Many of us have a hard time relaxing. Maybe just the thought of taking a break actually stresses you. And that’s understandable. Because, as “a society we value being busy, so it can almost feel that we are doing something wrong by relaxing,” said Agnes Wainman, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and self-proclaimed self-care activist in London, Ontario.
Christine Selby’s clients regularly tell her that relaxing is a waste of time because it means they’re not being productive. That’s when she asks them why they’d bother relaxing at all. They usually mention that relaxing feels good or helps them to wind down and destress. “My next question,” she added, “‘Is that not doing something?’”
Relaxing, in reality, is productive. According to Wainman, “Relaxing allows us to actually be more productive when we need to be, because we aren’t pushing ourselves to the brink of mental fatigue.”
“[R]elaxation has been shown time and time again to help reduce the effects of stress by slowing down many functions of the body that can break down after prolonged use,” Selby said. Relaxation can improve our mental health, including depression and anxiety.
Below, Selby and Wainman shared five simple ways you can relax.
“We are human ‘beings’ not human ‘doings,’” said Wainman, founder of London Psychological Services. She suggested sitting and taking several deep breaths. At first this might feel awkward (probably because it’s unfamiliar). That’s OK. Once you let go and begin breathing deeply, you’ll start relaxing. If it helps, close your eyes.
Hug someone you trust
“Hugging can be a powerful form of relaxation,” said Selby, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of the book Chilling Out: The Psychology of Relaxation. “Hugging someone you care about and who cares about you as well releases oxytocin, which is a hormone that helps in strengthening the emotional bond we have with others.” Research has found that hugging reduces blood pressure, stress and anxiety — but only when we hug someone we trust.
Also, the type of hug matters — you won’t find the same benefits with a brief or side hug, Selby said. “It really has to be the type where two people are wrapped up in each other’s arms and they stay that way for several seconds.” As you’re hugging, you’ll probably notice yourself breathing more slowly and deeply. Which fosters a greater sense of relaxation.
Do something repetitive — that doesn’t require much attention
According to Wainman, this might be anything from putting beads on a string to putting rocks in a pile to drawing shapes. “It allows our mind to go on auto-pilot, but gives us something to do if just sitting and being feels too uncomfortable.” Plus, there’s something soothing about repetition, she said. Some of her clients also find crocheting to be rhythmic and calming.
Perform vigorous exercise
Exercise is another great way to relax, which might seem strange since it actually increases our heart rate and blood pressure, said Selby, co-founder of Selby Psychological Services in Bangor, Maine. But “the mechanism that has that energizing effect on the body when we exercise has an opposing counterpart that automatically kicks in when we stop exercising.”
That is, when we exercise, our fight or flight response is activated. When we stop exercising, that counterpart automatically slows everything down to a state of rest, she said.
When someone is stressed, a common suggestion is to run around the block or perform vigorous sit-ups or push-ups, she said. If you’re able to engage in vigorous exercise, which activities do you enjoy? (After all, enjoyment also is important.)
Pet your pet
This is one of Selby’s favorite relaxation tips to recommend to pet owners. She suggests patients sit or lay next to their pets and pet them (as opposed to playing with them). “The rhythmic act of petting, the warmth of their bodies and their breathing can all have a soothing, calming effect.” Even people who watch fish swimming in a tank seem to feel more relaxed — and experience a reduction in blood pressure (see here and here for studies).
Each of us deserves to take a break from all the doing and going to simply pause. Try the activities mentioned above — or use them as a starting point to brainstorm other activities you’d like to try.
If you’re having trouble relaxing, consider seeking professional support. According to Selby, some people experience “relaxation-induced anxiety.” That is, “while they are trying to relax, they will feel anxiety about not knowing how it is going to go, if they will ever feel relaxed, and what they are going to think about while relaxed.”
Either way, remember that relaxation is powerful. It’s important to prioritize it in your life — whether you’re scheduling it yourself or working with someone.
Stay tuned for a second piece with five more calming ideas.