We’re sure many people can agree that relaxing is easier said than done. This is especially true for people who struggle with anxiety, depression, and PTSD, as well as chronic stomach problems. Ever been told that your pain was mostly in your head? Things wouldn’t be so bad if we could just learn how to manage our stress and relax. With many illnesses, the idea of relaxing seems to be nearly impossible so this can be extremely frustrating to hear.
Whether you find yourself in and out of hospitals, or simply struggling to find time in the day for self-care, it may be worth a try to learn some different ways to relax. It can take years of trying to find some things that actually work for you. We would like to share our favorite techniques in hopes that you can find relief without the long back and forth battle many endure while learning how to relax. Everyone is different, so some suggestions below may likely work better for you than others. One thing is for sure, it is always worth putting in the work to find your peace. There are four types of practices highlighted below – breathing techniques, guided imagery, muscle relaxation, and yoga poses.
1. Breathing Techniques
Breath is a very powerful tool that affects the body in different ways based on how it is used. We find three techniques most helpful when it comes to breathing: diaphragmatic (also known as belly breathing), breath ratios, and alternate nostril breathing.
Diaphragmatic Breathing (Deep Breathing)
Deep breathing is one of the most widely referenced breathing techniques. This technique relaxes you by allowing more oxygen to enter your body. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), deep breathing can be used for everyday relaxation as well as feelings of severe anxiety or panic that can arise from PTSD or panic attacks.
The VA provides the following instructions for diaphragmatic breathing:
- Sit comfortably or lie down. Place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose.
- Feel your stomach expand as you inhale. If you are breathing from the stomach, the hand on your chest shouldn’t move. Focus on filling up your lower lungs with air.
- Slowly exhale, releasing all the air out through your mouth. Use your hand to feel your stomach fall as you exhale.
- Practice breathing four to six breaths per minute (about one full inhale and exhale per 10-15 seconds).
- Repeat this up to 10 times.
For more information on deep breathing, visit these links:
- Relaxation Resources (Source: VA)
- Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response (Source: Harvard Health Publishing)
4-7-8 Breathing Techniques
Inhaling, holding the breath, and exhaling for specific amounts of time is another technique you can use in correlation with deep breathing which works as a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system (Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, PDF). It can be helpful to think about relaxing while inhaling and letting go of stress while exhaling.
Try 4:7:8 Breathing:
- Inhale for 4 seconds,
- Hold for 7 seconds,
- Exhale for 8 seconds.
For more detailed information, see the links below:
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Balance Breath)
This breathing technique from yoga can reduce anxiety and help you focus. Practicing it takes some concentration, which is one of the reasons it is helpful — your mind has something to focus on other than stressful thoughts (Harvard Health Publishing).
Here are some instructions for trying this technique from Harvard Health Publishing:
- Sit in a comfortable position and place your left hand on your left knee.
- Lift your right hand up and place your right thumb on your right nostril to close your right nostril.
- Inhale through your left nostril.
- Use your right index finger to close the left nostril, briefly closing both nostrils at once.
- Open the right nostril and exhale through the right side.
- Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril using your thumb.
- Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side.
- Continue these cycles for up to five minutes.
For more information, check out these pages:
- Tutorial video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ub7JEN1V7JE
2. Guided Imagery (Visualization)
Guided imagery is a technique that uses the power of your mind and imagination to relax the body. The VA’s Center for Integrated Healthcare explains that “Just as your body can become tense and stressed in response to thoughts that make us angry or anxious, it can also become more calm and relaxed in response to calming, peaceful, and pleasant thoughts.”
Here are some steps you can take to practice this strategy:
- Imagine a relaxing place and focus on the details of that place. Describe everything captured by each your senses in this place. No detail is too small to describe. What exactly do you see? Think of everything. Do the same with smell, hearing, and taste. Imagine a clear and complete picture of your entire experience in this relaxing place. Before, you will begin to feel your mind and body relaxing.
- When you feel you are deep inside your relaxing place, take some time to simply feel the peace throughout your entire body. You can increase effectiveness by using deep-breathing and 4-7-8 breathing while using this technique.
For more information and in-depth visualization exercise, check out the VA’s Visualization/Guided Imagery Fact Sheet (PDF).
3. Muscle Relaxation
Muscle relaxation is a strategy that helps relieve tension in the body, which can be caused by stress or anxiety.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
The general technique for PMR is to pass through the body starting from either your head or your feet then work your way up or down by tensing every muscle group one at a time, then letting go.
Here are step-by-step instructions from the U.S. National Library of Medicine:
- Sit or lie down comfortably. Ideally, the space will have minimal distractions.
- Starting at the feet, curl the toes under and tense the muscles in the foot. Hold for 5 seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds. During the release, focus attention on the alleviation of tension and the experience of relaxation.
- Tense the muscles in the lower legs. Hold for 5 seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds. During the release, focus attention on the alleviation of tension and the experience of relaxation.
- Continue these actions for the muscles in the hips and buttocks, stomach and chest, shoulders, face (i.e., squeezing eyes shut), and hand (creating a fist). For each area, remember to tense the muscles, hold for 5 seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds.
To learn more about progressive muscle relaxation check out these links:
Passive Muscle Relaxation (Body Scan)
This technique is very similar to progressive muscle relaxation, but instead of tensing every muscle group, you target areas of your body that feel tense or tight and focus on relaxing them. There are different strategies for relaxing tense muscle groups, such as moving them around, or imagining that they are very heavy, warm, and relaxed.
- Close your eyes.
- Ask yourself, “Where am I tense?” Scan your muscles looking for signs of tension. Start with your head and move down your body. Ask yourself, “Is my forehead relaxed? Is my jaw relaxed?” and so forth. Scan your face, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, chest, back, stomach, buttocks, legs, and feet.
- Whenever you discover an area of tension, gently move the muscle to loosen it, and then relax it. In this technique, you do not necessarily need to tense the muscle before you relax it.
4. Yoga Poses
Yoga is an ancient spiritual practice that originated in northern India. It has gained a lot of popularity around the world due to its benefits for both physical and mental health. According to the National Institute of Health, research shows that yoga may relieve stress and help you manage anxiety or depression that is arising as a result of difficult or stressful life events. It can also help relieve neck and lower back pain and help those with chronic illnesses improve their quality of life. The below links can serve as a starting point for trying out yoga.
- Yoga for Better Sleep – 7 Yoga Poses that can help relax you and relieve tension (Source: Harvard Health Publishing)
- Yoga: What You Need to Know (Source: National Institute of Health)
These practices — breathing techniques, guided imagery, muscle relaxation, and yoga poses — can help calm you down in times of stress, and also serve as preventive measures to decrease anxiety before it comes on. They also boast many other health benefits. You may find that different techniques are helpful depending on the circumstance you are facing. These strategies are just a starting point — there are many other techniques that can be used — but we hope that you find something here that works for you!