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Last updated: Aug 13, 2021
5 min read

How to relax: 8 ways to feel less stressed

Stress is a normal physiological response in the body. The problem occurs when stress is severe or builds up over time. This can cause quite a few negative physical and mental health consequences. Learning how to relax can help you avoid the unpleasant effects of too much stress on the body. Many of these stress relief skills are easy to practice and don’t require outside assistance, but additional help is available if you need it.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

There’s a lot going on in the world. Combine all that with common interpersonal problems, job pressures, and general challenges in our environment, and it’s a recipe for feeling stressed out and overwhelmed.

A little stress is healthy, but these feelings can build up over time and cause serious consequences for your physical and mental wellness.

The good news is, even in our high-stress world, you can learn how to relax your body and mind. Here are eight easy techniques you can use to feel less stressed.

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 What causes stress?

Any physical or psychological stimulus that disrupts the balance in your body can result in a stress response. Researchers call these stimuli “stressors,” and the responses in your mind and body are the stress response (Chu, 2021)

The stress response prepares your body to handle the challenges being presented by your surroundings. This is usually healthy, but if the real or perceived exposure to a stressful situation is severe or repetitive, then your body’s responses can become unhelpful (Chu, 2021). 

When your brain senses a threat, it triggers your fight or flight reflexes. This creates anxiety and fear in the body. If this continues for a prolonged period, it can lead to an anxiety disorder (Chand, 2020).

Sustained periods of high stress can also negatively impact your physical body. It can affect your brain development in childhood and your health as you get older (Norelli, 2021).

Can stress affect your health?

Excess stress can affect all of the systems of your body, including the following systems (Chu, 2021):

  • Cardiovascular
  • Respiratory
  • Endocrine
  • Gastrointestinal
  • Nervous
  • Muscular
  • Reproductive

Although your body’s stress response aims to restore balance, chronic stress can upset these responses. This can lead to (Chu, 2021):

  • Heart disease
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Sleep problems
  • Psychiatric illnesses
  • Weak immune system

Relaxation techniques have been developed to help with stress management and reduce tension. This can help improve your physical health and help you feel a greater sense of wellbeing (Chu, 2021).

The health benefits of relaxing

By learning how to relax, you can reduce your levels of tension and anxiety. Chronic stress can cause a number of psychological and physiological impacts. Relaxation techniques can help reduce these unpleasant symptoms (Norelli, 2021). 

Relaxation exercises have been a part of psychotherapy for decades. Now the use of these strategies have also been expanded to be used for self-help to improve symptoms of (Norelli, 2021):

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Pain

How to relax and feel less stressed

Your response to stress is unique; so are the relaxation methods that will work best for you. Here are eight science-backed techniques you can use to feel less stressed in your daily life.

1. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)

PMR is a stress-reduction technique used to teach your muscles to relax. It involves tensing and releasing various muscle groups in your body. A small clinical trial found that PMR was potentially effective for reducing feelings of tension, anxiety, and anger (de Lorent, 2016).

2. Breathing exercises

Breathing techniques have been scientifically proven to help you relax and de-stress. These include various exercises such as slow and deep breathing, pursed lips breathing, relaxation therapy, inspiratory muscle training, and diaphragmatic breathing. A small study looking at people hospitalized with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) found that controlled breathing exercises significantly improved their anxiety (Valenza, 2014).

3. Aromatherapy

A review of aromatherapy in people with heart disease found that using lavender oil (an essential oil known for its stress-relieving properties) resulted in lower blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety levels. So the next time that you’re feeling stress, try a few drops of your favorite scent in massage oil, a hot bath, or just try smelling it (Lopes, 2020).

4. Guided imagery

Guided imagery is a relaxation technique that can help you reduce stress by imagining a tranquil setting. It can be used as part of behavioral therapy or practiced on its own. The basic premise involves the visualization of a peaceful environment and employing all five of your senses to create a sense of relaxation (Norelli, 2021):

5. Music

Music is one of the most commonly used ways to relieve stress. This is likely because it’s simple, affordable, and non-invasive. Researchers have looked at using soothing music to reduce stress levels before surgery. They found that people who listened to their favorite calming music before having a surgical procedure had less anxiety, better blood pressure and heart rate values, and reported feeling more satisfied after surgery than those who didn’t listen to music (Kavak Akelma, 2020).

