A healthy mind is necessary for your physical development and career success. Here are some effective relaxation techniques backed by science which will help you achieve mental wellness.
Stress is a fact of life. Everything from traffic congestion to looming deadlines can make us stressed. Our brains issue a stress response when we face anything that makes us feel anxious, scared, or even depressed. In the past, seeing a trigger could set off the stress response. But these days, it can be triggered just by seeing your boss’s face. Fortunately, there are lots of relaxation techniques to help you cope with stress.
Everyone responds to stressors in different ways. Some of us have a stronger stress response, which makes us feel anxious in a manner that makes it difficult to get through everyday life. You can fight against the stress response when you are not in any actual physical danger like our ancestors who lived in jungles.
In the seventies, Harvard Medical School cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson introduced “relaxation response” to counteract the many stress responses we face in the urban jungle.
The relaxation response as it was first introduced directly opposes the body’s natural stress response. It invokes a deep sense of relaxation in us, as opposed to the fight or flight response stress can cause. The relaxation response does not naturally occur, and you have to actively work towards it. You can do this by practicing relaxation techniques.
There are all sorts of relaxation techniques pushed by the wellness industry and popular media these days. But if you want to truly relax, it’s recommended to try only those that are known to work in a research setting.
To overcome overwhelming stressors you may face on a daily basis, here are several relaxation techniques that work according to science:
1. Controlled Breathing and Meditation
There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that promotes the relaxing benefits of meditation. Researchers are still looking for a scientific basis for all the benefits of meditation that practitioners hail. Even if meditation is not for you, there’s enough scientific evidence to show that controlled breathing can help people relax.
Breathing techniques, especially deep breathing, is called a “super stress buster” by the American Institute of Stress. Our breathing physiologically changes when we are stressed. You may have noticed that you take shorter breaths when you are particularly stressed out or scared. Short breaths reduce the supply of oxygen to the brain.
To counteract this bodily response, take long and slow, but deep breaths when you are stressed. This would increase the oxygenated blood flow to the brain and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. You will notice your heart rate slowing down from a panicked thrum and your muscles will start relaxing too. In other words, the deep breaths will make you relaxed.
Doctors recommend that breath control be accompanied by mental discipline. As you take deep breaths, turn your mental focus away from whatever is causing the stress response. Focus in a more positive manner to mentally relax as well.
2. Take a Warm Bath
Warm water (not hot) increases blood flow in the body. When you are stressed, a warm bath can get blood pumping into muscles, relaxing you physically. You will feel the physical tension just melting away into the warm water.
Going to the sauna is also a great way to enjoy the stress-busting benefits of warmth. Studies have shown that the body issues an anti-inflammatory response when you are in a sauna. It increases blood flow to areas like joints and your lungs. Therefore, saunas are recommended for relaxing as well as finding relief from conditions like asthma, arthritis, and chronic bronchitis.
3. Go Outdoors
Research has strongly associated living in the urban jungle with mental illnesses like chronic anxiety. When you are stuck inside a building all day with artificial lighting, it can throw your inner circadian clock into disarray. You are most likely to dwell on negative thoughts that trigger stress under these circumstances.
Going out can largely alleviate the stress of staying inside, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Just being in touch with nature can help you break off from recurring negative thoughts and worries. This is probably one of the simplest and most effective relaxation techniques.
When you are outside, you can experience peace and quiet just by enjoying the breeze and admiring plants and flowers. Experiencing the outdoors in a more active manner such as hiking, cycling, or jogging, is a great way to trigger your relaxation response as well.
4. Practice Guided Imagery
Whether you are indoors or outdoors, you won’t be able to relax without moving your thoughts away from recurring negative images that make you anxious. The Guided imagery technique is used by healthcare professionals to fight the stress response in a more substantive manner.
This technique is easy enough to practice. When you are stressed, try to imagine positive things you find soothing.
For example, imagine a sunny beach, your childhood bedroom, a garden, or any other images that you find relaxing. If imagining things is difficult, you can use an app that shows relaxing imagery. There are many free ones you can download onto your phone. Calming noises can substitute for the imagery too.
