Don’t know how to relax? “Toxic productivity” might be a reason why. In this The Healthy article, Mindpath Health’s Elisabeth Netherton, MD, explains how and why to slow down if you’re constantly in motion.

Have a tough time relaxing? You might even actually consider this hustling-to-a-fault trait to simply be part of who you are. But it may be time for a breather.

In March 2022, a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that inflation, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine had led Americans to experience stress at what the APA called “alarming” levels. Being so in our heads, on our phones, and on-the-go comes with consequences: a growing body of research on stress has shown its links to heart problems, mental health, and even brain development.

Even for the most contentedly industrious among us, learning how to relax can bring some much-needed tranquility. Psychologist Haley Perlus, PhD, says there are a few types of people who find it tough to relax. Unfortunately, this can turn unhealthy, fast. Dr. Perlus says these people focus more on checking boxes off a never-ending to-do list than taking time to be still and recharge.

For others, the inability to relax is related to anxiety. “Some people suffer from a generalized anxiety disorder, where they experience anxiety even under the most relaxing circumstances,” says Dr. Perlus. If you’ve ever had trouble focusing on a good massage or just lying on the beach without your mind racing, you might fall within this category.

What are ways to relax naturally?

Elisabeth Netherton, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, says everyday activities can help you relax naturally. “Take a walk, listen to music, take a warm bath, hold a pet, schedule time free from electronics, bake, do a puzzle, draw, or try therapy,” she suggests.

But if life doesn’t quite afford you those quiet luxuries, consider these techniques instead.

10 Ways to Relax

1. Box breathing

While there are many deep breathing exercises, box breathing is the most beneficial for relaxation. This technique can be implemented before, during, or after stressful experiences. Box breathing doesn’t require a calm environment to be effective and consists of four simple steps. (Note: visualize a box with four equal sides while you engage in this exercise.)

  • Step 1: Breathe in through the nose for a count of four.
  • Step 2: Hold breath for a count of four.
  • Step 3: Breath out for a count of four.
  • Step 4: Hold breath for a count of four.

2. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)

Progressive muscle relaxation targets tension associated with anxiety. The exercise involves tensing and releasing muscles progressively throughout the body and focusing on the release of the muscle as the relaxation phase.

  • Step 1: Sit or lie down comfortably in a space with minimal distractions.
  • Step 2: Starting at the feet, curl your toes and tense the muscles in your feet. Hold for five seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds.
  • Step 3: Tense the muscles in the lower legs. Hold for five seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds.
  • Step 4: Tense the muscles in the hips and buttocks. Hold for five seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds.
  • Step 5: Tense the muscles in the stomach and chest. Hold for five seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds.
  • Step 6: Tense the muscles in the shoulders. Hold for five seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds.
  • Step 7: Tense the muscles in the face (for example, squeeze your eyes shut). Hold for five seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds.
  • Step 8: Tense your hand muscles, creating a fist. Hold for five seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds.

3. Guided imagery

This technique involves visualizing tranquil settings to help manage stress and remove distractions from intrusive thoughts. Guided imagery uses all five senses to create a more profound sense of relaxation with the following three steps:

  • Step 1: Sit or lie down in a comfortable space with minimal distractions.
  • Step 2: Visualize a relaxing environment, either from memory or imagination. Use the following prompts to bring forth elements of the environment using all five senses:
    • What do you see?
    • What do you hear?
    • What do you smell?
    • What do you taste?
    • What do you feel?
  • Step 3: Keep visualizing as long as needed while taking slow, deep breaths. Focus on the feelings of calm associated with being in a relaxing environment.

4. Meditation

Learning how to meditate can calm the mind and enhance self-awareness, mental awareness, and environmental awareness. Meditation allows you to observe your thoughts and emotions in a detached, non-judgmental way.

Systematic reviews of meditation have shown benefits in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.

5. Mindfulness-based stress reduction

Mindfulness means tuning in and becoming aware of the present moment. Observing the moment and allowing thoughts to flow without attachment results in calm, stillness, and relaxation.

6. Exercise

Exercise is nature’s feel-good drug. “Exercise reduces stress, anxiety, and levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline,” says Dr. Perlus. “It increases the production of endorphins which are mood elevators.”

7. Go for a walk in the sun

Getting fresh air and moving your body for 10 minutes can clear your mind and help you relax. Vitamin D from sun exposure can help boost your mood instantly.

8. Find your purpose

“One way to manage stress is to find your purpose and recognize what speaks to you,” advises Dr. Perlus.

9. Take a break from your smartphone

“Many of us are overly dependent on our phones or computers,” says Dr. Perlus. “Using them too much or too long can increase stress levels, and studies have shown this.”

10. Control only what you can

Instead of stressing out about the future, Dr. Perlus recommends shifting your focus to what’s within your control. This can include cleaning your space, clearing your head, exercising, and doing things to help you relax.

Read the full The Healthy article with sources.

Elisabeth Netherton, M.D.

Houston, TX

Dr. Elisabeth Netherton focuses on women’s mental health and personality disorders across the lifespan. Dr. Netherton understands the challenges women face and has experience in prescribing women during pregnancy and postpartum. She believes it is incredibly meaningful to see mothers feel better because this positively impacts them and their children. Dr. Netherton wants her patients to feel empowered and consider ... Read Full Bio »

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