Sometimes when we’re exhausted, we gravitate toward activities that drain us even more. Or we think we don’t deserve to take a break, so we ignore our body’s whispers for rest. But only in helping ourselves can we help others and do good work.
Just in time for the long Memorial Day weekend, here are 20 ways that can truly help you relax, refresh and recharge.
And, if you don’t think you have the time to unwind, don’t worry! Many of these activities take just a few minutes.
1. Use your breath.
We often forget to focus on the simplest, shortest (and one of the most restorative) activities available to us: our breath. Yoga teacher Anna Guest-Jelley suggested taking five deep breaths. “As you do, notice the natural pause between your inhale and exhale, and then between your exhale and your next inhale. Your body has a built-in break — how great is that?!”
2. Release the tension in your jaw.
“Many of us carry tension in our jaw, often unknowingly,” said Guest-Jelley, also a body empowerment educator and founder of Curvy Yoga. To loosen the tension, “open your mouth wide for half a minute or so, breathing naturally through your nose. When you feel you’ve stretched a bit, allow your mouth to gently close.”
3. Tend to yourself.
“When I need to rest and restore, I tend,” said Rachel W. Cole, a life coach and retreat leader. She defines tending as “care with intention.” And it can take many forms. Cole tends to her home by cleaning the sheets, washing windows and “getting rid of unused and unloved items.” She tends to her body with a “hot bath, self-massage and a dab of perfume.”
She also whips up delicious and nourishing meals in her kitchen. And on some days, she tends to her finances and “need for a walk in the sunshine. Tending brings calm, order, and a deep reminder that I’m cared for and safe.”
(Cole shares other ideas for tending to yourself in this post.)
Some people like to unwind by writing pages in their journal, said Lisa Kaplin, PsyD, a life coach who helps her clients during particularly stressful times in their lives and teaches stress management classes to corporations. Others prefer to jot down one or two lines about their day, she said. But if this becomes another task on your to-do list, skip it, she added.
5. Make a list of the day’s triumphs.
Other people like to write down what they’re grateful for, Kaplin said. This is especially helpful for relaxing. “When we’re stressed, we tend to focus on everything that is going wrong, which makes it even harder to unwind,” said Natasha Lindor, a coach and founder of The AND Factor who helps professionals have a successful career while working less and living more. She suggested writing down the top three good things that happen to you today.
Can’t think of anything? Focus on the seemingly small things. In her book How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness: Simple Daily Mindfulness Practices for Living Life More Fully & Joyfully, author Jan Chozen Bays, M.D., suggests focusing on your hands:
“Some Zen teachers say that the way the body takes care of us, without our even being aware of it, is an example of the beautiful and continuous functioning of our Original Nature, the inherent goodness and wisdom of our being. Our hand pulls back from fire before we even register heat, our eyes blink before we are aware of a sharp sound, our hand reaches out to catch something before we know it is falling.”
6. Get clear on what you need to do.
It’s hard to unwind when our thoughts keep returning to our endless to-do lists, Kaplin said. “Get clear by sitting down for a few moments, making a list of what can be done today and in what order and then let the rest go until the next day.”
7. Identify what you can and can’t control.
Getting clear also includes focusing on what you can and can’t control. That’s what Kaplin does when she feels stressed and overwhelmed. “I think about precisely what I’m concerned about [and] then ask myself if I have any control over it. If the answer is no – and it often is – I let it go. If the answer is yes, then I do what I can and move on.”
8. Create a bedtime ritual.
“The ritual process brings us renewed balance, empowerment, energy and comfort,” writes Jennifer Louden in her book The Woman’s Comfort Book: A Self-Nurturing Guide for Restoring Balance in Your Life. This gives you a specific time to focus on nurturing yourself and your needs. The key, according to Louden, in creating a daily ritual is repetition. Here’s an example from the book:
“Light a candle or two by your bed. Turn off the other lights. Stretch across your bed, taking your time, exaggerating your movements. Feel the cool sheets against your body. Moving slowly, open a book of poetry (or an uplifting…book), and slowly read a page. Allow the wisdom and beauty of what you are reading to enter your mind. Put the book aside. Take a minute to concentrate on the candle flame. Blow out the candle, and curl into peaceful sleep.”
