Relaxation is a state of low tension in the mind and body. People frequently use specific procedures, called relaxation techniques, to become more relaxed.
What Is Relaxation?
Tension is a state of physical stiffness in the body that can cause pain and even emotional reactions such as anxiety. Physical relaxation aims to undo this tension and progressively relax muscles and muscle groups. Psychological relaxation occurs when the mind is relatively free of stress and distraction. People may still have stress in their lives or tasks to complete when they are psychologically relaxed, but stress and tension are not foremost in the minds of relaxed people. Psychological relaxation can affect physical relaxation, and people under stress frequently experience physical aches and pains as well as muscle tension.
Some people have more trouble with relaxation than others. People who tend toward anxiety may experience fewer states of relaxation than others. Depression, anxiety, external stress such as unemployment, diet, and drug use can all affect a person’s state of relaxation.
There are a wide variety of relaxation techniques, and some people seek help from therapists to learn how to relax. Some common relaxation techniques include:
This approach to relaxation involves using essential oils and natural fragrances to reduce stress and induce a sense of calm. Research has shown aromatherapy can be an effective relaxation strategy, with some scientifically proven essential oils for reducing stress including clary sage, geranium, lavender, and ylang ylang.
Relaxation exercises that focus on slow, deep breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing) can help people calm down if they’re experiencing anxiety, stress, or panic. Diaphragmatic breathing, even when used on its own, has been shown to greatly reduce an individual’s cortisol (the stress hormone) levels and calm strong responses to stress in the moment.
Physical activity in the form of yoga, jogging, and a variety of other exercise approaches have been shown in a wide range of studies to tame stress and anxiety. Even taking short, daily walks can help people relax.
Some individuals use herbal supplements to aid in relaxation and lessen anxiety. A study published in Nutrition Journal revealed 71% of test subjects found that passionflower and kava extracts helped them reduce symptoms of anxiety. While some experts suggest relaxation attributed to herbal remedies may be due to the placebo effect, others find that taking certain supplements is indeed effective.
There are many types of and approaches to meditation, but most of them involve using a quiet, comfortable space and focus to calm the mind and body. Multiple studies have shown that meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, may help improve anxiety symptoms.
There are many types of massage. The practice of massage often focuses on physically helping people reduce many types of muscle tension, including tension caused by stress or anxiety. While more research is needed to show that massage can effect long-term stress reduction, at least one study has shown that cortisol levels are lower after a massage session.
Anti-anxiety medication may be one component of mental health treatment for an anxiety disorder. When used appropriately, medication may help some individuals achieve relaxation and get relief from tension. There are many types of anti-anxiety medications, so it’s important to consult with a licensed mental health professional to learn which one might be most effective for you.
Some people listen to music they find relaxing in order to achieve a sense of calm, reduce tension, or soothe sadness or anxiety. Listening to music has been shown to reduce stress via the autonomic nervous system, meaning it may be most effective at reducing stress when it impacts a person’s heart rate, blood pressure, and other physical responses that are often associated with stress or anxiety, such as sweating and shaking.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is commonly used to combat muscle tension that may occur as a result of anxiety or stress. This exercise involves tensing and relaxing one part of the body at a time. A study published in Biological Psychology showed that progressive muscle relaxation lowered stress, anxiety, and cortisol levels in test subjects.
Relaxation in Therapy
In some types of therapy, relaxation exercises play a key role. As relaxation may help soothe the symptoms of a variety of mental health issues, a counselor may teach you certain relaxation techniques or assign them as therapy “homework.”
Some common forms of therapy in which relaxation is a key component include:
Also known as autogenic relaxation, this relaxation technique is similar to progressive muscle relaxation. Autogenic relaxation may be done during a therapy session and involves calming breathing techniques and meditation to achieve relaxation. A 2002 study found that autogenic training helped with headaches, hypertension, anxiety, depression, and sleep issues.
Biofeedback uses electric sensors to help people understand their body’s response to different thoughts. It may help people connect effective coping mechanisms or healthy, relaxation-promoting thoughts with reduced tension within their body by displaying the body’s various responses through biofeedback equipment.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
As CBT is often used to help people recognize and confront unhealthy thought patterns and replace them with functional ones, it may also help people root out thought habits that contribute to tension. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) may also help reduce anxiety and stress.
Guided therapeutic imagery
During guided therapeutic imagery, a therapist helps someone envision a relaxing scenario. A study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management found guided imagery and relaxation were just as effective as progressive muscle relaxation in reducing pain. Another study found that guided imagery increased self-esteem and reduced anxiety in postpartum mothers.
During a hypnotherapy session, the therapist may typically help the person in therapy relax and may give them a phrase to use (called a “suggestion”) to induce self-hypnosis, or a state of relaxation, when feeling tense. Research supports the effectiveness of hypnosis in reducing anxiety and calming somatic symptoms caused by stress.
Difficulty achieving relaxation can lead to serious physical and mental health issues including anxiety, chronic fatigue, headaches, chronic pain, sleep disorders, hypertension, and more. With the help of a compassionate mental health professional, you can explore the roots of your tension and learn new skills and relaxation techniques you can use to gain a deeper sense of calm and greater health and well-being. Find a therapist near me.
Relaxation for Mental Health: How to Relax Your Mind
It’s common for mental health issues to cause tension in the body. However, tension can also be brought on by stressors that occur over the course of a person’s life, such as taking a test or evaluation, interviewing for a job, or raising children. When tension arises as a result of a mental health issue or stressor, it may help to choose some relaxation techniques that work for you and practice them regularly.
