Active Relaxation: An Antidote to Stress


Stress is an inevitable and unavoidable part of life, but suffering the harmful effects of it doesn’t have to be. In fact, within each of us lies a natural stress-defense system, and with a little practice it can be accessed easily and frequently. The relaxation response is a state of deep yet mentally-active rest. Unlike laying on the couch, sleeping, or zoning out in front of the television, this type of relaxation leaves you feeling calm yet energized and alert. Activation of the relaxation response has been shown to increase energy and focus, combat illness, relieve aches and pains, heighten mental alertness, and boost motivation and productivity. Think of it as a natural alternative to a cup of coffee, without the adverse effects of caffeine.

Next time life has you feeling stressed and overwhelmed, skip the Starbucks line and resist the temptation to crash on the couch – the following techniques will have you feeling blissed-out in no time!

A wide variety of techniques can be used to evoke the relaxation response. In this post, we’ll highlight three techniques that we find particularly user-friendly: deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga.

Getting the most out of your relaxation practice

When choosing a relaxation technique, it’s important to consider your specific needs and preferences. The right technique is the one that resonates with you and best fits your lifestyle. If you crave solitude, solo relaxation practices such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation will most benefit you. If increased social interaction appeals to you, a class setting (such as an instructor-led yoga session) may give you the stimulation and support you’re looking for.

Regardless of which technique(s) you choose to adopt, the most important aspect of maintaining a relaxation practice is the commitment to incorporate it into your daily routine. Schedule a set time either once or twice daily, allotting a minimum of 5 to 10 minutes for each relaxation session. Remember, the longer and more frequently you engage in your relaxation technique, the more benefits you’ll reap. Keeping this in mind, you may find that you most enjoy and benefit from 20 to 30 minute relaxation sessions. When choosing a time of day, take into account that these techniques work best when you’re fully alert and awake.

Deep Breathing

With its focus on full, cleansing breaths, deep breathing is a simple yet powerful relaxation too. It’s easy to learn, can be practiced almost anywhere, and can quickly restore stress levels back to baseline. All you really need is a few minutes and a place to stretch out.

A key component of deep breathing is to breathe from the abdomen, rather than your upper chest. When you take deep, slow breaths from the abdomen, you inhale more oxygen. By increasing your oxygen intake, you’ll likely experience an increase in your energy level and cognitive function, as well as a reduction in anxiety and tension.

  • Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  • Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little. Aim to slowly inhale for a count of 5 seconds.
  • Exhale through your nose, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but the other hand should move very little. Aim to exhale slowly for a count of 8 seconds.
  • Continue to breathe in and out through your nose. Count slowly with each inhale and exhale. Allow your mind to quiet, as you focus only on each inhale and exhale. Each time your thoughts begin to wander (this happens to everyone, so don’t stress!), calmly return your attention to your breathing and counting.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation, commonly referred to as PMR, is a two-step process that utilizes the physical body in order to relax the mind. Beginning at the feet, practitioners systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body.

With regular practice, PMR familiarizes you with what tension – as well as complete relaxation – feels like in different parts of the body. This awareness allows you to notice and counteract the first signs of the physical tension that accompanies stress. And, as evidenced by this practice, when your body relaxes, so will your mind.

  • Loosen your clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable.
  • Take a few minutes to relax, breathing in and out slowly and deeply.
  • Once you’re relaxed, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to notice how it feels.
  • Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
  • Relax your right foot. Focus on the tension flowing away and the way your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
  • Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, continuing your deep breathing.
  • When you’re ready, shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
  • Move slowly up through your body – calfs, thighs, hips and buttocks, stomach, chest, back, hands, arms, neck, shoulders, and face –  contracting and relaxing muscle groups as you go.


Yoga is an incredible stress relief technique, and another way to tap into and strengthen your relaxation response. It involves a series of both moving and stationary poses, but the main focus of any yoga practice is always the breath. Similar to progressive muscle relaxation, yoga draws upon both the physical body and the mind to achieve an all-encompassing state of relaxation. The combination of deep, cleansing breathes and physical movement serve to quiet the mind and relax the body.

What type of yoga is best for combatting stress?

You’ll want to look for a yoga variation with an emphasis on the mental side of the practice, as opposed to the physical side. “Power yoga” or “hot yoga” tend to focus more on the fitness aspect and can be very rigorous in nature. Try taking a Hatha or Yin class, or anything labeled as “slow flow” or “gentle”.

It’s important to consider any medical issues before joining a yoga class, as injuries or physical pain are definitely not conducive to stress-relief. Always check with your doctor before beginning a new yoga or fitness routine. With that being said, don’t be discouraged by your age or fitness level – there are yoga classes tailored to meet almost anyone’s needs! Among the many variations are prenatal yoga, yoga for seniors, chair yoga (for those not comfortable getting on the ground), and adaptive yoga (modified yoga for those with disabilities).

Discovering the relaxation practice that works best for you is a personal journey and choice. You may even find that a combination of techniques suites you well, depending on that day’s stress level, mood, and time constraints. Above all, the most important thing to remember is that this is a practice. It is something that you work on and return to day after day, because the reward lies not only in the outcome, but in the process as well.