Relaxation strategies -- Simple steps to sanity

by Katherine Raymond

Relaxation techniquesSo you know you'd like to make relaxation a priority. Where do you start?

There are literally hundreds of different techniques, from simple forms of yoga to advanced meditation.

It's easy to be overwhelmed (or even stressed) by all the options. Don't be.

Relaxation is easily self-taught — you don't need to study at a Zen monastery — but it requires commitment, discipline, and a willingness to allow yourself to take the time.

Four-step guide to a more relaxed you

Step one: Get ready!

Before you start, you need to mentally prepare yourself for doing something that's solely based on your own relaxation.

Often, our own guilt about taking time for relaxation can get in the way. Those who have demanding day-to-day lives may have trouble giving themselves permission to take a break for alone time. This is particularly true for those who care for others.

Think of your relaxation time as a refueling stop, that will help you replenish your energy and allow you to be and do your best for the people who need you.

Step two: Schedule it!

Establishing a consistent daily routine is important — see if first thing in the morning or bedtime fits your rhythm better — but also look for moments to practice relaxation in the course of your day, like sitting in the car for a few minutes when you arrive at your destination. Repetition will empower you to draw on your stay-cool strategy even in the heat of a stressful situation.

Step three: Do it!

There are many different ways to relax, from doing yoga to throwing the Frisbee around. But these simple, self-directed relaxation techniques can be practiced anywhere, anytime, in a matter of minutes, to release stress and anxiety. Try different approaches to decide which suits you.

Breathing is a process we often take for granted, but becoming aware of it is one of the best ways to calm your body and mind. Try this easy guide to mindful breathing: Sit up straight — no slouching — with your hands in your lap and your feet on the floor. Focus your mind on following your breathing, from your in-breath down through the diaphragm to your exhalation out through the lips.

Progressive muscle relaxation is the technique that has been compared to medication in relieving anxiety among cancer patients. Basically, the technique consists of tensing, then releasing, the muscles of one part of your body, starting at the foot and working your way up the calf, the thigh and so on.

Meditation can be as simple as the mindful breathing exercise above, or it can take many forms. You can meditate while taking a leisurely walk, or sit quietly repeating a word or phrase like "Relax" to yourself. Many audio and literary resources, as well as groups and classes, are available to get you started on various types of meditation.

Step four: Stay with it!

Chilling out sounds like it should be easy, but for busy people, it can be challenging to sit still and not think about the to-do list waiting for you.

"Just like it takes a lot of practice to be a good athlete, it also takes a lot of practice to learn to relax well," says Dr. Mosca. "We really need to teach ourselves to relax — and to not expect to even like it at first. Be patient with it. At first it may not seem relaxing, but it'll get easier and easier every time."

Want more guidance to get started? Go to your local bookstore and browse the different types of relaxation exercise books. Then look for classes in whatever techniques seem most appealing to you.

Katherine Raymond is a freelance writer, editor and Web producer based in NYC. She has written and edited features on health, wellness, fitness and food for numerous print and on-line publications.

© 2012 Alere. All rights reserved. Last reviewed September 2012. Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.