You’ve likely been told to relax at some point in your life — whether by a massage therapist setting the mood, a well-meaning partner trying to help, or that friend who always seems to stay cool no matter what happens.
As a mom, I’ve said it to my kid at least a hundred times, to little effect.
Being told to relax can be an invitation. On the other hand, it can be an insult. So much of that depends on context, but it also depends on how well you’ve developed the skill of relaxation.
Yep, relaxation is a skill. It’s not a spell or incantation that can magically induce a state of calm, and it’s not a button you can press to suddenly go into chill mode.
While that can be a little disappointing, it can also be a relief.
I can’t count how many times I’ve admonished myself to relax, only to find that my scolding wasn’t doing its job. In fact, trying to force myself to relax has often made my stress and tension worse.
Instead of expecting to be able to flip relaxation on and off like a light switch, I’ve learned tools to gently bring myself into a relaxed state.
These tools have helped me develop the practice of relaxation so that, more and more, it can be my default state. That way when stress sets in, I’m more prepared to handle it.
The word “relaxation” may conjure images of The Dude in his sunglasses, bathrobe, and slippers or a tropical beach vacation with mai tai in hand.
The good news is that being in a relaxed state doesn’t depend on your clothes, your location, or whether or not you have access to an endless supply of White Russians.
By developing relaxation as a skill, you can take it with you wherever you go.
Relaxation in 9 steps
The steps below are my strategy for sharpening my relaxation skills:
- Create space.
- Maintain your space.
- Tap into the mind-body connection.
- Get physical.
- Thought audit.
- Go where the energy flows.
- Check the weather.
- Curate your relaxation time.
Creating space is my first step for cultivating the skill of relaxation.
I’ll tell you some things that relaxation is not. Relaxation is not hurrying, rushing, or racing the clock. It’s not forcing, vying, or competing.
By creating space, you’re eliminating the likelihood that you’ll have to engage in one of these activities, whether it’s competing for a parking space, hurrying the kids out the door, or rushing to clock in at work.
By contrast, relaxation may look something like this:
- leisurely sipping your tea with 10 minutes to spare before you walk out the door for the day
- taking a stroll on your lunch break instead of wrapping up one more deliverable
- not stressing that you hit a red light, because that just means more time to listen to your favorite album
Sounds nice, right?
It can take plenty of other forms, but the quality of relaxation is the same. It arises when you have the space and time to let it.
So, how do you create space? I like to think of it as drawing margins on everything you do. It’s in those margins that you mark out the territory for space (and relaxation) to live and thrive.
For instance, if your workday starts with back-to-back meetings, you might be tempted to jump right into work to catch up once they’re over. Instead, see if you can take a moment to settle into yourself first.
You could simply take a walk to the bathroom whether or not you have to go, get up to have an intentional drink of water, or simply sit and feel your body. What are the sensations? What are you feeling?
Although it may seem inconsequential, these little moments of simply being add up.
It’s also only fair to add a few caveats here:
- The agitated mind hates space.
- Space is a privilege.
- Space is cumulative.
First, the bored, agitated, stressed, or anxious mind hates space. It believes that more is better. It wants to fill up all the space it can.
Otherwise, you have to feel those uncomfortable feelings that come up in the space, and the mind wants to avoid discomfort at all costs. This is true even at the cost of your sanity.
Second, space isn’t a given. It’s a privilege, which means that not everyone has the same access.
When I was commuting 3 hours per day doing daycare drop-off and pickup, space was limited. If you work two jobs and take care of your aging parent, space is even more precious.
This often means that relaxation is too.
Though it may be challenging, you can find little opportunities to carve out space in any circumstance. You have a right to relaxation. It’s not just for the few.
Finally, I’ve noticed that my relationship with space is that the more I create, the more naturally arises.
I’ve also noticed that a 2-minute breather before I dive into my work doesn’t always have an immediate impact on my stress level. On the other hand, fifty 2-minute breathers spread throughout my week do have an impact.
It’s sort of like giving yourself little micro-vacations all the time instead of saving it all up for a once-a-year getaway. It releases the pressure little by little so your stress levels stay low.
Space is so central to my relaxation plan that it warrants an entire two steps. Once you create it, you’ll have to maintain it.
Everything in your life is going to try to eat your space.
Your partner, your dog, your kids, the bills, your neighbor, your chatty best friend, summer camps, night classes, car troubles, plumbing issues… the list goes on.
Life is going to happen, and space is going to disappear — just like that.
Your job is to guard that space like the precious commodity that it is.
It’s just like setting healthy boundaries. Your needs are important, and you have a right to meet them.
If you consider relaxation a need — I certainly do — you need your space, too.
Now that you’ve got space as your foundation, you can start to use it to connect more deeply with yourself.
This will help you get more in touch with what you need from moment to moment instead of being subject to the clock, your phone alerts, the baby crying, or the pipe bursting. These things will still happen, but you’ll get your needs met too.
