During hectic times, it’s tough to remember that relaxation is more than a luxury. In fact, humans need to relax to maintain balance in their lives. Work stress, family strife, and mounting responsibilities can exact a tremendous toll. Relaxing should be at the top of the list as a healthy coping measure and as a rewarding self-gift. Why do we so often neglect this healing self-care? Do you know the healthiest ways to relax your mind, body and soul?
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to relaxing is that some of us have a difficult time slowing the treadmill we put ourselves on daily. Even getting off it temporarily may be problematic. After all, we tell ourselves, there’s just so much to do and so little time to get it all done. No wonder we’re frazzled, anxious, fearful, worried and vulnerable, sometimes at the same time.
Getting started on relaxation techniques begins with the realization and acceptance that this is something healthy, worthwhile, and life-affirming. Instead of relaxation stealing time from responsibilities, when you relax, you’re making yourself better able to deal with what needs to be done after you’ve caught your breath.
Besides, sticking to a breakneck pace will eventually result in a breakdown, illness, psychological distress, exhaustion, and a lowered quality of life. That’s never good, so putting some space and time at your personal disposal is an excellent life strategy.
What Should You Do to Relax?
The specifics of your chosen relaxation technique will likely vary according to personal preference. Indeed, what you do to relax is purely up to you. Some people relax by engaging in a hobby they once found interesting, or are interested in now, but haven’t allowed themselves to take the time to get involved.
Others grab a bottle of water and a coat or sweater, hat, sunscreen or some other necessary take-with and go for a walk outside to clear their head and release the buildup of frustration and stress. A side benefit of this form of relaxation is that the exercise is good for heart and body.
Taking a walk is easy to do. Carve out a 15-minute chunk of time. Maybe call a friend to go with you. Whatever helps you settle into a comfortable breathing pattern, eases your mind and allows your thoughts to clear qualifies as relaxation.
What Science Says about Healthy Ways to Relax
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) is a good resource to use to check out various relaxation techniques for health. Furthermore, there’s a lot of scientific research that backs up certain techniques used to relax that are worth reviewing.
Autogenic Training – This relaxation technique trains the person to concentrate on what they physically feel in their body, such as sensations of warmth, heaviness, and relaxation.
Biofeedback-Assisted Relaxation – Using electronic devices, biofeedback trainers instruct the individual to produce bodily changes associated with being in a relaxed state. Reduced muscle tension is a key one. The theory behind the technique is that when bodily functions are measured, the information gleaned about them helps the person learn how to control them.
Deep Breathing – Simply stated, deep breathing exercises involve focusing on slow, deep, and evenly measured breaths to produce a relaxed state.
Progressive Relaxation – It’s also called Jacobson relaxation, or progressive muscle relaxation. The technique centers on the tightening and then relaxing of various muscle groups. Progressive relaxation may also be combined (and often is) with breathing exercises and guided imagery.
Guided Imagery – Instructors teach individuals how to focus on images that are pleasant, or to substitute stressful and/or negative feelings with such appealing images. After instruction, whether by a personal practitioner or via recording or other step-by-step information, the individual can make use of guided imagery as a healthy relaxation technique.
Self-Hypnosis – With self-hypnosis, you can teach yourself to elicit or produce the desired relaxation response when you’re prompted by a phrase or nonverbal cue. Such cues are called “suggestion.” It’s the suggestion that stimulates the relaxation response.
Mind-Body Techniques as Ways to Relax
American acceptance of eastern philosophy based mind-body techniques such as yoga and meditation has grown rapidly in the last decade.
A study published in the International Journal of Yoga explored the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase well-being. Results showed the practice, which elicits the relaxation response, enhances muscular strength and body flexibility, reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, improves sleep patterns, promotes and improves breathing and heart function, and enhances overall well-being and life quality. Yoga encourages the practitioner to relax, slow breathing and focus on the present. This shifts balance from the sympathetic nervous system and “flight-or-fight” response to the parasympathetic system and the relaxation response. Yoga’s ability to calm and restore the body is due to this relaxation response. Indeed, one of yoga’s main goals is to achieve a tranquil mind, create a sense of well-being, feelings of relaxation, increased attentiveness, improved self-confidence and efficiency, decreased irritability, and a positive life outlook. Clearly, yoga is one of the healthiest ways to relax and boost your mental health.
With its origins dating back to ancient Vedic times in India, the term meditation today refers to many diverse techniques. A study published in Ayurveda discussed the benefits of meditation for the practitioner. During the meditation process, accumulated stresses are removed, energy increases, and the practitioner’s overall health benefits. Meditation’s health benefits are confirmed by research, and include stress reduction, decreased anxiety, decreased depression, pain reduction (physiological and psychological), memory improvement, and increased efficiency. Physiological benefits include reduced heart rate and blood pressure, among many others, while meditation benefits have also been demonstrated for anxiety and mood disorders, autoimmune illness, and emotional disturbances in neoplastic disease.
Do Relaxation Techniques Work to Manage Health?
Ongoing research about the effectiveness of various relaxation techniques has led to mixed results. For some conditions, research shows that ways to relax are helpful to a certain extent, a great extent, or are inconclusive one way or another.
Anxiety is a mental health condition that researchers hope to find healthy, nondrug ways to alleviate. The anxiety associated with certain medical problems – heart disease and inflammatory bowel disease, to name two – may be relieved by use of relaxation techniques. Researchers say undergoing relaxation techniques prior to having dental work done or a breast biopsy may lower anxiety. Other research touts the benefit of ways to relax for older people with anxiety.
However, the studies are less clear about the value of relaxation methods for those with generalized anxiety disorder. Rather, those individuals are more likely to achieve better long-term results with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of psychotherapy.
Childbirth is another area researchers have studied regarding the effectiveness of relaxation techniques. Their conclusions: self-hypnosis may result in a decreased need for medication to alleviate pain during labor, and guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation and breathing exercises may help women manage labor pain.
Headache, a common ailment, has shown mixed results with relaxation techniques for migraines and tension headaches. The evidence is conflicting regarding biofeedback’s usefulness relieving tension headaches. Migraine frequency appears to decrease among some sufferers using biofeedback, although researchers noted that it may not be better than a placebo. However, other relaxation techniques (other than biofeedback) studied for tension headaches found that they’re better than no treatment, while other studies found that biofeedback is better.
Heart disease patients may be able to reduce anxiety and stress, while also improving heart rate, by using relaxation techniques.
High blood pressure sufferers may be able to reduce their BP, at least short term, with relaxation techniques. This may permit them to reduce certain medication taken for blood pressure (with a doctor’s directive). Evidence is less clear, however, about the benefit of relaxation techniques to lower high blood pressure long-term.
Nausea, particularly the nausea that accompanies cancer chemotherapy, may be effectively relieved through guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation – when used along with anti-nausea medications.
Nightmares, those associated with PTSD and unknown cause, may benefit from relaxation exercises, according to some research studies. Relaxation techniques, however, may be less helpful than psychotherapy or medication, concludes an assessment of numerous studies.
Pain affects millions of Americans. Research reported in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management found encouraging evidence that guided imagery helps relieve non-musculoskeletal pain, although noting results remain inconclusive. Another study on guided imagery for pain management published in the Journal of Holistic Nursing recommends using guided imagery as an adjunct for managing pain in patients undergoing orthopedic surgery. Further research is needed, researchers said, to identify optimal frequency for using guided imagery, and to demonstrate how to ensure patients use the technique as doctors recommend.
Sleeplessness plagues millions of us, and research finds that relaxation techniques may prove helpful to manage chronic insomnia. Combining ways to relax with other strategies to promote healthy sleep is also recommended.