Individuals with anxiety or who are prone to panic attacks may need help relaxing in the moment if their anxiety response becomes overpowering. One tool often touted as one of the most effective strategies for relaxing or coming down from a panic attack is to breathe. A common breathing exercise for relaxation is to take a deep breath from your abdomen (not your chest) and inhale through your nose for a full breath. Then, exhale through your mouth slowly till the end of the breath. Repeat until your body begins to relax.
Those who experience social anxiety or someone preparing for a job interview may also find they have trouble relaxing. In addition to deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises, some people find repeating certain thoughts or affirmations to themselves may help them begin to relax. When stress is caused by a known fear or worry about a specific situation, confronting the anxiety-causing thoughts may be the first step to relaxation.
Repeating positive affirmations, such as, “Things will work out for me,” or “I’m going to be okay,” have been proven to help people relax. One study found that in mothers about to go into labor, repeating affirmations had a marked impact on their anxiety levels, allowing them to achieve more relaxation while in labor.
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Last Updated: 06-7-2019
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Richard H.September 11th, 2017 at 3:37 PM
What is the best way to relax when feeling depressed?
EmmaAugust 28th, 2020 at 12:47 AM
This is definitely a great post. What I liked the most is that you have given references along, which have actually helped me in getting deeper into the topic. Thanks a lot!
A. MarrJanuary 29th, 2022 at 11:29 AM
How Self-Motivation or Self-Control can be derived from the simple act of resting, an explanation and procedure from basic affective neuroscience
The neuroscience of rest is generally omitted in the psychology of motivation, but its neurology is arguably key to our capacity for self-motivation and a sense of purpose and positive feeling or happiness. This can easily be explained neurologically and demonstrated procedurally.
Rest, or the generalized inactivity of the covert musculature, is simple to describe as a somatic or bodily state, but is much more complex as a neurologic state. For one thing, it is pleasurable. The reduction of perseverative cognition (worry, regret, distraction) through meditation, eyes closed rest, or just walking on a beach thinking of nothing gives the musculature the time to completely relax, and this state of persistent or profound relaxation elicits a state of pleasure or mild euphoria due to the concomitant and sustained elicitation of endogenous opioids (or endorphins) in the brain. The sustained increase of endogenous opioids also down regulates opioid receptors, and thus inhibits the salience or reward value of other substances (food, alcohol, drugs) that otherwise increase opioid levels, and therefore reduces cravings. Profound relaxation also mitigates our sensitivity to pain and inhibits tension. In this way, relaxation causes pleasure, enhances self-control, counteracts and inhibits stress, reduces pain, and provides for a feeling of satisfaction and equanimity that is the hallmark of the so-called meditative state.
However, pleasure from a neurologic viewpoint is not a simple thing. Groups of opioid neurons or ‘nuclei’ populate a tiny region of the neural real estate in the midbrain, and as ‘hot spots’ are collectively no larger than the eraser on a pencil. Yet they are highly sensitive to inputs from different sources in the brain. One of the primary inputs come from dopaminergic neurons, whose nuclei are adjacent to opioid neurons. The axons for dopaminergic neurons project from the midbrain to the cortex, and dopamine systems are highly sensitive to cortically processed information, namely novel and positive act-outcome expectancies or surprises that populate our days. Dopamine is a neuromodulator, or a type of neurotransmitter that activates arrays of neurons in the cortex, and is responsible for learning and motivation. Dopamine induces attentive arousal, but not pleasure, but it can indirectly increase pleasure if it occurs concurrently with the co-activation of opioid systems. For example, eat a very tasty treat, and dopamine activity will increase as you snap to attention in response to the pleasure. Conversely, the florid description of a bottle of wine will make the wine taste better because of an increase in dopaminergic activity that in turn increases opioid levels in the brain (this is also the mechanism behind the placebo effect where positive expectations change affect). In sum, opioid and dopamine systems are synergistic, and if concurrently activated will co-activate each other.
So what does this have to do with resting and motivation?
Since resting protocols (e.g. mindfulness, eyes closed rest, meditation) induces opioid activity, that activity will be accentuated if an individual concurrently and persistently thinks of and pursues meaningful behavior (meaning will be defined as thinking of or doing actions that have branching novel positive implications, or a variant of positive thinking). Since meaningful behavior induces dopamine release, this establishes a ‘virtuous’ neurological circuit, when rest can be merged with meaning and lead to pleasurably aroused states or even ecstasy. We can infer these processes from variants of meditation such as ‘loving kindness’ meditation and savoring, as well as peak and ‘flow’ experiences where highly meaningful activity is coupled with non-stressed or resting states. Above all, meaningful behavior is productive behavior that has positive novel and unfolding implications, and when associated with positive affect from rest, can become in a sense ‘autotelic’ or rewarding in itself, allowing us to control our behavior through self-induced positive affect. By coming to terms with the neurologic reality of relaxation, we can realize it’s possibilities as essential to daily life and to self-control that make life worthwhile, pleasurable, productive, and ‘happy’,
As an academically trained and published psychologist, but a layman, you can pursue a much more expansive argument for a lay audience in my two open-source books and journal article below on the psychology of rest and the psychology of incentive motivation.
Also, my arguments above are not new science, but a new interpretation of the research of the distinguished affective neuroscientist Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan, who was kind to vet my books for accuracy and to provide endorsements in their preface.
Meditation and Rest- The American Psychologist/David Holmes
The Psychology of Rest and Meditation, from the International Journal of Stress Management, by this author
For an excellent take on opioid and dopamine systems and how they act and interact, see
The Joyful Mind: Kringelbach and Berridge
A more formal explanation of this procedure from affective neuroscience is provided on pp. 44-52 in a little open-source book on the psychology of rest linked below. Flow is discussed on pp. 82-87
‘A Mouse’s Tale’ Learning theory for a lay audience from the perspective of modern affective neuroscience
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