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Modern life can be a stressful, what with deadlines and targets, commuting and pollution, work and relationships. Sometimes you're so wound up that it takes a concerted effort to let go, calm down and allow your body to relax. Which is why we asked you, the h2g2 Community, for your tips and techniques for relaxation. What works for one person might not work for another, but below you'll find a broad range of advice and something to suit all individuals.
Change Your Scenery
Snatched moments of peace and quiet, longer moments of solitude and weeks of positive inaction all have their merits. This sort of complete relaxation is probably the best approach to stress, but it isn't always possible, especially at work. If you closely examine someone who's stressed out due to being overloaded, you'll often notice they're not actually getting much done. Worried about how they're going to finish everything they flit from task to task, wasting more time remembering where they have got to on each one than they spend getting the jobs finished.
It sounds counter-intuitive (or perhaps obvious), but sometimes you can get more done by just giving up for a little bit - take a break; get away from it all. If at all possible get well away from the place where you're suffering the stress. Escape the problem for a little while, returning when you've calmed down. Leaving your desk at work to make tea, or get water, is often enough.
If you're in an office, other people may well just infect you with their stress. If you're at home revising, you probably associate your desk with all that brain-ache. Getting outside can be very helpful. Fresh air and quiet help your mind stop focusing on how awful everything is, and instead you can start logically cataloguing what can be done, and accepting those jobs that can't. A brisk walk can help to burn off some of the physical energy that your adrenaline has been building up, and, if you've been using a computer all day, looking out at distant objects gives your eyes a handy chance to relax.
I find that when I just sit outside (I'm too lazy to walk around) when I am angry, I calm down. I don't accredit this to meditation, connecting to nature or some such; I think it's an excuse to remove yourself from distractions. Simple, but effective.
Even when it's chilling cold outside it works. The cold breeze can be bracing and, besides, the inclement weather will motivate you to calm down more quickly so you can go back inside.
If you can't get outside, there are other ways to change your scenery. Flipping on the TV or radio can provide a much-needed distraction. The key point is to let your mind 'relax' - shifting the immediate problems as far away from your conscious mind as possible for a time.
As obvious as these points sound, they are easy to forget. Sometimes it can be helpful to set an alarm or use a certain time of day to remind you it's time to take a break. The latter approach can be particularly useful at work - once you associate a particular time of day with relaxing, you'll have something to look forward to, which may make the rest of the day that bit more manageable.
A Different Frame of Mind
The following are excellent ways of tuning out from reality...
Meditation is a classic relaxation technique. It's relatively simple, can be extremely effective, and is very useful for calming the mind more than the body - which is particularly good when dealing with exams, stressful working environments and so forth. At face value, it appears that you're doing nothing - how difficult can that be? To begin with, sit quietly in silence and concentrate on your breathing. Try to think of nothing. Spend some time like this, and after a while you'll feel relaxed.
Black and Blue
A simple tip that works well is to visualise that you're breathing in blue, calming air, and exhaling black, angry air. Imagine the anger draining out of you with every breath, gradually reducing the intensity of the black so that it and your stress fades.
Everyone responds to different triggers, so using others people's techniques step for step won't necessarily work for you, but the following is a simple, popular idea that works best if you can tailor it to suit you personally:
First, work out which do you respond to best: sight or sound, touch or smell.
Next, find something using that sense that makes you feel good or resonates with you in some way. For one Researcher, their visual trigger was a picture they picked up years before, of a woodland glade. They never knew where it was in real life, but it looked like a lovely, calm place to be. They got copies of it made, pinned it up in easy line of sight at their desk at work and desk at home. There was a small copy for their wallet; they even had it made into a mouse mat.
Now take a deep breath and bring your other senses to work.
I would imagine the sounds in that woodland glade - just a breeze rustling the leaves, and a little bit of bird song. I could smell the cool, slightly misty air and the dried ferns in the foreground. If things were really nasty, I would visualise a four poster bed in the middle of the glade, lots of cool, clean, crisp, white sheets, and the breeze blowing the drapes about - what lovely place to wake up.
Your trigger might be a scrap of music you can conjure up in your mind, a drop of lavender oil on a handkerchief, or a smooth pebble from a beach: they can all work the same way. After a while, just having brief contact with the trigger will make you feel better, because your system learns to respond.
