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Five tips for relaxing during difficult times

Modern life can leave many of us feeling stressed out. Here Dr Mathijs Lucassen offers five tips so that you can relax.

We are living in especially uncertain times. During the 2020/2021 lockdowns, like many others, I thought of some practical ways in which I could be of assistance. 

I have recently run some online relaxation sessions for colleagues in my faculty at The Open University. It has been a while since I delivered relaxation sessions, but drawing on my original training as an occupational therapist and my prior working life in NHS mental health services, here are five tips that I believe will help in terms of relaxing.

1: Remember it is different strokes for different folks…

A zero to ten gauge registering at ten - isolated on a white background

Firstly, there is no one relaxation technique that will work effectively for everyone. That is why facilitated relaxation sessions often begin with a therapist asking you to rate your stress levels. This can be done fairly easily, by noting down on a piece of paper your stress levels before beginning a relaxation exercise. For instance, a rating of 10 would be ‘maximally stressed’, the most stressed you have ever been, while a rating of 0 would be ‘absolutely no stress’, the least amount of stress possible. During the present time I would anticipate many people will rate their stress levels at 7 or above at key points during the day. Doing a rating out of 10 like this before and after a relaxation exercise will help you discover which technique or techniques work best for you. I know that visualisation (explained below) works best for me, and my ‘before’ and ‘after’ ratings out of 10 have confirmed that.

2: Controlled breathing – more easily said than done…

Stones piled up in front of a sunset - depicting calm

Before starting a longer relaxation exercise it is valuable to pay attention to your breathing and to consciously slow this down. Taking control of your breathing can seem like a rather easy thing to do, but to do this when you are stressed can actually be quite difficult. Mostly because we quickly forget about slowing our breathing down, which more or less unconsciously speeds up when we get stressed, making us even more stressed out in the process. Therefore, slowing down your breathing, specifically taking deep, slow, conscious breaths, is invaluable. Children can benefit from some assistance in mastering controlled breathing, and ‘Square Breathing’ as outlined in this short clip is a good place to start.

3: Visualisation – let your mind take you somewhere else… 

Blue sunhat on a beautiful sandy beach with the sea in the background

In a nutshell, visualisation techniques involve you transporting yourself to a relaxing and peaceful place. This means engaging your mind in actively creating a soothing and pleasant location using your imagination. The challenge at present for many people will be finding a quiet and comfortable place where you will not be distracted, so you can close your eyes and begin to visualise yourself someplace else like on a beach, or walking through a forest or enjoying a garden. If you can’t find a quiet place, then this technique is less likely to be effective for you at this time. However, there are lots of examples online, either scripts which someone can read to you or audio clips which you can use when it suits you. Two free examples from a UK charity (The Somerville Foundation) are an audio clip of a beach as well as a forest visualisation exercise. These can be found  on the Somerville Foundation website.

4: Progressive muscle relaxation – focusing on your body…

figure meditating with calming words surrounding them

Some people prefer to focus on their body and things physical when relaxing. Progressive muscle relaxation involves a person tensing and then relaxing their muscles, as a means to assist them to feel calmer. This technique does not require a place that is completely quiet, but it does help. You don’t need to close your eyes to do this technique, so you can read instructions, until you get familiar with how this exercise works. An example of some written instructions can be found from Anxiety Canada. But if you prefer listening to an audio recording there is an audio clip available from the Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust webpages (it is the sixth exercise listed).

5: Mindfulness – and techniques involving mind and body…

five dandelions

Pure visualisation and conventional progressive muscle relaxation exercises focus on either the mind or body. There are techniques that cover both, and mindfulness relaxation exercises do this. If you would like to try out a short mindfulness exercise you can access this one from the Mental Health Foundation, which is narrated by a mindfulness expert.

Finally, you may find that the best forms of relaxation for you do not involve formal exercises, as outlined here. But instead you may find the best de-stressing takes the form of physical exercise. Or doing something fun on your own or with others, such as gardening, especially now that it is spring. You might find that immersing yourself in a book or binge watching a series on Netflix (or another streaming service) helps you relax best. In the end, it is doing what works best for you, especially during these challenging times, when we should all just be attempting to take things one day at a time.   


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