The best mind-body activities to help you relax
For many of us, relaxation looks like collapsing in front of the TV, mindlessly scrolling on social media, or even pouring a (large) glass of wine. But these things rarely buffer against the effects of stress.
To truly bring the body back to a state of balance, we need to activate our evolutionary ‘rest and digest’ state, which functions inversely to our ‘stress response’.
Fortunately, there are many ways to encourage full-body relaxation, even when the modern world has different ideas.
What is the stress response?
In the face of immediate danger, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear and prepares you to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’. Your heart rate increases. Your pupils dilate. And your muscles tense. Think of it as your body’s intrinsic alarm system.
The ‘fight or flight’ response serves a purpose. From an evolutionary standpoint, it helped us survive attacks from sabertoothed tigers and floods.
Today, we don’t face the same dangers. But modern life is still full of stressors – traffic, a strongly worded email from your boss, and a night of poor sleep – that activate this prehistoric ‘fight or flight’ response.
And if we remain chronically stressed, it can affect all systems in the body, including cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, endocrine, and reproductive. In some cases, it can even lead to burnout.
While we can’t avoid stress altogether – nor would we want to – we can develop healthier coping strategies.
What are the best relaxation techniques that reduce stress?
These mind-body relaxation techniques are free, accessible, and easy to weave into your daily life.
Meditation is one of the most effective tools to support emotional health. It helps reprogram the mind to be less reactive and more open, equipping you with the tools and resources to cope when stress starts to accumulate (1).
You don’t need to chant ‘Om’ or sit cross-legged to meditate. Simply close your eyes and quietly concentrate on your breath. You’ll notice thoughts come and go, but that’s okay. The point isn’t to ‘stop thinking’, but to acknowledge thoughts without judgement – just as you would observe clouds floating in the sky.
The beauty of meditation is you can do it anywhere – on the bus, in the park, or just before bed.
Most of us don’t think twice about how we breathe. But when consciously do, we can downregulate the stress response, encourage full-body relaxation, and support overall wellbeing (2).
Deep belly breathing – breathing from your diaphragm through your nose – activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ state and induces feelings of calm.
You can practice deep belly breathing whenever you need a moment of quiet. You could try it on your morning commute or just before a stressful work meeting.
Allow your lips to part slightly. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whooshing sound and drawing your belly in
Close your lips and inhale silently through your nose as you count to four in your head, pushing your belly out
Hold your breath for 7 seconds
Make another whooshing exhale for 8 seconds, pulling your belly in
Repeat for 5 to 10 rounds
Body scans can help increase awareness of the mind-body connection, calling you to focus on different parts of your body with lightness and curiosity. Over time, this practice can help cultivate more mindfulness, in turn, reducing anxiety and stress.
After a few minutes of deep breathing, pay close attention to the way each area of your body feels, starting with your feet and moving up to the tip of your head. It might be helpful to imagine a laser scanning the length of your body. Try not to label the sensations as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Just accept them exactly as they are.
A body scan doesn’t need to take long. You could fit a short practice into your morning routine to set you up for the day.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is another technique that helps soothe the body and mind. It involves tightening and then relaxing muscle groups, encouraging you to let go of stress and tension.
Just like a body scan, start with your feet and work your way up to your face. When you reach different parts of your body – like your hands, for instance – squeeze them as tightly as you can for 10 seconds, then relax. As your body unwinds, so too will your mind.
Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed at your desk, try a quick progressive muscle relaxation. Even five minutes can transform how you feel.
Yoga, tai chi and qigong
The ancient practices of yoga, tai chi, and qigong have long been used to restore balance to the nervous system.
In combination with conscious breathing, yoga-based practices stimulate the vagus nerve, activating the ‘rest and digest’ state and encouraging feelings of relaxation (3).
A regular yoga practice can also help reinforce emotional resilience, meaning the body’s fight or flight response won’t be as easily triggered when exposed to stress.
You can find plenty of free yoga-based practices that cater for all abilities online. Alternatively, you could join a local class if you have the means to.
Human touch is a simple yet powerful tool to support wellbeing. Massage can relieve tension and stress, with one study reporting it may decrease cortisol, the stress hormone, by 31 per cent (4).
You don’t always need a willing masseuse to enjoy the benefits of this practice. Self-massage can be just as therapeutic and relaxing.
For an extra sprinkling of serenity, combine your favourite essential oil – we like Relaxing Blend – with a carrier oil and massage over any area of your body that needs some love.
Give yourself a head massage
Gently pull your shoulders away from your ears
Find the base of your skull and place the middle fingers of each hand in the centre with your fingertips touching
Apply some gentle pressure and move your fingers downward or outwards – whatever feels best
If you want more relief, move your fingers around in small, circular motions. Find any tense spots and focus your attention there
Natural support for relaxation
Aside from mind-body relaxation techniques, turning to the natural world can also invite calm and restoration. Ashwagandha, magnesium, and theanine and lemon balm are often recommended to support the nervous system and would complement the practices outlined above perfectly.
Find out more
If you found this article on relaxation techniques useful, you can find similar guidance on Nutrition Buzz. You may also want to check out our favourite self-care rituals to help you unwind too.
Alternatively, please get in touch with our team of expert Nutrition Advisors, who are on hand to provide free, confidential advice via email, phone, and Live Chat.
Schulte, B. (2021) Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain, The Washington Post. Available online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/05/26/harvard-neuroscientist-meditation-not-only-reduces-stress-it-literally-changes-your-brain/?noredirect=on
Ma X, Yue ZQ, Gong ZQ, Zhang H, Duan NY, Shi YT, Wei GX, Li YF. (2017) The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Front Psychol. 6;8:874.
Gerritsen RJS, Band GPH. (2018) Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Front Hum Neurosci. 12:397.
Field T. et al., (2005) Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. Int J Neurosci. 115(10): 1397-413.
Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.