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10 Science-Based Relaxation Techniques

Feeling frazzled? Here are some science-based strategies to help you relax.

 Sasin Tipchai/Pixabay
Source: Sasin Tipchai/Pixabay

Most of us are strapped to our phones 24-7, overwhelmed by work, and feeling uncertain about the future of our country or the planet. We feel our well-being slipping (take this well-being quiz to check yourself) and we're in need of some good relaxation techniques. But how do we know that the strategies we want to try will work? Well, to start, we can try science-based relaxation techniques.

Here are 10 relaxation techniques that science says can help you increase calm or decrease anxiety.

1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is one technique that can help reduce stress. It involves tensing muscles as you breathe in and quickly releasing those muscles as you breathe out. Go through one set of muscles at a time so that each muscle group gets tensed and then relaxed a few times.

One study found that 20 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation on Monday through Friday for 6 months led to significant reductions in cortisol, an indicator of stress. So progressive muscle relaxation may be an effective way to decrease stress.

2. Adult Coloring

There has been a lot of interest in adult coloring in the last few years. Well, it turns out that coloring can actually be an effective relaxation technique. One study showed that using adult coloring books can reduce anxiety, as long as the shapes that are being colored in are sufficiently complex. So if you’re looking to color for calm, try grabbing a coloring book with complex mandalas or details to get the calming benefit.

3. Listening to Calming Music

We might intuitively feel that the soft tones of calming music help us relax. The research supports that intuition. One study found that listening to calming music helps us more quickly reduce cortisol, a key stress hormone. Given calming music is easy to find on YouTube, this may be an easy, effective relaxation technique.

4. Yoga

Like some of the other relaxation techniques discussed here, yoga has been found to reduce cortisol. One study asked participants to do yoga for 3 months. The participants who practiced yoga 50 or more times during that time period had lower cortisol at the end of the study. This suggests that doing four yoga sessions per week could be an effective strategy for relaxation.

5. Cultivating Joy

Dr. Barb Fredrickson says that positivity has the power to undo negativity, and her research supports that. Positive emotions can create upward spirals of positivity—the more positive emotions we feel, the more those emotions generate even more positive emotions. Even though this might not be considered a relaxation technique per se, if positive emotions make us feel better, then we should also feel more relaxed. So consider creating more positive emotions with strategies like gratitude and kindness.

6. Taking a Break From Your Phone

We now know that spending too much time on our smartphones or the internet is associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety. But the research also suggests that this depends a lot on how we spend that time online. If we use our tech time to compare ourselves to others or read stressful news, that might not be so good for our anxiety levels. But if we instead use that time to connect with others or engage in other prosocial activities, it could actually be good for us. Check out my book, Outsmart Your Smartphone, to learn more about how to develop a healthy relationship with your phone.

7. Breathing Deep

Another way we can boost relaxation is by activating the parasympathetic nervous system—our "rest and digest" system. There are several ways to do this but one of the quickest may be to take a few deep breaths. Many types of deep breathing can be beneficial, but one technique supported by research is SKY breathing. This relaxation technique involves doing slow breathing (two to four breaths per minute) followed by fast breathing (30 breaths per minute), followed by “Oms." SKY breathing has been shown to lower anxiety.

8. Taking a Cold Dunk

One way to calm the body fast is to take a dunk in a cold body of water like a river or ocean. Research has found that spending 20 minutes in cold (about 80 degrees Fahrenheit or 26 degrees Celsius) water can increase parasympathetic activity, which is generally associated with a sense of relaxation. So give this relaxation technique a try if you're up for a cold jolt.

9. Eating for Relaxation

Eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics appear to reduce anxiety, at least in some people. So consider adding fatty fish and sauerkraut to your diet to see if it's helpful. On the other hand, caffeinated drinks are linked to increased anxiety, so it may be helpful to reduce caffeine consumption.

10. Sleeping

You probably already know just how important sleep is for relaxation, but let's include it here just in case. When we don't get enough sleep, we can have higher levels of stress hormones like norepinephrine and epinephrine. These can make us feel more on edge and less relaxed. So be sure to get enough sleep.

In Sum

In this high-stress world, relaxation can be tricky. So if you're struggling to feel relaxed, try to remember to be self-compassionate—being hard on yourself just causes extra stress. So give yourself a break and try these relaxation techniques when you can.

Created with content from The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.


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