Relaxation Techniques: 21 Ways to Undo Stress and Relax
Feeling wired? Need to short-circuit your stress and just relax already? Here are a bunch of science-based strategies to help you relax and feel less anxious.
*This page may include affiliate links; that means I earn from qualifying purchases of products.
What are relaxation techniques?
Relaxation techniques include any strategy that you can implement in your life to have greater relaxation and lower stress. There are actually tons of things we can do to relax and induce a sense of calm in our bodies. So in this article we'll talk about a variety of relaxation techniques so that you can choose the ones that you think will work best for you.
Need a "quick calm" before we start? Try this 3 minute relaxation video:
Why might we need relaxation techniques?
We're glued to our phones 24-7, overwhelmed by work, and nervous about the future of our country or the planet. For these reasons and more, stress has become epidemic in America. Stress is the full-body response that occurs in response to what we call a stressor—or some event that we perceive as threatening.
Stress includes activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the release of cortisol ,and the release of the catecholamines norepinephrine and epinephrine. The adrenal glands then must turn off cortisol to help us get back to normal . But when we're chronically stressed, our bodies have a harder time turning off the stress signals. So many of us are in great need of strategies to help us relax.
Here are 21 relaxation techniques you can use to induce a sense of calm.
1. Try mindfulness
Mindfulness involves being aware but non-judgmental about our thoughts, feelings and surroundings. Many people use mindful meditation to reduce negative emotions like stress and anxiety, but we can also work on being more mindful in our daily lives by building skills like present awareness and compassionate acceptance . So next time you are feeling like you need to relax, try to practice these skills or do a short mindful meditation.
2. Do positive visualizations
My absolute favorite way to relax is with positive visualization exercises. When you visualize something positive, your brain reacts as if those things are actually happening now, in your real life. So when you imagine being in a calming location or doing something relaxing, you tell your body that it can start to relax too.
3. Listen to relaxing music
Listening to soothing music can reduce stress. One study even showed that listening to calming music helps us more quickly reduce cortisol in our bodies . So next time you don't have time to stop and do a longer relaxation technique, just put on some relaxing music like from the video below.
4. Do yoga
Cortisol is a key part of the stress response. And yoga is an activity that reduces cortisol. For example, in one study people did yoga for three months. The people who did 50 or more yoga sessions across a three-month period showed a significant drop in cortisol . So four yoga sessions per week could result in a meaningful increase in relaxation.
5. Generate positive emotions
Positive emotions can actually undo negative emotions that makes us feel stressed. In fact, positive emotions create upward spirals of positivity that may help us stay happy and relaxed, not just in the present moment but also more often throughout our lives . So creating more positive emotions can be a useful relaxation technique. Here are some strategies to try: practice gratitude, think positive, and find meaning.
6. Do activities that you enjoy
Do things we enjoy, like hanging out with family, going for a hike, or gardening can help our brains shift out of stress gear and into relaxation gear. We just have to be sure to prioritize positive activities and make sure we do them to ensure that we relax every now and then.
7. Try progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is one technique that can help relieve tension and stress. It involves tensing a group of muscles as you breathe in and quickly releasing your contracted muscles as you breathe out. The goal is to proceed through one set of muscles at a time.
One study asked employees to spend 20 minutes doing progressive muscle relaxation in a quiet room during daily lunch breaks. After six months, they had lower cortisol at both lunchtime and upon waking in the morning. This suggests that progressive muscle relaxation may be helpful for relaxation both in the short term and longer term .
Video: How to do progressive muscle relaxation
9. Try getting massages
We know anecdotally that massages are relaxing. But the research supports it. For example, in one study, 10, 30-minute massage therapy sessions over five weeks led to lower cortisol . This suggests that massages can help us relax in both the short and longer term.
10. Use breathing techniques
We can also increase relaxation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is largely responsible for stopping our fight or flight responses and helping us to regain a sense of calm.
One of the easiest ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system is with deep breathing. Although there are lots of breathing techniques that can increase relaxation, SKY breathing—a technique involving cycling slow breathing (2-4 breaths per minute) then fast (30 breaths per minute), then three long “Om”s, or a long vibrating exhale—has been shown to lower anxiety .
Video: 3 breathing techniques for relaxation
11. Try not to imagine worst case scenarios
When we want to solve a problems, we sometimes think about the worst case scenario. If we know how bad it can get, we assume we'll be more prepared, but in fact we just make it hard to de-stress and relax. We feel more upset, anxious, or overwhelmed . So try not to imagine the worst and instead try to imagine the best.
12. Derail rumination
Do you get stuck wondering what went wrong in the past or worrying about the future? You're ruminating. How are you ever supposed to relax with all these thoughts buzzing in your head? To stop rumination, you just need to short-circuit your thoughts. We can do this by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
When we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, it can stop the stress response and the mind can start to cool down into a place of calm. You could go for a high intensity run. Or, if it's late in the evening, try to shift your thoughts with a meditation audio track like the one in the video below.