Choose a picture in your mind of somewhere that you feel secure and safe. Visualise as much detail of smell, colour and so on as you can. Sounds can also be brought in. It should have steps leading down to it.
Focus on your 'third eye'. Close your eyelids and strain your eyeballs upwards as if trying to see a spot between you eyebrows. Then relax. Imagine all the muscles in your eye relaxing. Spread that relaxation out across your face, feeling a slight heat sensation.
Push the relaxation down your neck, shoulders, arms, until you've done your whole body. Concentrate on the heat and heaviness you feel.
Now in your mind, descend those steps to your secure place. Take a deep breath at each 'step' down.
You are now in a quasi-'hypnotised' state. You will be more inclined to believe things you are told when you are in this state. It's a good idea to give yourself the suggestion that you can immediately return to a full waking state if necessary - if the phone rings or the baby cries, for example. Otherwise, you should bring yourself out progressively, by going back along the staircase (up or down) to where you started, telling yourself that you will awaken fully refreshed as though you've had a good night's sleep.
Relief from a Rough Day
Just the thing for the end of a rough day, here is another stress management technique.
Picture yourself near a stream.
Birds are softly chirping in the cool mountain air.
No-one but you knows your secret place.
You are in total seclusion from the hectic place called 'the world'.
The soothing sound of a gentle waterfall fills the air with a cascade of serenity.
The water is crystal clear.
You can easily make out the face of the person you're holding underwater.
Relax Each Part of Your Body
Apparently, the best way to cheat a lie detector is to concentrate on rubbing one's toe gently on the inside of the shoe, but it's also a good way to start the following relaxation technique as it induces a calm mind. Once you're in this state, consciously relax each part of your body, part by part, always starting with the same toe. Each toe, each foot, each leg. Each finger, each hand, and so on. By the time you've relaxed everything, you'll be feeling all floaty and lovely.
Stress is quite often most apparent in the jaw and wrist muscles, so concentrate on your jaw muscles and force them to slacken, imagining them going limp. Yawn. Do the same with your wrist muscles (except for the yawning bit). It loosens you up.
Tai Chi, an internal martial art, requires relaxation in order to be effective even in a non-martial situation (ie when you're studying it simply for health benefits). So, in order to learn Tai Chi properly you have to learn how to relax. Tai Chi itself isn't really a relaxation system, it's more something to do after you're relaxed, to relax you further and calm the mind, as it is a form of meditation if done in the right way.
Tai Chi cannot easily be dipped into. The relaxation it requires is a skill to be mastered; it's not a quick fix like a massage, but once you are able to do it, a couple of sets of Tai Chi can relax the whole body. Tai Chi stretches and moves every part of you - and just feels good.
Here's a yoga exercise that really relaxes your shoulders.
Bend your arms. Put your left elbow on top of the right elbow joint, so that your arms are sticking out in an X shape. Your hands have their backs facing each other. Circle your hands around so that your palms are together in a prayer shape (although one hand will be quite a bit lower than the other). Hold the shape and pressing your palms together gently move your elbows upwards and your palms away from you and hold it for a few seconds.
Unwind your arms and do exactly the same thing, this time with your right elbow on top of your left elbow joint.
You'll find that it really makes you stretch and relax your shoulder muscles.
Doing an activity such as yoga can certainly reduce your stress levels. A key part of yoga is slow and deep breathing, taking each breath right down through your chest into your diaphragm, before filling your chest (letting your ribs expand) and upper chest (allowing your shoulders lift slightly).
If you pause for a count of one or two at the end of the in-breath and out-breath, it really can slow your heart-rate down and start to reduce blood pressure. The brilliant thing is that you feel the results within a couple of minutes.
What circular breathing does is focus you right down onto your breathing. It clears the mind so well that it allows you to think about things in a much clearer way. Once you've found somewhere quiet...
Sit, stand or lie somewhere comfortable.
Breathe in only through your nose and only exhale through your mouth - that's the circular bit.
Breathe in steadily, counting to five in your head, hold it for two, then exhale for five - again steadily and in control.
Repeat this for at least a couple of minutes uninterrupted.
