worse.
15. Consume fewer catachols.
When we are stressed, our bodies release catechols like norepinephrine and epinephrine.1 The catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene removes these from your body. But if your body is busy removing catechols from foods you’ve eaten, it’ll take longer to reduce these hormones in your body.
That’s why limiting the amount of catechols in our body can be helpful for relaxation. Foods rich in catechols include green/black tea, coffee, chocolate, caffeine, and anything with quercetin in it.10
Read more here about how to manage a slow COMT gene for greater relaxation.
16. Eat foods that promote relaxation.
Foods naturally rich in magnesium and zinc are thought to help us feel calmer. Foods like salmon, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids and foods like sauerkraut or kefir, which are high in probiotics, appear to help reduce anxiety, at least in some people.11 But caffeine just sets you up to be unable to relax. So make sure you get these key nutrients, eat healthfully, and avoid caffeinated beverages.
17. Take online courses to learn new relaxation skills.
In addition to self-help books, online courses can teach us skills that can help us manage our stress and increase relaxation. Here’s some online courses that might help:
19. Exercise outdoors.
20. Get a coloring book.
Video: Adult coloring books offer stress relief | View Here
21. Be self-compassionate.
2. Greeson, J. and J. Brantley, Mindfulness and anxiety disorders: Developing a wise relationship with the inner experience of fear, in Clinical handbook of mindfulness. 2009, Springer. p. 171-188.
3. Khalfa, S., et al., Effects of relaxing music on salivary cortisol level after psychological stress. ANNALS-NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, 2003. 999: p. 374-376.
4. Thirthalli, J., et al., Cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga. Indian journal of psychiatry, 2013. 55(Suppl 3): p. S405.
5. Fredrickson, B.L., et al., The undoing effect of positive emotions. Motivation and emotion, 2000. 24(4): p. 237-258.
6. Krajewski, J., M. Sauerland, and R. Wieland, Relaxation‐induced cortisol changes within lunch breaks–an experimental longitudinal worksite field study. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 2011. 84(2): p. 382-394.
7. Field, T., et al., Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 2005. 115(10): p. 1397-1413.
8. Zope, S.A. and R.A. Zope, Sudarshan kriya yoga: Breathing for health. International journal of yoga, 2013. 6(1): p. 4.
9. Mourot, L., et al., Cardiovascular autonomic control during short-term thermoneutral and cool head-out immersion. Aviation, space, and environmental medicine, 2008. 79(1): p. 14-20.
10. Singh, B., et al., Dietary quercetin exacerbates the development of estrogen-induced breast tumors in female ACI rats. Toxicology and applied pharmacology, 2010. 247(2): p. 83-90.
11. Hilimire, M.R., J.E. DeVylder, and C.A. Forestell, Fermented foods, neuroticism, and social anxiety: An interaction model. Psychiatry research, 2015. 228(2): p. 203-208.
12. Zhang, J., et al., Relationship of sleep quantity and quality with 24-hour urinary catecholamines and salivary awakening cortisol in healthy middle-aged adults. Sleep, 2011. 34(2): p. 225-233.