13. Take a cold shower or swim
One of the best ways to relax fast is to submerge yourself in cold water—a lake, ocean, river, bath, or shower. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Research has shown that spending 20 minutes in ~80 degree Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius) water significantly increased parasympathetic activity . So, if you’re in need of a fast calm boost, give this relaxation technique a try.
14. Use cognitive reappraisal
Reappraisal can help us reinterpret a stressful situation in a way that helps us feel more calm. We can improve our reappraisal skills with practice. Just reappraise the stressful situation by listing things that are good in the situation and by generating gratitude that things aren't worse.
15. Consume fewer catachols
When we are stressed, our bodies release catechols like norepinephrine and epinephrine . The catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene removes these from your body. But if your body is busy removing catechols from foods you've eaten, it'll take longer to reduce these hormones in your body.
That’s why limiting the amount of catechols in our body can be helpful for relaxation. Foods rich in catechols include green/black tea, coffee, chocolate, caffeine and anything with quercetin in it . Read more here about how to manage a slow COMT gene for greater relaxation.
16. Eat foods that promote relaxation
Foods naturally rich in magnesium and zinc are thought to help us feel calmer. Foods like salmon, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids and foods like sauerkraut or kefir, which are high in probiotics, appear to help reduce anxiety, at least in some people . But caffeine just sets you up to be unable to relax. So make sure you get these key nutrients, eat healthfully, and avoid caffeinated beverages.
17. Take online courses to learn new relaxation skills
In addition to self-help books, online courses can teach us skills that can help us manage our stress and increase relaxation. Here's some online courses that might help:
You already know just how important sleep is for human functioning. But sleep is super important for reducing stress and increasing relaxation as well. Lack of sleep can contribute to anxiety and higher levels of stress hormones like norepinephrine and epinephrine . So sleep well and sleep often.
19. Exercise outdoors
Getting exercise and going outdoors have been shown to improve well-being. Exercise increases parasympathetic activity over time. Plus, nature is the great relaxation booster. So get outside and run around a bit.
20. Get a coloring book
Adult coloring books have been shown to reducing anxiety, as long as they are sufficiently complex . So if you’re looking for a creative way to relax, try coloring in geometric designs.
21. Be self-compassionate
Being self-compassionate and attentive to your positive qualities can help you stay centered in yourself and may help you relax. Besides, all being hard on yourself does is cause extra stress. So give yourself a break and help yourself relax more easily.
There are so many relaxation techniques you could try. But don't feel like you have to try them all at once. In time, maybe you'll try them all, but for now, just do whatever works for you.
1. Charmandari, E., C. Tsigos, and G. Chrousos, Endocrinology of the stress response. Annu. Rev. Physiol., 2005. 67: p. 259-284.
2. Greeson, J. and J. Brantley, Mindfulness and anxiety disorders: Developing a wise relationship with the inner experience of fear, in Clinical handbook of mindfulness. 2009, Springer. p. 171-188.
3. Khalfa, S., et al., Effects of relaxing music on salivary cortisol level after psychological stress. ANNALS-NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, 2003. 999: p. 374-376.
4. Thirthalli, J., et al., Cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga. Indian journal of psychiatry, 2013. 55(Suppl 3): p. S405.
5. Fredrickson, B.L., et al., The undoing effect of positive emotions. Motivation and emotion, 2000. 24(4): p. 237-258.
6. Krajewski, J., M. Sauerland, and R. Wieland, Relaxation‐induced cortisol changes within lunch breaks–an experimental longitudinal worksite field study. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 2011. 84(2): p. 382-394.
7. Field, T., et al., Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 2005. 115(10): p. 1397-1413.
8. Zope, S.A. and R.A. Zope, Sudarshan kriya yoga: Breathing for health. International journal of yoga, 2013. 6(1): p. 4.
9. Mourot, L., et al., Cardiovascular autonomic control during short-term thermoneutral and cool head-out immersion. Aviation, space, and environmental medicine, 2008. 79(1): p. 14-20.
10. Singh, B., et al., Dietary quercetin exacerbates the development of estrogen-induced breast tumors in female ACI rats. Toxicology and applied pharmacology, 2010. 247(2): p. 83-90.
11. Hilimire, M.R., J.E. DeVylder, and C.A. Forestell, Fermented foods, neuroticism, and social anxiety: An interaction model. Psychiatry research, 2015. 228(2): p. 203-208.
12. Zhang, J., et al., Relationship of sleep quantity and quality with 24-hour urinary catecholamines and salivary awakening cortisol in healthy middle-aged adults. Sleep, 2011. 34(2): p. 225-233.
13. Curry, N.A. and T. Kasser, Can coloring mandalas reduce anxiety? Art Therapy, 2005. 22(2): p. 81-85.
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.