Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT
Written by Jessica Caporuscio, Pharm.D.
Some people who experience stress and anxiety practice relaxation techniques to help them feel better. There is a wide variety of relaxation techniques that people can try, but they may not be appropriate for everyone.
Relaxation techniques can involve deep concentration and slow breathing. Some techniques involve contracting and relaxing muscles to stimulate feelings of calm, while others require a person to use their imagination.
Keep reading to learn more about different relaxation techniques.
When a person is calm, they breathe more slowly, have lower blood pressure, and may experience a general feeling of increased well-being. Relaxation techniques stimulate these natural calming responses.
Some people prefer to work with expert practitioners, but others learn to do them on their own.
Different relaxation techniques include:
Autogenic training is a system that may stimulate psychological and physical calmness. It involves slowing and controlling the breath and teaching the body to respond to verbal instructions.
During practice, a person concentrates on the physical sensations of different parts of their body by focusing on the sensations of warmth, heaviness, and relaxation.
Some people will require guidance from an experienced practitioner, but others choose to do it themselves.
Autogenic training might be beneficial for some people, but should not replace their usual medication or therapy.
This technique involves using electronic devices to measure different bodily functions, such as temperature of the skin, pulse rate, or tension in the muscles. Its aim is to help a person to control or relax a specific part of the body.
The therapy involves attaching sensors to a specific part of the body, which produce measurements as a person relaxes. A person can then use the feedback to help them make changes where necessary, such as relaxing a particular muscle.
Although most biofeedback-assisted relaxation takes place in specialist therapy clinics, some portable machines are available to buy. However, a person should always check with a healthcare provider before purchasing these products to ensure that they are safe to use.
Deep breathing exercises
Breathing exercises can also help a person feel relaxed.
Deep breathing involves taking slow, deep, and even breaths. Box breathing is one breathing exercise that some people find useful, and most people do not require professional guidance.
Box breathing requires four simple steps:
Step 1: Start by breathing in through the nose for a count of 2–4 seconds.
Step 2: Then, hold the breath for a count of 2–4 seconds.
Step 3: Breath out for a count of 2–4 seconds.
Step 4: Finally, hold breath again for another count of 2–4 seconds
Repeat as necessary.
Guided imagery involves replacing negative or stressful feelings by visualizing pleasant and calming scenarios. Some people might prefer the assistance of a healthcare professional or a recording, while others choose to practice by themselves.
Guided imagery involves three steps:
Step 1: Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Ideally, choose a space with few distractions.
Step 2: Visualize a relaxing environment by remembering one from memory or imagine a new one. Think about elements of the environment, using the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
Step 3: Sustain the visualization for as long as required, taking slow, deep breaths and focusing on calm feelings.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Doctors sometimes call this Jacobson relaxation. The technique involves tightening and relaxing various muscle groups to stimulate feelings of calmness and relaxation.
Sometimes people use progressive muscle relaxation alongside other techniques, such as guided imagery or deep breathing.
This is a relatively physical technique, and people must take care not to overwork or strain their muscles. It is also important to take deep, slow breaths while following the steps. A person might have to practice progressive muscle relaxation for a couple of weeks before they get the hang of it and begin to feel results.
Progressive muscle relaxation has eight steps.
Step 1: Choose a room with minimal distractions and sit or lie down comfortably.
Step 2: Start by contracting the muscles in the foot for 5 seconds and releasing the contraction over 10 seconds. Focusing on relieving the tension and feeling the muscles relax can stimulate calmness. To avoid leg cramps, splay out the toes, rather than curling them.
Step 3: Contract and relax the muscles of the lower legs for the same amount of time.
Step 4: Now, do the same thing with the hips and buttocks.
Step 5: Next, concentrate on the muscles of the stomach and chest.
Step 6: After exercising the torso, contract and relax the shoulders.
Step 7: The face muscles are next. People can contract their face by squeezing their eyes shut for 5 seconds and then releasing over 10 seconds.
