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Relaxation techniques for stress

Chronic stress can be bad for your body and mind. It can put you at risk for health problems such as high blood pressure, stomachaches, headaches, anxiety, and depression. Using relaxation techniques can help you feel calm. These exercises can also help you manage stress and ease the effects of stress on your body.

How Relaxation Helps

When you feel stress, your body responds by releasing hormones that increase your blood pressure and raise your heart rate. This is called the stress response.

Relaxation techniques can help your body relax and lower your blood pressure and heart rate. This is called a relaxation response. There are several exercises you can try. See which ones work best for you.

Deep Breathing

One of the simplest ways to relax is by practicing deep breathing. You can do deep breathing almost anywhere.

  • Sit still or lie down and place one hand on your stomach. Put your other hand over your heart.
  • Inhale slowly until you feel your stomach rise.
  • Hold your breath for a moment.
  • Exhale slowly, feeling your stomach fall.

There are also many other types of breathing techniques you can learn. In many cases, you do not need much instruction to do them on your own.

Meditation

Meditation involves focusing your attention to help you feel more relaxed. Practicing meditation may help you react in a calmer way to your emotions and thoughts, including those that cause stress. Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, and there are several different styles.

Most types of meditation usually include:

  • Focused attention. You might focus on your breath, an object, or a set of words.
  • Quiet. Most meditation is done in a quiet area to limit distractions.
  • Body position. Most people think of meditation done while sitting, but it can also be done lying down, walking, or standing.
  • An open attitude. This means that you stay open to thoughts that come into your mind during meditation. Instead of judging these thoughts, you let them go by bringing your attention back to your focus.
  • Relaxed breathing. During meditation, you breathe slowly and calmly. This also helps you relax.

Biofeedback

Biofeedback teaches you how to control some of your body's functions, such as your heart rate or certain muscles.

In a typical session, a biofeedback therapist attaches sensors to different areas of your body. These sensors measure your skin temperature, brain waves, breathing, and muscle activity. You can see these readings on a monitor. Then you practice changing your thoughts, behaviors, or emotions to help control your body's responses. Over time, you can learn to change them without using the monitor.

Progressive Relaxation

This is another simple technique that you can do almost anywhere. Starting with your toes and feet, focus on tightening your muscles for a few moments and then releasing them. Continue with this process, working your way up your body, focusing on one group of muscles at a time.

Yoga

Yoga is an ancient practice rooted in Indian philosophy. The practice of yoga combines postures or movements with focused breathing and meditation. The postures are meant to increase strength and flexibility. Postures range from simple poses lying on the floor to more complex poses that may require years of practice. You can modify most yoga postures based on your own ability.

There are many different styles of yoga that range from slow to vigorous. If you are thinking about starting yoga, look for a teacher who can help you practice safely. Make sure to tell your teacher about any injuries.

Tai Chi

Tai chi was first practiced in ancient China for self-defense. Today, it is used mainly to improve health. It is a low-impact, gentle type of exercise that is safe for people of all ages.

There are many styles of tai chi, but all involve the same basic principles:

  • Slow, relaxed movements. The movements in tai chi are slow, but your body is always moving.
  • Careful postures. You hold specific postures as you move your body.
  • Concentration. You are encouraged to put aside distracting thoughts while you practice.
  • Focused breathing. During tai chi, your breathing should be relaxed and deep.

If you are interested in tai chi for stress relief, you may want to start with a class. For many people, it is the easiest way to learn the proper movements. You can also find books and videos about tai chi.

For More Information

You can learn more about any of these techniques through local classes, books, videos, or online.

Alternative Names

Relaxation response techniques; Relaxation exercises

References

Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. About Biofeedback. 2011. www.aapb.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3463. Accessed October 18, 2016.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. 5 Things to Know About Relaxation Techniques for Stress. Updated January 30, 2015. nccih.nih.gov/health/tips/stress. Accessed October 18, 2016.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Meditation: In Depth. Updated April 2016. nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm. Accessed October 18, 2016.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Relaxation Techniques for Health. Updated May 2016. nccih.nih.gov/health/stress/relaxation.htm. Accessed October 18, 2016.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Tai Chi and Qi Gong. Updated August 2010. nccih.nih.gov/health/taichi. Accessed October 18, 2016.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Yoga: In Depth. Updated June 2013. nccih.nih.gov/health/yoga/introduction.htm. Accessed October 18, 2016.

Review Date 9/3/2016

Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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