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We all love to chill out after a tiring or stressful day. But true relaxation encompasses more than lounging on the couch with a game of Wordle. It’s not just about keeping physical activity to a minimum, real rest also means letting go of tension in your body and quieting your racing mind.
At the same time, relaxation does have to be – nor should it be – an elaborate practice you only do occasionally, by getting a massage or taking a mental health day.
Real rest refers to any activity that activates your body’s natural relaxation response. The relaxation response acts like a built-in tranquilizer: it helps your autonomic nervous system to return to a calm state after being exposed to stress.
You see, whenever your body perceives any kind of danger, it prepares itself to run away or fight back if necessary. Your sympathetic nervous system gets activated, releasing cortisol and adrenaline into your bloodstream and increasing your heart rate and blood flow to your arms and legs, so you’re ready to take action.
This fight-or-flight response worked really well when our ancestors lived among dangerous animals, but nowadays, more innocent events like deadlines at work, traffic jams and arguments with loved ones trigger the same stress response. And the problem is, these modern stressors also don’t go away as easily as wolves and snakes did – they keep lingering in the back of your mind. This stops your body’s natural relaxation response from kicking in (in time), building up to chronic stress, which in turn leads to all kinds of physical, mental and emotional health problems.
Thankfully, there are ways you can activate the relaxation response, during which your parasympathetic nervous system takes over and lets your blood pressure, heart rate, digestive functioning and hormonal levels return to normal. All you need are 3 key ingredients:
- relax your muscles in your body
- slow down your heart rate and breathing
- calm your mind.
Let’s take a look at 12 simple practices you can easily add to your routines – even if you’re chronically ill – that activate your relaxation response.
12 Simple Practices that Activate Your Relaxation Response
1. A tea ritual
There’s no escaping it: we all have to drink several glasses of fluids per day to stay hydrated and keep functioning. But how often do you really pay attention to how and what you’re drinking? Instead of mindlessly downing your next cup, you could get inspired by beautiful tea rituals from around the world. From traditional Japanese green tea ceremonies to steeping Moroccan mint tea and Indian chai, teatime means a lot more than mere hydration.
So make your cup of tea with full attention: no talking on the phone, listening to music or multitasking, but simply noticing the aroma, the warmth of the teapot and your mug, the motions of your arms. Of course, this practice also works with coffee, matcha latte or any other cozy warm drink.
Even short but sweet mindfulness exercises like a tea ritual can lower your stress levels, reduce rumination and promote better regulation of your emotions. So take a few minutes each day to mindfully prepare and drink your tea or coffee.
Did you love to daydream as a child? Your imagination is more powerful than you may realize. Your thought patterns trigger the release of matching neurochemicals – getting your body ready for action when you’re angry or giving you butterflies in your stomach when you can’t stop fantasizing about that hot guy or girl. That’s why visualizing peaceful scenarios can be such a helpful tool to activate your relaxation response.
And the great thing is, you can practice visualizations anytime anywhere. It does work best if you can find a quiet spot to sit or lie down and close your eyes, especially if you’re new to this practice.
Next, imagine yourself being in a serene place: on a tropical island, in the woods or lying in the grass looking at the starry sky – whatever you find relaxing. Use all your senses to create a lively mental picture: feel the sun on your skin and the sand between your toes, taste the saltiness of the ocean air on your lips, hear the waves and sea gulls, smell the exotic flowers. Envision yourself sitting on that tropical beach, safely, secure and loved, letting go off tension and worries with every exhale.
If you have a hard time vividly picturing yourself by the shoreline with rustling palm trees in the background, the patented Flowly app will immerse you in peaceful virtual realities scientifically designed to move your body and mind into a state of deep relaxation.
3. Gentle yoga
It’s no wonder yoga is the poster practice for relaxation: science confirms that going through these ancient poses reduces chronic stress and anxiety and improves sleep by soothing tension in your body and mind. The slow breathing during yoga is also known to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn enhances your overall mental and physical wellbeing.
