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.
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.