We are no strangers to stress and anxiety, especially with our busy days and everything that’s going on with the world. Everyone experiences anxiety at some point of their lives – this is a fact of life. However, when stress becomes too overwhelming that it becomes difficult to engage in your daily tasks or causes you significant distress, then we need to figure out effective strategies to manage stress. One set of strategies include relaxation.
Why are relaxation strategies important?
It is impossible to rid yourself of all stress and anxiety. And I wouldn’t want to do that for you even if I could. Why? Because anxiety – at least in moderate doses – can be adaptive. If you had no stress about your upcoming job interview, then there would be no reason for you to prepare for it and practice interview questions, for example. On the other hand, when anxiety is too high, then you might fumble over your words or forget your response – this is where we move into anxiety disorder territory. In this way, a moderate amount of anxiety can be helpful for reaching your goals.
Relaxation strategies are therefore not meant to reduce all your anxiety. Instead, they are tools to help turn down the volume on anxiety just enough for you to act in accordance with your goals, such as preparing for an exam, doing a presentation, or planning a wedding. Even a point or two drop on the anxiety scale can be enough for you to take action! Below I’ll discuss three types of relaxation exercises you can try out:
Box Breathing (Diaphragmatic Breathing)
Box breathing is a type of breathing technique that consciously slows down our breathing, changing it from shallow breaths to a deeper breath from the diaphragm. This type of breathing consciously slows down our heart rate and blood pressure, which is counter to our physiological response when we are anxious (Chen et al., 2017). The instructions for box breathing are listed here:
1. Inhale through our nose for four counts (1-2-3-4)
2. Hold for four counts (1-2-3-4)
3. Exhale through our mouth for four counts (1-2-3-4)
4. Pause for four counts (1-2-3-4)
5. Rinse and repeat!
Some people prefer other shapes for their diaphragmatic breathing, such as triangle breathing (inhale for 4 counts; exhale for 4 counts; pause for 4 counts; repeat) or reverse triangle breathing (inhale for 4 counts; hold for 4 counts; repeat). Try out a few different ways to see which you enjoy the most!
Guided Imagery Meditations
Guided imagery relaxation strategies are a way to immerse ourselves in a context that is far and away from our current source of stress. You might imagine yourself on the warm beaches of Malibu with the sand between your toes and the sounds of the waves caressing your ears. You might imagine yourself in a sea of grass that go on for miles before joining with a distant mountain landscape. This act creates emotional distance from the trials and tribulations of your everyday life to promote a relief in anxiety and can support a better state of mind for the rest of the day (dos Santos Felix et al., 2019). Here are a couple meditations that I personally enjoy and have provided to my patients in the past:
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
One common feature of chronic anxiety is muscle tension. Oftentimes, unless something prompts us, we don’t even notice how tight our muscles are. Check right now – how much tension is there in your neck, your shoulders, your back, your face? Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a type of relaxation technique in which you consciously tighten up parts of your body as much as possible, and then relax it (Liu et al., 2019). This full body exercise allows us to 1) reduce tension and anxiety in our body and 2) helps us to notice when we are feeling tension – the latter is very important in recognizing that stress has taken a hold of us. There are many PMR tapes that you can try out on YouTube!
Which one should I choose?
Give them all a shot! Ultimately, box breathing, guided imagery meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation are all evidence-based strategies that have data to support that they work. However, the individual part is that you will find some more enjoyable than others to perform; some to be more effective; and some to be better suited for your schedule. Adding one – or more – of these exercises to your routine (whether that’s in the morning, afternoon, or evening) will be a great long-term solution to managing anxiety. The exercises don’t have to be long either: some are as short as 3 minutes! Pick the ones you like and can stay consistent with.
Try them out and let us know in the comments which strategy (or other strategies!) has been the most helpful for you! Check this post out if you’re interested in the difference between mindfulness and relaxation strategies.
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Chen, Y. F., Huang, X. Y., Chien, C. H., & Cheng, J. F. (2017). The effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing relaxation training for reducing anxiety. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 53(4), 329-336.
dos Santos Felix, M. M., Ferreira, M. B. G., da Cruz, L. F., & Barbosa, M. H. (2019). Relaxation therapy with guided imagery for postoperative pain management: an integrative review. Pain Management Nursing, 20(1), 3-9.
Liu, K., Chen, Y., Wu, D., Lin, R., Wang, Z., & Pan, L. (2020). Effects of progressive muscle relaxation on anxiety and sleep quality in patients with COVID-19. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 39, 101132.