6. Journaling

Positive affect journaling (PAJ) is an emotion-focused self-regulation technique that has been associated with decreased mental distress and increased well-being relative to baseline feelings. Research shows that participants who used PAJ reported fewer depressive symptoms and anxiety after one month. There was also some suggestion that PAJ offered a more pleasant experience than traditional journaling techniques that often focus on writing about distressing experiences from the past (Smyth, 2018).

7. Yoga

It isn’t totally clear how effective yoga is in treating stress, but it’s still a commonly used relaxation technique. An analysis of the most common style in the United States, hatha yoga, found that people with the most severe symptoms of stress and anxiety benefitted the most. The overall effect was small, though, so it might be best used in combination with other treatments (Saeed, 2019).

8. Meditation

Mindfulness-based meditation (MM) has been shown to be helpful for stress on its own or in combination with other relaxation techniques. MM involves learning to calm your mind with the goal of “detached observation” of the present moment around you. It’s moderately effective in reducing symptoms of stress and improving mood (Saeed, 2019).

Additional resources

If your stress or anxiety levels feel severe or the skills discussed above don’t feel like they’re helping, you might benefit from additional assistance to learn how to relax. You can reach out to your healthcare provider or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national helpline. This free and confidential service can connect you with local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.

References

  1. Chand, S. P. & Marwaha, R. (2021). Anxiety. [Updated May 1, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Aug. 27, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470361/
  2. Chu, B., Marwaha, K., Sanvictores, T., et al. (2021). Physiology, stress reaction. [Updated Jun 8, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Aug. 27, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541120/
  3. de Lorent, L., Agorastos, A., Yassouridis, A., Kellner, M., & Muhtz, C. (2016). Auricular acupuncture versus progressive muscle relaxation in patients with anxiety disorders or major depressive disorder: A prospective parallel group clinical trial. Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies, 9(4), 191–199. doi: 10.1016/j.jams.2016.03.008. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27555224/
  4. Kavak Akelma, F., Altınsoy, S., Arslan, M. T., & Ergil, J. (2020). Effect of favorite music on postoperative anxiety and pain. Wirkung von Lieblingsmusik auf postoperative Angst und Schmerz. Der Anaesthesist, 69(3), 198–204. doi: 10.1007/s00101-020-00731-8. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32047952/
  5. Lopes, L. S., Bündchen, D., Modesto, F. C., Quintão, M., Chermont, S., Cavalcanti, A. C. D., et al. (2020). Aromatherapy in patients with cardiovascular diseases: A systematic review. International Journal of Cardiovascular Sciences, 34(1), 74-80. Retrieved from http://ijcscardiol.org/article/aromatherapy-in-patients-with-cardiovascular-diseases-a-systematic-review/
  6. Norelli, S. K., Long, A., Krepps, J. M. (2021). Relaxation techniques. [Updated Jul 26, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Aug. 27, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513238/
  7. Saeed, S. A., Cunningham, K., & Bloch, R. M. (2019). Depression and anxiety disorders: benefits of exercise, yoga, and meditation. American Family Physician, 99(10): 620-627. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2019/0515/p620.html
  8. Smyth, J. M., Johnson, J. A., Auer, B. J., Lehman, E., Talamo, G., & Sciamanna, C. N. (2018). Online positive affect journaling in the improvement of mental distress and well-being in general medical patients with elevated anxiety symptoms: A preliminary randomized controlled trial. JMIR Mental Health, 5(4), e11290. doi: 10.2196/11290. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6305886/
  9. Valenza, M. C., Valenza-Peña, G., Torres-Sánchez, I., González-Jiménez, E., Conde-Valero, A., & Valenza-Demet, G. (2014). Effectiveness of controlled breathing techniques on anxiety and depression in hospitalized patients with COPD: a randomized clinical trial. Respiratory Care, 59(2), 209–215. doi: 10.4187/respcare.02565. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23882107/