A bath is a classic relaxation technique, which begins with you filling the tub. Place a number of candles around you - as many as can be fitted in safely. Have a bottle of your favourite wine to hand and a really good book. Fragranced bubbles, luxuriant cosmetic treats and essential oils enhance the experience. As the water gets cold, empty it a little and top it up again. Sheer bliss. The only disadvantage is that you emerge a couple of hours later, fully relaxed, but looking rather like a wrinkled prune.
Massage is a great tension reliever if you happen to have a willing and competent pair of hands handy; if not, a tennis ball works wonders. Just rolling one around under a bare foot gets to all those reflexology pressure points at once and makes your feet feel wonderful. This technique can be applied to any other usually soft and yielding part of the body holding tension. Probably best done in private though, as those strange writhings around the floor might cause a few raised eyebrows.
Incense is a marvellous accompaniment to relaxation techniques like hot baths and deep breathing. Jasmine, vanilla or sandalwood all do the trick, and lavender is especially good for relaxation. Incense sticks do tend to create dust, but the good thing is that you can combine incense with a stress-busting cleaning session by scattering the nice-smelling dust all over the carpet and vacuuming it up. Alternatively, use potpourri or aromatherapy oils in an oil burner. Hanging dried flowers or herbs near lights or heating vents also creates a gentle waft of sweet perfume in the air.
Traditional Relaxation Techniques are Not for Everyone
Most relaxation techniques seem to be something to do with 'letting go' or 'forgetting our reality' even for a while, but traditional relaxation techniques are not for everyone. For some people sitting in a bath with candles just makes them squirmy and impatient, and aromatherapy and meditation are just hippy nonsense...
I find that 'conventional' relaxation tricks, such as massage, meditation or listening to calm music really get on my nerves. I think it's something to do with me being one of those people who always has to be doing two things at once.
The key message here is do whatever works for you. The 'monkey mind' that is what Zen practitioners call undisciplined folks who have problems focusing on something for any length of time; instead of concentrating on their inner being, they're sorting out a list of things to do for the day, and are thinking about the weekend's shopping list. So, what's a monkey to do? The answer is movement. While not exactly meditation, any period of focused activity can be very relaxing and restorative.
You can just as easily relax building a bonfire as you can slumped in front of the television in a semi-comatose state. In both instances the mind is in neutral and free to amble its way along any path it chooses. Some of your best thinking time can be when you're doing something mindless. Digging holes, clearing drains, cleaning the car, chopping wood... they don't require a PhD in Applied Maths so the brain is free to travel - which is very relaxing. OK the body is working overtime but that's not an issue - and besides, when you stop, the body really winds down.
Even exciting activities can help you relax. Go dancing or play pool, go whitewater rafting, skydiving or ride a half wild horse. Then there are roller coasters. When you're tense, angry and stressed out, there's nothing better than mindless screaming and laughing as you are tossed, turned, yanked, thrown and dropped through a really good, really tall, really fast roller coaster. Especially if you can talk the operators into letting you go around again. The adrenaline and endorphins will give you a feeling of euphoria or exhilaration. The rush is great, and when it passes, your body really feels loose.
If there isn't a tree that needs chopping then there's always that other ever-present physical activity: cleaning the house. Now for some, cleaning causes nothing but stress, but for others it's the perfect way to chill out. As this Researcher shows:
For me the most relaxing thing is to take time away from pressing issues and clean my living environment. I find by clearing away the junk form my home I can clear away the junk from my mind. Also taking time away from a thing that seems so amazingly urgent, and doing day-to-day activities (like dishes) helps me to realise that nothing is important enough to stress out over.
Just doing a few hours' cleaning might get you all gross and sweaty, but that gives you a great excuse for having a long thorough shower, or a lingering bath. After all that hard work you deserve it.
In fact, all physical activity relieves stress and is a particularly good technique if you're not the sort of person to sit around. Running, kick-boxing, cycling, walking, dancing like a crazy person with the curtains closed and the music turned up are all great ways to relax. Here's an account of the sort of effect that it has on your state of mind.
Before I developed a very dodgy hip, I used to run every morning. I ran for at least an hour (really not actually enjoying the running bit) but what I totally loved was after I'd finished; my mind was so blissfully empty of everything. My body wasn't actually feeling very tired, but it felt a bit tired, and in a very good sense, and my mind was for once not thinking about anything at all.
