Man meditating to relax

Relaxation: why everyone needs a break

We all know we should relax more regularly, but do you know why? Find out how relaxation can support your health, and why we need to do more of it

Written by Victoria Goldman on March 24, 2019 Reviewed by Dr Nihara Krause on March 27, 2019

When work deadlines are looming, family and friends are asking for attention and your To-Do list is never-ending, taking time out to relax can seem like sheer luxury. But relaxation is essential to your health. Discover the ways it can support your wellbeing, and some of the best techniques to help you unwind.

What is relaxation?

Relaxation is the release of muscle tension,1 and a deep, restful state that has been shown to reduce the impact of stress on your mind and body. It does this by having the following effects:2

  • slowing your breathing
  • lowering your heart rate and blood pressure
  • relaxing muscles
  • balancing blood sugar levels
  • improving digestion
  • boosting mood and concentration
  • improving sleep quality

What happens if you don’t make time to relax?

If you rarely relax, your stress levels could continue to rise, leading to a range of symptoms including:3
  • headaches
  • stomach upsets
  • extreme tiredness
  • sleep problems
  • anxiety

Prolonged stress is linked to long-term health problems, such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes,4 too.

So, what stops us from relaxing?

Usually long-term stress. The ‘fight or flight’ response to a stressful situation keeps your muscles tense, your heartbeat racing and your body on high alert. To calm down from this state, you have to consciously take steps to soothe your nervous system – and that isn’t always easy in today’s busy modern world.5 A 2018 UK report by the Mental Health Foundation found that the top causes of stress include long-term health conditions, work, money worries and social media.6 Another issue eating into our relaxation time is technology. More and more of us now find it tougher to switch off amid the pressure to always be online, instantly responding to messages, notifications or emails.7

What are some proven ways to relax?

Many people unwind listening to music, while others can get lost in a good book. And although some of us may find activities like playing video games or watching TV can increase our stress levels,8 others say they release tension and aid relaxation. If you’re looking for a scientifically proven way to relax, research shows there are some specific techniques that can activate your body’s relaxation response – they slow your heart rate and breathing, and reduce your blood pressure.9

These techniques include:

  • slow breathing – this involves taking long, deep breaths, while aiming to clear your mind of distracting thoughts.10 In a 2018 Indian study, 100 young, healthy men, practising 30 minutes of slow breathing five times a week for three months, experienced reduced stress levels and lower blood pressure.11

  • meditation, especially mindfulness – try sitting comfortably with your eyes closed, and pay attention to the present moment such as focusing on your breath. If your thoughts distract you, just let them go and return to your breath.12 In 2014, US researchers reported that meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, may lower stress levels, and curb anxiety.13

  • guided imagery – for this technique, close your eyes and think of a scene or location which makes you feel very calm and relaxed.14 A 2005 Japanese study found that practising guided imagery for 20 minutes a day could boost people’s moods, improve their health and reduce stress.15
If you’re not a fan of meditative techniques – and some people do find it stressful trying to follow them16 – then you could try something more practical instead, such as taking a warm bath or spending time outside in nature.

How often should I relax?

Ideally, set aside time to relax every day. Start with just a few minutes at a time, and then build up as you become more confident. Choose a time of day when you’re not under pressure to do anything else and you won’t be interrupted.17 And remember, the more often you practice relaxation techniques, the more effective they will be.18

Still can’t relax?

If you feel constantly on edge, it’s important to speak to your GP who can check whether any physical symptoms of stress – such as headaches, a stomach upset or aching muscles – could have an underlying cause. They can also refer you to a counsellor or therapist if you’re experiencing anxiety or depression.19

Sources

1. Noam Shpancer. Psychology Today. Why You Should Relax About Relaxation 2. Mayo Clinic. Relaxation techniques: Try these steps to reduce stress 3. Mayo Clinic. Stress symptoms: effects on your body and behaviour

4. As above

5. Harvard Medical School. Understanding the stress response 6. Mental Health Foundation. Stress: Are we coping? 7. Moya Sarner. The Guardian. ‘Learning to relax can be life-changing’: how to find your comfort zone

8. As Source 3

9. Bhasin MK, et al. Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways 10. Harvard Medical School. Six relaxation techniques to reduce stress 11. Naik GS, Gaur GS, Pal GK. Effect of Modified Slow Breathing Exercise on Perceived Stress and Basal Cardiovascular Parameters 12. David Gelles. The New York Times. How to meditate 13. Goyal M, et al. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis

14. As Source 10

15. Watanabe E, Fukuda S, Shirakawa T. Effects among healthy subjects of the duration of regularly practicing a guided imagery program 16. Shapiro DH Jr. Adverse effects of meditation, a preliminary investigation of long-term meditators 17. Mind. What can I do to relax? 18. Patient. Relaxation exercises 19. Mind. Seeking help for a mental health problem: where to start
Mind & Body