So one proven way to activate your relaxation response is by doing restorative yoga before bed – or even in bed. Depending on your mobility and mood, you can gently stretch your spine with cat/cow pose or unwind with reclined twists. Sleepy Santosha features over a 100 accessible yoga routines to try, including bedtime yoga and yoga nidra. Also check out the resting positions coming up at the end of this article (see #12) to relax your body from head to toe.
Of course, you could also start your day on a calming note by doing a series of (modified) sun salutations in the morning.
4. Gratitude journaling
You may not be aware of it, but rumination – going over and over problems in your mind – is one of the biggest predictors of mental health problems. It’s how chronic stress builds up over time: you stay in fight-or-flight mode long after the stressful event has passed.
That’s were journaling may come in handy. Trusting your feelings to paper helps to relieve stress, reflect on your problems and come up with solutions. But aside from acting as a brain dump, you could also take up gratitude journaling about the things that are good in your life. By listing at least 3 things that went well each day, you train your brain to start noticing more and more positive things.
And when you focus more on the positive side of life, there’s automatically less room in your mind to constantly replay arguments you’ve had or mistakes you’ve made. By reducing this rumination, you give your body’s natural relaxation response the time it needs to kick in and calm your nervous system.
5. Walking meditation
A walking meditation sounds like a zen-inspired activity you can only do in a quiet forest, but it really is nothing more than focusing your attention on the physical sensations you experience during a walk. By tuning into how your body feels, you get out of your nonstop-thinking head and it becomes easier to let go off build-up tension in your hips, shoulders and jaws.
As you’re strolling through the park or down the hallway, notice how your weight and balance shift from one foot onto the other. Mentally zoom in on a single stride: feel how your heel touches the pavement, before your foot rolls forward onto the balls and toes, and lifts off the ground again. Sense how your arms subtly sway along your body, or maybe your back and shoulders are slightly hunched over. Gently adjust your posture and stride to feel as comfortable as possible.
You can easily combine walking meditations with your usual activities like walking the dog or running errands on foot, but obviously it’s best to do only practice this in places where you don’t have to concentrate on traffic or other safety issues.
A final tip: a walking meditation is known to calm your mind. But if tuning into your body sensations makes you feel more anxious than zen, you can infuse your daily walks with natural mindfulness by paying attention to all the sights, sounds and smells around you instead of within you.
6. A warm bath
What’s nicer after a long day than a warm bath? From the ancient Roman bath houses to the hot springs in Iceland, all throughout history people have turned to the calming qualities of water to ease the tension in their bodies and minds. That’s not so surprising, given that taking a warm bath actually improves your blood circulation, soothes sore muscles and joints, calms your nervous system, and helps you fall asleep.
You can turn your tub time into an even more relaxing nighttime routine by adding epsom salt, calming herbal and floral blends or essential oils. Dimmed lights, perhaps some soft music on and the warm water will do the rest.
7. Breath work
Did you know that your breath is one of the quickest ways to regulate your nervous system?
Whereas quick, shallow breathing triggers your sympathetic nervous system to get ready for action, long and deep breaths send a signal to your brain to activate the parasympathetic’s relaxation response. That’s why deep belly breathing improves your heart and lung functions, promotes good sleep and helps to reduce pain.
And the best thing is: you can do breath work wherever and whenever you want, without anyone noticing. That makes breathing exercises easy to implement in your daily life. You can do a quick alternate nostril breathing before turning on your laptop in the morning, practice the 4-7-8 breathing technique while doing the dishes at night or simply lengthen your exhale whenever you think of it.
8. Slow movement
Who says you have to sit still to relax? Slow forms of movement done with awareness can release tension from your body, reduce pain and disability, and therefore improve overall quality of life. Think of it as mindfulness in motion: studies suggest that, by turning your attention to how you move, slow movement seems to activate the relaxation response.
Moving your body slowly and deliberately, like in tai chi, qigong and certain styles of yoga, combines exercising with controlled breathing and mental focus to reach better fitness and a balanced state of mind. You could also consider slow, intuitive dancing and gardening to ground you in the present moment.
9. Nature time
Explorer and naturalist John Muir famously said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” And science shows he wasn’t wrong.