Step 8: Finally, relax the hand. Create a fist and hold the contraction for 5 seconds and slowly release over 10 seconds.
Benefits of relaxation techniques
Doctors suggest that relaxing may benefit people who are managing a variety of different health conditions, including:
Pregnant women may benefit from relaxation techniques, including yoga, music, and breathing techniques during labor.
Although there appears to be insufficient evidence to show how much relaxation techniques can help reduce pain during labor, a 2019 systematic review notes that they can help women in labor bond with birth supporters.
The American Heart Association (AHA) conducted a systematic review of the potential benefits of meditation on the reduction of cardiovascular risk.
They concluded that although there is not much research, meditation may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease as it can help people reduce stress, quit smoking, and lower blood pressure.
An article in American Family Physician recommends relaxation techniques to help manage insomnia.
Some people may require relaxation therapy and medication to improve sleep.
According to a 2018 article in Frontiers in Psychiatry, deep breathing alongside other relaxation techniques might help people fall asleep.
People who experience nausea due to chemotherapy may also benefit from relaxation techniques.
Researchers studied the effect of guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation. These techniques may complement the traditional medical management of nausea.
According to a 2016 systematic review, some people experiencing chronic pain may find meditation beneficial. The review noted that mindfulness meditation might help reduce pain and depression.
However, there is not much quality research to support the theory that relaxation techniques can help to reduce chronic pain significantly.
Temporomandibular joint pain
Temporomandibular joint pain (TMJ) is associated with pain in the jaw. It is often due to a person overtightening their jaw muscles when they are stressed or even during sleep. Using a dental appliance at night can help reduce the discomfort and block some of the jaw clamping.
Some people live with tinnitus, which is a persistent ringing in the ears. Tinnitus may be a symptom of TMJ.
Researchers suggest that relaxation therapy in general and mindfulness meditation, in particular, seems to be effective in managing tinnitus.
People with a dysfunction of the temporomandibular joint in the jaw can experience intense pain.
Researchers suggest that people could try progressive muscle relaxation alongside other traditional medical treatments to reduce pain.
Risks of relaxation techniques
Doctors may recommend relaxation techniques because they consider them to be generally safe.
However, some people may experience side effects, including increased anxiety, intrusive thoughts, or fears of losing control.
Research suggests that relaxation techniques may help reduce anxiety in some people. However, it may not be the best strategy to help people with generalized anxiety disorder or major depression.
Researchers studied the effects of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and relaxation on anxiety.
They found that relaxation is less effective than CBT for treating post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. They also think that people who have panic disorder may find CBT more beneficial than some other relaxation techniques.
It is important to remember that relaxation techniques require practice before they become effective, so a person should not expect them to work immediately.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) notes that some relaxation techniques may cause or worsen symptoms in people with epilepsy, certain psychiatric conditions, or a history of abuse or trauma. However, this is rare.
When to seek medical help
Depression and anxiety are conditions that require medical attention.
Although some symptoms may improve with relaxation strategies, people experiencing long-lasting symptoms should speak to a doctor to get the appropriate care. Some people with symptoms of depression and anxiety may require medication.
Symptoms of anxiety may include:
- heart palpitations
- feelings of doom or being out of control
- problems sleeping
Symptoms of depression may include:
- changes in appetite and weight
- difficulty concentrating
- feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- feelings of hopelessness and sadness
Healthcare professionals can also recommend medications or stress reduction techniques to help people cope with stress.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing should call 1-800-799-4889.
Relaxation techniques may offer many benefits, including reducing anxiety, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, and controlling nausea during chemotherapy. However, the evidence for its effectiveness is currently limited or inconsistent.
There is a variety of relaxation techniques that a person can try to find the ones that work for them.
However, not everyone will benefit from relaxation techniques. People with epilepsy or other mental health problems should speak to a doctor before trying any relaxation strategy.
Although relaxation may help alleviate some symptoms of depression and anxiety in some people, others may require medication as well.