Here's a very interesting, effective and physically demonstrative way of relieving stress:
One tip suggested to me by a counsellor while I was in my final year at Uni was to go to a car boot sale or charity shop and buy a load of very cheap plates and crockery. Then once I got home I had to clear some floor space, take a deep breath and start throwing plates at the floor, breaking them into itty bitty pieces. This was relaxing on two levels; you're taking the frustrations of life out on something you're not going to regret breaking, and you end up distracted from whatever was on your mind when you have to tidy up the inevitable mess of broken china.
Hobbies are a fabulous way to take you away from the hectic pace of your job, and depending on your favoured pastime it can counteract the sedentary nature of your working lifestyle.
Find the right relaxing music for you. For some, classical or jazz is the ultimate relaxant, for others well-worn folkish tranquilisers like Nick Drake are just the thing. Flip on those phat beats from ninja tune, def jux or warp, headbang along to 'Bohemian Rhapsody' or air guitar along to Dire Straits. Music is deeply personal.
Dim the lights and pour yourself a drink. Sit or lie down on the most comfortable piece of furniture your room has to offer. If your room doesn't offer anything comfortable, a plush rug on the floor will do. Turn up the sounds and absorb the music through your body, not just your ears.
You needn't listen to music only at home. Listen to music in the car on your way back from work to wind you down for the day. Take the back roads, open the window, and crank up the music. And make sure you sing along. Or offload in some other way as one Researcher confesses...
Whenever possible, I stick my head out the window and scream. This works best in slow, rural streets. But it's very gratifying.
Playing a Musical Instrument
Playing an instrument is particularly relaxing, as long as you play something you can play well - if you keep hitting the wrong note, it will only wind you up and make you tense. But if you can sit and strum/pluck/blow for a while, it's almost guaranteed to wind you down after a hard day.
Seeing fish in their natural environment is a great way to relax. Their irregular, but smooth and flowing, movement is enough to chill you out. Snorkelling on a tropical reef is great, with the water at body temperature, and with the fish flitting to and fro, you slip into a kind of zen meditative state without actually knowing how you did it. Failing this, if you don't happen to live near a tropical reef, you can set your own tank up at home. Dentists put tanks of tropical fish in their waiting rooms for a reason. Watching the floaty movement of fish helps to relax you. If a full tank seems like too much work, get some fish such as bettas and goldfish which are happy living in bowls. Put in some water weed, some gravel, and a decorative rock. Easy to clean and the fish are happy.
Whether you're on a train, trying to make commuting bearable, or sitting at home curled up on a squashy sofa, a book is a fantastic escape route; one week you can be battling with Urukhai, the following you could be stuck mid-Pacific on board a boat with a Bengal tiger.
Ring up one of your friends and have a good, long conversation about all kinds of things, from what's on telly to kids to men/women to food to... pretty much everything. It helps you put your worries in perspective and its nice to catch up with people, plus it gets rid of a good hour or so.
I find that when I'm stressed if I get up and walk to the cupboard and get out a pretty glass and slowly fill it with water - watching how pretty water flow can be - and then slowly drink the water, concentrating on the temperature change inside my body, I feel much calmer when I get back to what I was doing.
Hug your animals if you have them. They never offer any advice, bad or otherwise, and let you rant as much as you need to. Then they go - 'Hey, where's the cat food?' Putting you and your problems totally into perspective.
Get a Hammock
Believe it or not the most relaxed I have ever been in my life, was when I was sleeping in a hammock! It was during my time in the Royal Navy and my first night in this hammock was ever so relaxing. You could hear the ropes creaking with the movement of the ship, but your hammock never moves. The hardest part is getting into it, as you need strong arms to pull your weight up the six feet to climb in.
Making Children Relax
Here are a couple of personal techniques to help children relax.
When my first-born was two or three, and he would get wound up and (nearly) out of control, I would tell him to put his head down, and he would get down on his knees in the middle of the carpet, putting his head on the floor with his little bum in the air. I would smile behind my hand because it was really funny, but it would always work. After about a minute he would say, 'I'm all right now,' and he would be. When he was a little older, I would tell him to go out and run around the house two or three times: that also worked.
When my children were small, reading together was always a good way of having a quiet sit down - the only trouble is when you find you're nodding off in mid-sentence As children like to have the same stories over and over, I found I could read aloud on auto pilot and would think of something else at the same time!
If all else fails, remember St Francis of Assisi's prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change those that I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.