Simple Relaxation Techniques to Relieve Stress

We all have those moments of stress—our hearts are racing, our breathing is shallow and it's hard to focus. But when we don't know how to deal with them, the ongoing stress can lead to headaches, sleeplessness, even chronic disease. We asked the experts for simple exercises to relieve anxiety in those high-pressure moments, whether you're at work, in the car or just trying to quiet your mind before bed. 

Worried about how you're going to get through your day's to-do list? Start your day with this simple meditation that involves your morning coffee. Danny Penman, a meditation teacher and co-author of Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, explains: "Take your cup of coffee or tea and think of all the different aromas. Some of them might smell bitter or sweet—just spend a few seconds noticing those smells. Then, take a single mouthful and try to tease apart the different tastes and even textures. There are different particles in it that you can feel." Penman encourages meditators to hold the coffee in their mouths for as long as it takes to soak up the different flavours, then swallow and continue with the next sip. "It's a way to really get in contact with your senses," he says. But it also helps to dissolve stress. "It interrupts rumination, the worries of your mind." Penman explains that a few stressful thoughts have a way of bringing forward other stressful memories that begin to cloud the mind. By interrupting those with an awareness of the present, we can see that reality is not so gloomy, and we start to separate ourselves from those anxieties and realize that they're not as true or as important as we thought they were. 

When an email or meeting has you floored, take a moment to change your breathing to slow down and refocus. This technique involves curling or rolling your tongue (it's not just a genetically decided party trick!). Breathing through your curled tongue can force you to physically relax, says Susi Hately, Canadian yoga therapist, kinesiologist and creator of Calm, Steady, Strong, a yoga therapy online video series for people affected by cancer. She recommends inhaling through your curled tongue, then exhaling through your nose for 10 breaths, feeling the coolness of your breath when you breathe in. "The curled tongue creates a slower, longer inhale, which causes breathing to deepen, increasing the supply of oxygen to the brain, and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calm," says Hately. 

When you're feeling overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion, Alan Dolan, a breath coach who offers conscious breathing retreats, suggests a breathing technique he calls "We Will Rock You" breath through your mouth. "This involves sitting in a semi-reclined position and taking two consecutive inhales followed by a soft one-beat exhale. The rhythm is a little bit like the drumbeat to the Queen song." After you've practiced for a few minutes, let your breath return to normal, remaining aware of your breath for a few more minutes. "Most people who explore the technique find themselves feeling happier, less stressed and more energetic," says Dolan. "A lot of people experience tension being released from the body and many experience emotional clearing."

When it's time for bed, but your brain is still running on high speed, try Penman's body scan meditation. "You shouldn't use meditation to go to sleep. However, when most people do the body scan the first time, you'll see a roomful of people just snoring," he says. To begin, simply lie in bed and focus on your breath. Begin to focus your awareness on one foot and notice any sensations in your toes, heels and soles, then slowly move your attention up to the ankle, the leg and so on, switching sides until you've moved your way through the entire body. The whole process should take about 10 to 15 minutes. "As you're doing this, your body naturally starts to relax and often people just go to sleep," says Penman. If your mind is particularly busy, you may have trouble taking yourself through this process on your own, so check out Penman's guided online meditation