My favorite mind-body practices for relaxation are:
Progressive muscle relaxation
This is a simple exercise involving tensing all the muscles in your body and releasing them. You can do each muscle one by one or do it all at once for a quick release.
PMR is the closest thing to a relaxation on/off switch I’ve found.
This is definitely my all-time favorite because it’s ultimately the practice of surrender. The modern world offers so little practice in letting go, and that’s exactly what yoga nidra is all about.
It’s kind of like a superpowered Savasana. Who doesn’t want that?
You can see step-by-step instructions for yoga nidra here.
This is another go-to, because, well, it’s gentle. It’s about restoring your energy, not depleting it.
This is another fabulous option because many people can do it. If you can do it outside, even better. Still, a lap or two around the office, warehouse, or classroom works, too!
Sitting and sipping
This is the lost art of actually enjoying and savoring your favorite warm beverage.
In fact, in Sweden, many people practice fika — taking a pause in their day to sip some coffee, have a bite of cake, or socialize with a friend — every single day.
Whatever your bevvy of choice, here are the steps:
- Sit down.
- Pause and gaze at the horizon.
- Sip again.
- Repeat until your entire beverage is consumed.
If you want to take it up a notch, focus on feeling your sensations as you sip — the liquid against your tongue, the taste in your mouth, the heat of the steam. Make it sensual.
Bonus points for lingering once your cup is empty.
While life can be overwhelming, the reality is that a huge portion of stress and anxiety comes from thinking.
Getting out of our heads for a little while, whether with exercise or little playtime, can make an enormous difference. The higher the impact, the greater the result will be.
For instance, gardening is great. But hauling big bags of soil and pushing a full wheelbarrow is even better. Occupational therapists call activities like this “heavy work” because that’s exactly what it is!
Other great options for getting in your body include:
As mentioned above, a lot of stress comes from thinking. Sometimes getting in your body and cutting off the process is the best option. Other times, it’s best to do a little thought-pruning.
My favorite way to do this is to track my thoughts, sifting out the thoughts I want to focus on from the thoughts that can go in the garbage bin.
To do this, I enlist the help of the cognitive distortion categories to help me discern the helpful thoughts from those that need a bit of revisioning.
- Polarization: black and white thinking
- Overgeneralization: applying a conclusion to all circumstances
- Catastrophizing: thinking the worst will happen
- Personalization: taking things personally
- Mind reading: assuming you know what others are thinking
- Mental filtering: focusing on the negative
- Discounting the positive: explaining away positives as a fluke or luck
- “Should” statements: shaming or scolding yourself for your actions
- Emotional reasoning: believing your emotions are truth
- Labeling: reducing yourself or others to categories, like “dumb” or “silly”
When I notice myself engaging in one of these cognitive distortions, I simply rewrite the script.
This looks like:
- Isolating the unhelpful thought.
- Noting the emotion that went along with it.
- Identifying which distortion is at play.
- Rewriting or restating the thought in a more balanced, objective way.
- Noting the emotion that arises from the revised thought.
It’s best to start this practice by writing it all down. It’s a lot to keep in your head.
I even have a spreadsheet I use to track my thoughts. Feel free to make a copy and customize it for yourself!
Once you practice for awhile, it gets easier to go through the steps in your head.
Checking the weather goes hand-in-hand with the cognitive distortion exercise above. And by checking the weather, I mean checking in with my internal barometer.
- Sit with yourself and check in.
- Actually feel into your body and notice the sensations that arise.
- Avoid the impulse to label or judge.
Checking in in this way is a somatic exercise that helps us get in touch with our felt experience.
While labels like “sad,” “hungry,” or “tired” come from the mind, the sensations come directly from our sense experience.
All the steps above get you into an intimate connection with your energy-state. Once you have that connection, you can follow your energy to give yourself what you need from moment to moment.
This might look like feeding yourself a heavy meal after exercising because you sense that your body wants some extra protein.
It could be taking a nap on Thursday because that’s when you feel the most run-down.
When you pay attention to your energy-state and your sensations, you’ll find they have plenty to communicate to you about what your body, mind, and spirit want and need.
Have you found yourself with extra time on your hands, then panicking because you have no idea how to spend it?
Curating your space and time can help you make the most of the little time you do have.
Without planning or scheduling too much, think ahead to those instances you know you’ll have space.
Do what you can to optimize that time by having necessary supplies on hand or creating an ambiance to set you up for relaxation success.
For instance, if you like to make a coffee and rock out in your car before work, have your travel mug ready to go next to the coffee pot the night before and your Bluetooth set up for a jam sesh.
Relaxation isn’t just a skill: It’s an art.
The more you make space to honor relaxation as an integral part of your health and well-being, the more you invite it into your day-to-day life.
It takes practice, protection, and repetition to make relaxation a natural state of being when the rest of the world is on hyperdrive.
Still, it’s worth it to carve out the space, time, and care to give yourself the gift of peace.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses. You can find her on Instagram.