Spending time in nature helps to relieve stress by lowering your blood pressure and cortisol levels, reduce anxiety and depression, and activate your natural relaxation response. Being in green surroundings not only eases mental fatigue but even improves your cognitive functioning. More so, immersing yourself in the woods, by soaking up the natural beauty with your five senses (known as forest bathing), can boost your immunity for up to a month after your visit. Pretty impressive, right?
To get these health benefits, recent studies show that you should spend at least two hours a week outdoors. That may sound like a lot, but thankfully, you don’t have to reach those 120 minutes of nature time in a single visit, but you can spread them out over the week. What’s more, you don’t have to walk, hike, cycle or kayak to boost your health with nature therapy – simply sitting in natural areas will do. Take a look at these 10 accessible strategies how you can get your nature therapy in despite the obstacles of chronic illness you may be facing.
As much as I love the convenience of technology, especially for people with chronic illness, our electronic devices definitely come with downsides. Besides the well-known health concerns like bad posture, weight gain, eye strain and poor sleep, having on-demand entertainment in our pockets has also taken away those natural boring moments in our days we used to have to daydream, collect our thoughts and connect the dots for creative ideas.
But now, most of us – myself included – are tempted to grab our phones the second we have to wait in line, at the doctors office or for the train to come. We leave little time for reflection, distract ourselves from unpleasant feelings instead of solving them, and miss out on deeper connections and more gratifying activities in the long run.
By going screen-free for a few hours or day(s), you give your mind a break from the constant stream of notifications and information coming at you all day long. As Mary Gomes, professor in psychology, puts it: “Our moment-to-moment experience is being fragmented on an unprecedented scale.” Studies show that breaking away from your electronic devices reduces stress, improves mental focus, learning and productivity, as well as improve your quality of sleep. Plus, when you remove easy distractions like scrolling through social media or watching your favorite shows, you’re probably more likely to do one of the other truly relaxing practices on this list!
So try screen-free Sundays, unplug 1 hour before bed time, have tech-free zones (like the dinner table and bedroom) or go on a (social) media fast, whatever works for you.
11. A mindful body scan
All day long, we’re so busy processing conversations, media and to-do lists, that we hardly stop to pay attention to how this input is affecting us. Tuning into your body allows you to pick up signs of stress, pain and exhaustion before these symptoms become (too) serious.
A mindful body scan is a simple but effective way to get in touch with your body again and really notice what you’re sensing, without judgement. More so, this practice releases tension from your body, leading to less pain and better sleep.
While you’re sitting or laying down comfortably, your mind will go on a guided tour from your toes to your head, pausing at each part and paying attention to what you’re feeling. Starting at your feet and working your way up, you focus on the sensations in every part of your body. Notice exactly where your arms and back touch the chair or mattress, whether you feel warm or cold, heavy or light, relaxed or cramped up. When you come across tension or tightness, try to relax your muscles by mentally zooming in on that area and breathing out slowly. Don’t be surprised if this releases some build-up emotions too.
When you’ve become used to performing mindful body scans, you can practice them while taking a shower, sitting behind your desk or cooking dinner. That way, you can easily activate your relaxation response throughout the day without anyone noticing.
12. Resting positions.
Let’s be honest: we all love to lounge on the couch after (or on) a tiring day. But did you know that certain postures could help you rest and recharge much more deeply and effectively?
Simple yoga poses like Savasana, Legs-up-the-wall Pose, Child’s Pose and Happy Baby all balance your nervous system and allow you to do deep passive stretching to ease sore muscles. You can use all kinds of props – blocks, blankets, bolsters – to support these resting positions and slowly but fully relax in the stretch.
You’ll find many online guides and videos online showing you step by step how to do restorative yoga at home. However, if you suffer from serious health problems, you might first want to practice under supervision of a qualified instructor to learn how to align your body correctly.
Hopefully, this list of simple practices has shown you that you can activate your relaxation response anytime, anywhere, without any expensive tools needed. I’d love to know, do you make an effort to truly relax your body and mind every day, and what is your favorite way to balance your nervous system?
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