Ever have someone tell you to “just relax?” Aside from the initial and completely involuntary heart-pounding anger you feel upon hearing those words, it’s pretty tone-deaf to the fact that “relaxing” just isn’t that easy — especially when you’re in the heat of the moment. It often feels like you’ve lived 1000 years between the morning routine and bedtime wind down. Multiply that twofold if you’re parenting and juggling work in a global pandemic. To “calm down” or “relax,” you need to know why you’re stressed, what your triggers are, and what will work. Because guess what? Not every “stress-reducing activity” works for everyone.
According to the American Psychological Association, there are three kinds of stress: acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress.
- Acute stress is usually breath and thought-induced, like stressing over that big impending project due date.
- Episodic acute stress is something a lot of moms are probably more familiar with. It’s a bit like compounded acute stress. It’s not just that project due date, but also baseball practice, the bake sale, and the big fight with the partner. You probably feel or even seem pretty disorganized because you’ve got a few too many things on your plate. You’re often labeled a “worrier.”
- Chronic stress is without a doubt the most dangerous. It’s stress caused by long-term abuse, homelessness, and unemployment or by unhealthy childhood situations. When left untreated, it can cause serious health problems. If you’re dealing with chronic stress, your best bet is to find a licensed mental health expert to talk to regularly.
For less traumatic types of stress, there are plenty of things to try until you find one that can help you learn how to relax. We’ve gone ahead and rounded them all up here so you can begin your relaxation journey right away.
Immediate Relaxation Techniques
You need “immediate relaxation techniques” when you’re in the moment. Say, during or directly after a fight with a spouse or while waiting for a tow truck when you blow a tire. These are things that require very little preparation.
Deep Breathing Exercises
Closing your eyes and taking slow, deep breaths helps because you’re focusing on the length and pace of your breathing. Looking for guidance? Everyone’s favorite neighbor, Daniel Tiger, gives a great demonstration.
While Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) might not be for everyone, it can really help in stressful situations. During moments of big feelings, it’s easy to spiral. Being mindful of the situation you’re in and refocusing your thoughts can help. Take a few deep breaths and slowly work your way through finding:
- Three things you see
- Three things you hear
- Three things you smell
- Three things you feel (physically)
Focused Muscle Relaxing
Ever have a “hippy-dippy” teacher lead your class through this relaxation exercise before a big test? No? Just us? It’s another great way to refocus your thoughts. Start by creating tension in your body (you’ll probably notice some is already there). This might look like making fists, curling your toes, and clenching your teeth. Take long, slow breaths. Start from the top or bottom of your body and, as you breathe, focus on relaxing those muscles. Wiggle your toes, flex your feet, bend and straighten your legs, clench and release your ab muscles, etc.
A telltale sign of stress is a clenched jaw, but sometimes you don’t even know you’re doing it. So, to prevent wear or cracks in your teeth, you should know how to relax your jaw. Ready? Commit these steps to memory:
- Stand in front of the mirror and smile as wide as you can without feeling pain.
- While grinning, open your jaw a bit and inhale through your mouth.
- As you exhale, release your smile.
Do this about 10 times. Not only does smiling help eliminate stress, but this exercise is an excellent workout for your facial muscles, jaw, and neck.
Mantras and Positive Affirmations
Think of mantras like little prayers or mission statements. If you’re stressed about a meeting, repeat (softly or in your head) something like, “I’m prepared for this meeting. I’m ready to lead.” If you’re nervous about takeoff on your flight to a glorious beach destination, repeat a short prayer or affirmation. “Thank you for guiding me safely to my destination” or “science is on my side and I will reach the beach.” Sometimes your mantra gets shorter the longer you repeat it or the more stressed you are. That’s OK. “Be calm, be calm, be calm” is a completely acceptable thing to think to yourself when reacting to your toddler’s temper tantrum.
Sometimes relaxation requires a little more planning. If you’re not in an immediate need to calm down and just need a chance to unwind after a stressful few days, we like these options.
Meditation often looks a lot like repeating your mantra. The difference, though, is that you do it for a longer period of time and in a quieter, more isolated setting. There are also tons of guided meditation resources in your app store or on YouTube. They require more time but give you a bigger reward.
Yoga practice is a fantastic option for all body types and abilities. Your local YMCA probably even offers seated yoga! If going to a class will only cause you more stress (been there), look on YouTube or hit the local thrift or consignment shops for cheap DVDs. Will you love everything you try? No. But, if you haven’t spent a ton of money, it won’t feel like such a letdown. Just take it back or pass it on.
Make Time for Self-Care
What is self-care to you? Sometimes it’s reading a book in a hot bubble bath. Other times, it’s camping on the toilet while you listen to the new Chris Stapleton album and paint your nails. Whatever makes you feel spoiled and special is your self-care.
Explore Your Hobbies
Sometimes hobbies are self-care, too. Sometimes they can become a stressor, though. You might love working with power tools. But, if you’re in a pinch to remodel your bathroom before out-of-town guests come, it suddenly goes from relaxation to more stress. Still, taking time to do a hobby and focus on something you love can go a long way in bringing peace to your world. A great way to calm your nerves is to engage in crafts that center you. A few relaxing hobbies you should try, include:
- Gardening. Get active and soak up some sun by plating a few of your favorite fruits and flowers. Gardening takes patience and isn’t an activity you can rush. It’s easy to get lost in this task and reap the benefits of a vitamin D boost.
- Puzzles. Puzzles are an excellent distraction from the stresses of life. They offer a good workout for your brain and can boost your problem-solving and memory skills, as well as enhance your positivity.
Journaling can be as intense or noncommittal as you want it. If you love to sit down and scribble, even one of those “question a day” journals will cut it. Not sure where to start? Read our list of journal prompts to get the ink flowing. You can also try writing out what is currently causing you stress and why. Perhaps having it all out on paper will help you find a better solution to your problem. If that is only stressing you out more, change gears and start a gratitude journal.
Go Forest Bathing
Did you know science has proven spending time in nature can improve your mood, reduce stress, and even improve your health? Even if you don’t consider yourself “outdoorsy,” don’t underestimate the power of being among the trees or out in the sunshine. Whether that looks like taking your wine to the patio or walking your dog in the woods behind your home is completely up to your comfort level. Either way, fresh air and sunshine can truly help alleviate stress. It’s up to you to figure out the dosage.
Make a List
Organizing your emotions and where you are in life can be a major positivity boost. Write down everything you’re grateful for whenever you feel stressed. It’s very easy to dwell on the negative in our lives, but having a physical list of everything that is going right is a great stress-relieving piece to have in your back pocket. The reasons don’t have to be big or incredibly life-changing, either — just jot down things you’re grateful for, like a fresh manicure or getting your kids to school on time.