5. Try a Soothing Activity
Not everyone can easily conjure up relaxing images or practice a certain degree of mental discipline to feel relaxed. Some people relax when doing an activity and that’s perfectly fine. You can try an activity like knitting, painting, sewing, yoga, doing woodwork, or just about anything that relaxes you.
Some people find engaging in a hobby relaxing in the long term. If you don’t have a hobby or any particular activity you like, use a modern gadget like a fidget spinner to distract yourself from stressful thoughts. It doesn’t particularly matter what type of activity soothes you as long as you can shift your mind away from whatever is causing the stress.
Reading is certainly one of the most effective relaxing techniques. Reading does not just help you broaden your knowledge; it’s great for reducing stress, according to scientific research. Scientists have found that reading mentally challenges you and engages your brain in a very good way.
Reading for at least six minutes a day can help you keep stress at bay and even reduce the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s.
What you read does matter, as long as it soothes you. Reading financial news probably won’t trigger a relaxation response (unless it’s really good news). Read fiction or books that offer escapist pleasure occasionally. Escapist literature will offer you a reprieve from all the negative things that plague you daily.
7. Try Coloring
Color therapy is often peddled by the wellness industry as it is an effective way to relax. Science says that coloring, not just surrounding yourself with colors, can relieve stress. Coloring focuses your concentration, a bit like meditation does. It also involves focusing attention on your hands, which means you are not thinking about stressors.
Studies have found that the repetitive hand motions involved in coloring allow the amygdala to relax. The amygdala is the part of the brain that induces fear and emotional responses. It’s also the part that makes you creative. Engaging the amygdala with coloring is a proven way to reduce the stress response.
You know you need to exercise to maintain a healthy weight. Studies show that exercise can improve your mood as well. The rigorous physical activity of exercising triggers endorphins, also known as the “feel-good” hormones that make us feel happy.
A study conducted at the University of Maryland School of Public Health strongly indicates that long-term exercise can help reduce anxiety as well. According to one of the study’s authors, Dr. J. Carson Smith, exercise not only reduces elevated anxiety levels, but it also helps you keep your anxiety levels low.
9. Go on a Vacation
Vacations have many benefits that have been proven by science. Numerous studies and scientific surveys have connected vacations with reduced stress levels, more productivity, a better sex life, and increased levels of happiness overall. A researcher with a Nielsen survey commissioned by Diamond Resorts International called vacations not a luxury, but an integral part to happiness.
If you are chronically stressed and anxious, going on an annual vacation will most likely help you relax and unwind. You can try other relaxation techniques mentioned in this list on vacations, such as exercising, enjoying outdoors, taking warm baths, and learning meditation.
10. Chew Gum
Don’t want to do any hard work to let go of your stress levels? Then chew gum, say researchers at Swinburne University. A 2008 study at the university found that chewing gum helped stressed-out people reduce their anxiety and acute stress levels. The participants in the study chewed gum while multitasking. The researchers found that, rather than being distracted, the gum chewers experienced higher alertness levels and less stress.
In case you think the study is the fluke, another study also found elevated moods among those who chewed gum. A study published in Physiology & Behavior journal found that chewing gum counteracted with workload intensity. That is to say, chewing gum relieved negative moods and induced calmness as people engaged in intense work.
If you find working at your office incredibly stressful, occasionally chew gum and see if it makes to feel better. Don’t forget to choose a sugar-free brand.
11. Play with a Dog
Having a dog may help you protect your mental health just as your physical well-being, according to several studies. Workers who played with dogs tended to be less stressed and more satisfied, according to a study by the International Journal of Workplace Health Management.
A 2009 study found that even making eye contact with a dog can release oxytocin. Other activities that increase oxytocin include hugging and orgasm. Oxytocin produces an anti-stress response that fights back negative emotions.
If you are not a dog person, you can play with a cat, a hamster, or any other pet of your choice to benefit from the same response.
The above relaxation techniques are scientifically backed and don’t require buying expensive gadgets that promise to make your negative emotions vanish. You can try one or two and settle with the relaxation techniques that work for you the best.
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