There are a lot of relaxation techniques out there that we can all learn and practice. However, I have found that many of my clients (and myself) struggle with the way these are presented, and they also have problems motivating themselves to use them. In response to that, I researched the types of relaxation techniques that have the most research support, and I developed a five-step sequence that anyone can do to feel more relaxed in minutes, minus the new-age vibes.
Stress, Emotions, & The Brain
We usually need to relax when we are feeling tense, anxious, or angry. Part of these feelings are due to an activation of something called the sympathetic nervous system, which includes parts of your brain that detect and respond to threats and stress. Without getting too deep into the physiology, when you are tense, anxious, or angry, your sympathetic nervous system is activated, and your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow, your blood pressure increases, your digestion stops, your muscles tense, your circulation changes, stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline, among others) are released in your blood stream, and your thoughts speed up and focus on a target (read more about that in Three Frames of Mind). When this is happening, our bodies feel unpleasant and we look for ways to feel better.
For almost everyone, after some period of time, our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) kicks in, which brings all of these physiological changes back down to normal. Your heart rate returns to baseline, your blood pressure lowers, digestion starts again, the stress hormones are metabolized, your breathing slows and deepens, and your muscles relax. When this completes, you are back to a pleasant, slower, and more in-control state.
How to Relax
The following relaxation process is all about taking steps to change your physiology when you are tense, anxious, or angry. This is basically done by shifting attention and taking control of breathing as a way to jump-start the parasympathetic nervous system. There is no magic, just basic steps (some that you already do) that should result in you feeling more relaxed, quickly. I encourage you to practice doing the full sequence at least once a day for two weeks during times of lower tension before you start using it in more urgent situations. Additionally, there is no set amount of time that this takes. It could last as little as a minute or two, or go on as long as you like.
So when you are feeling activated, stop what you are doing, and follow these 5-steps:
1. Orienting: the first step is intentionally orienting yourself to your surroundings. This means visually and mentally recognizing where you are right now and what is around you. If I did this right now, I'd look around the room and recognize that I am in my office, at 4:05 p.m., with the sun shining.
This step may seem silly or obvious, but when we are anxious, tense, or angry, we are almost never paying attention to our immediate surroundings. Instead, we are usually consumed with our thoughts or feelings related to things that are not present where we are. Orienting allows us to start relaxing by recognizing our immediate surroundings, which are hopefully calm, stable, and safe.
2. Grounding: the second step helps shift your attention to how you are connected to your environment. Since relaxation is a physiological process, it is important to direct your attention to your senses. So for this step, intentionally notice ways you are connected to your surroundings. For me right now, that would mean I intentionally notice my feet on the floor, my back against the chair, and how my sweater feels on my arms.
3. Slowing: this third step will now bring your attention to what is happening inside you, particularly your breathing and heart rate. Although there are a lot of ways we can learn to change the way our body responds in any given moment, the easiest is to control our breathing. There are dozens of breathing techniques, but the one I have found to be the easiest to use is called "4-7-8 Breathing". It works like this:
Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet on the floor, and close your eyes. Once you are settled and notice your breathing, inhale through your nose for a count of 4, hold it for a count of 7, exhale through your mouth for a count of 8, and repeat. The pace doesn't matter, it should just be something that feels good to you. The key is having the exhale really stretch out much longer than the inhaling. Try and make the exhale smooth and have almost all of the air leave your body. Do it with the counting as long as you need to get the pace down before going to the next step. For me this takes a couple minutes.
While doing this, you should really start to notice some changes in how you are feeling, most obviously a slowing heart rate. That is your parasympathetic nervous system going into action.
An advanced technique would be to try using your diaphragm to control your breathing, so that your stomach is expanding more than your chest. This mirrors the way you breathe when you are in deep sleep. Additionally, if 4-7-8 is not feeling right for you, try starting with 4-4-6.
4. Coaching: once you have the breathing pace down, keep doing it while you move to this step. The key here is giving yourself positive, reassuring, and calm messages, rather than continuing with the tense, anxious, and angry thoughts. When I do this, I think things like "I can get through this. It will be OK. I can handle whatever happens. I am going to calmly do my best." Everyone will have a different way of doing this, and some people like to imagine this in the voice of someone they care about, or with the image of that person telling them those things. Keep doing this along with the breathing until you feel sufficiently ready to reconnect with what you were doing.
5. Emerging: the key in this final step is calmly reentering the world. Rather than just stopping this process and jumping back in, focus on going back to what you need to do with the same peace you might have when you wake up from a nice sleep. Just gently getting back into the flow of your day. This should keep your mind and body both staying in a more relaxed and positive state.
Once you get the sequence down, I'd encourage you to innovate and find little tricks that will specifically make this more powerful for you. Remember to practice this everyday, especially during times of lower stress, because the effect is cumulative. Meaning, the 20th time you do this should have a faster and greater impact than the first. If it doesn't work right away, stay with it and keep going, and make sure you are following all of the steps. Furthermore, if this process isn't preferred for you, try doing the 5-step Processing Emotions as an alternative.