Play is a wonderful way to unwind, especially for grown-ups. Play is anything that’s purposeless and pleasurable. For instance, in her book, Louden suggests everything from finger-painting to playing tag to watching cartoons to digging in the dirt to throwing a Frisbee to going to the zoo to swinging on the swings at a park.
10. Use visualization.
“The brain can’t distinguish between reality and imagination, so visualization can be a powerful tool to help you unwind in a snap,” Lindor said. She suggested visualizing yourself at a favorite spot. Be as specific as you can. Note what’s around you. Are you by the ocean? Is it a calm current or are the waves crashing? Are there kids playing? Are they making sand castles or playing in the water? Is the sand white and smooth? Or is it a sparkling black like the Muriwai Beach in New Zealand?
11. Participate in gentle movement.
According to Guest-Jelley, gentle movement can help to “release any pent-up energy we may be carrying.” Kaplin agreed. “People tend to think that unwinding means being sedentary but actual unwinding often comes from doing something active and releasing the stress and anxiety that we may have built up over the week.”
Kaplin suggested taking a 15-minute walk. Guest-Jelley suggested repeating this exercise three to five times.
“From standing, inhale and reach your arms overhead. Exhale, bend your knees and fold forward (arms dangling or resting wherever they come on your legs). Hang out here for a breath and then on your next inhale, press through your feet and come up to standing, reaching your arms overhead. Exhale and rest your arms by your sides.”
12. Brush your teeth, and wash your face.
People usually start their days with these two activities. According to Lindor, “By connecting to something that is part of your ‘start the day’ routine, you give your brain signals that you’re starting fresh.”
13. Support someone else.
“Sometimes the quickest way to unwind is to focus on someone other than ourselves,” Lindor said. For instance, you can call a friend and talk about how they’re doing. Listen intently to their concerns. “What emotions are they communicating?”
14. Be in nature.
Head outside and “sit on a bench or a blanket and let your mind get quiet” while you engage all your senses,” Kaplin said. Engaging your senses is a powerful way to relax, Lindor said. What do you see, hear and smell?
15. Focus on the present moment.
It’s not only natural environments that engage our senses. “Take the time to listen to the little sounds,” such as a car passing, your computer and someone cooking, Lindor said. “If you’re walking by a building, what’s going on inside? What do the window treatments look like?”
16. Take a 20-minute catnap.
A short nap, according to Kaplin, can feel like a mini-vacation. But anything over 30 minutes takes you into deep sleep, and makes you groggy.
17. Savor scents.
Engage your sense of smell at home. Lindor suggested showering with lavender or peppermint body wash, applying rose hand gel or burning a scented candle.
18. Treat yourself like you would a loved one.
“Think of one thing you’d do for someone really important to you in your life and take the time to do it for yourself,” Lindor said. For instance, this might be anything from enjoying breakfast in bed to going out for lunch. Remember that when you treat yourself well, “you’ll be that much better for everyone else in your life.”
19. Take a bathroom break.
When you’re feeling stressed at work or when you’re out and about, “just escape to the bathroom, close your eyes, breathe in for a count of 3, breathe out for a count of 3,” Lindor said. Repeat this three or four times. Breathe normally for several minutes and tell yourself, “I am relaxed and energized.”
20. Figure out what works for you.
“The best way to truly unwind is to really understand what works for you,” Kaplin said. “Some people unwind with a vigorous run and others by sitting on the couch and watching a TV show.” Simple trial and error will help you find the best strategies for you. Just remember not to judge yourself for whatever you choose. “Own it, use it, and unwind.”
I hope you have a great Memorial Day weekend!