A row of six chairs on a vast green lawn looking out at the ocean under a wide blue sky
Ahhhh. Relax.

Build Your Relaxation Toolkit

Relaxation exercises are a kind and simple route to remembering that it is possible to change one’s own mood, even if just for a little while. As someone who has dealt with panic attacks and depression on and off since childhood, I’ve long envisioned my array of favorite relaxation techniques as a toolkit. I’m not an expert, but I did take that kindergarten lesson about sharing to heart, so I’d like to present a few options to you today.

To make my qualifications or lack thereof clear: I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist, yoga teacher, or monk. I’m an author, comedian and actress, with an M.A. in Education from Teachers College at Columbia University, and a B.A. in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College. I also speak about mental health awareness at colleges and companies. It’s incredibly rewarding, and I think I bring a lot of value to these organizations, but I’m always clear that mental health advocacy is not the same as the evidence-based work of clinical research and treatment.

When I was a high school teacher many years ago, I found that basic breathwork really helped some of my students to access their creativity with reduced stress and embarrassment. It made a lasting impression on me, and affects the way I work with one-on-one writing and editing clients to this day.

On my podcast, “Well, This Isn’t Normal,” I discuss stress relief with people from a variety of backgrounds and professions. I also sometimes take the listeners through guided breathwork and visualization experiences. The show is accessible through Apple Podcasts, Spotify Podcasts, and Stitcher, if you’re interested. A bare bones episode, “Return to this Moment,” focuses on rest and breathing exercises, but most have some component of these practices.

My aim is not to improve your productivity. That’s a trap. I do not seek to cure, fix, or heal any illness. I am allergic to snake oil salespersons. Science is real, medication is great when it’s the right fit, and you don’t get sick because of “negative energy,” although plenty of people will try to empty your pocket by guaranteeing you they can, for example, cure your cancer with the power of positive thinking. Positive thinking and prayer can be incredibly helpful. The law of attraction is garbage and The Secret is a pile of chicanery and white-centered bullshit.

Crystals are pretty rocks. They were probably mined in a terrible way by underpaid folks with no labor protections, so do your research. There are exceptions.

I encourage you to seek medical attention for physical or psychiatric issues that interfere with your quality of life. My only point here is to help you lower your stress and feel a bit more comfortable with your body and mind, just as they are, right now.

Be gentle with yourself, and work within the boundaries of your abilities. Do not push yourself to breathe harder, faster, or more deeply. Modify these exercises as necessary.

Before we begin, a note: if breathing is hard for you, I encourage you to let go of any expectations there and simply focus on silently counting the moments as you scan your body slowly from your toes to the crown of your head to tap into what you’re feeling today.

Quit this or any of these exercises at any time. This is not a competition. And don’t try to do this shit while you’re driving, okay? Ending up in a ditch is not a particularly chill experience.

Place one or both hands on your belly. With your mouth closed and the tip of your tongue touching the slightly raised fleshy area immediately behind and above your two front teeth, inhale slowly and steadily through your nose, so that you feel your diaphragm begin to expand. Your belly will inflate like a balloon. This will be harder if you’re quite tense or panicked — don’t push it. Just feel for the smallest sensation that indicates you’re letting more air enter that part of your body. Pause at a comfortable point. Then slowly exhale at a consistent rate (no sudden whoosh).

At a point that feels good to you, pause in the stillness at the bottom of the exhalation. Now, slowly inhale again for a steady count until you feel your lungs at or near a comfortable capacity. Pause here to sense how full your belly is. Slowly and steadily release the breath, this time pushing the exhale just a little bit farther than before. You may wish to picture a tube of toothpaste being squeezed all the way out, or a balloon deflating completely. Pause for a moment, and when you reach the edge of your comfort with this emptiness, release any tension and breathe normally.

Note how you feel, especially in your shoulders and back. Stretch your jaw gently. Rotate your neck a bit if you like. Then repeat the breath cycle again, concluding with a few more moments of rest. Do this as many times as you like.

Tune into your belly again, doing your best to focus your breathwork there versus high up in your chest. Inhale for two even counts. Hold for two even counts. Exhale for two even counts. Pause for two even counts. Repeat the cycle with three counts. Repeat again with four counts. Stick with the four by four cycle, counting silently. You may even wish to picture yourself traveling around a square diagram, or walking in a square out in some imaginary peaceful meadow. The key here is to keep the counts even. As with the other exercises, you will get distracted. Don’t worry — distraction is part of the process! The gift is in returning time and time again to the present moment. And you can’t return if you don’t leave, right? So don’t beat yourself up about distraction.

Do this exercise for as long as you wish.

There is a time for thrilling audio dramas and wild adventures, but your relaxation practice is probably not it! Check a quiet, relaxing audiobook out from your local library. You may find that you prefer certain narrators — seek out their work. I like to relax while listening to books about cleaning, an activity in which I rarely engage. Perhaps I enjoy the charming fantasy of being a person who actually tidies her home on a regular basis. Listening to poetry can also be quite wonderful, so long as the content of the writing is soothing to your soul.

No, not a sound bath, although those are lovely. In fact, sound baths and sound healing are offered online by various practitioners.

I’m also not talking about listening to music in the bathtub, although that can be an absolute joy! I want you to bathe your brain and body in music you find soothing — not just familiar or pleasant, but soothing. I use the album Brainspotting: BioLateral Sound Healing, which was recommended by my psychologist. In the past, I’ve taken musical baths with Enya, John Coltrane, and several other artists. (That sounds sexier than it is).

To take a musical bath, I lay on my back with a pillow under my knees for support. I make sure the lighting is soft — candles are a great addition to this scenario, but you may be just as pleased to have bright sunlight streaming through the window. Then I submerge myself in a particular album while breathing slowly and steadily.

You needn’t lay on your back, but you should put yourself in a position you find incredibly comfortable. If taking a slow and steady walk does this for you, excellent! Perhaps you’d prefer to sit up in a chair or stretch out on your side. If you’re lucky enough to have a massage table at home and wish to lay on your stomach with your face in the cradle, go for it.

Return your mind over and over again to the present moment and the music. You may wish to picture it washing over you, rinsing off that stress (although, let’s be clear — stress doesn’t make you dirty. It makes you human).

With enough practice, the music will automatically elicit a greater sense of calm and peace. It’s really like doing a bit of magic on yourself. You can bring the music with you on stressful trips or during annoying activities, listening to it through headphones or just remembering it quietly. But to keep your connection to the music thriving and healthy, remember to engage in the musical bath every week or month.

If all you’ve got are a few minutes alone in your car, turn the album up while you’re parked at the pharmacy or grocery store. Breathe in gently. Exhale with care. Remember that you are are in charge of you. You have agency and autonomy. And you deserve rest.

Building a toolkit of stress reduction techniques can help alleviate some uncomfortable anxiety, comfort you when you’re depressed or grieving, and positively affect your overall health. I hope you find this process of self-discovery to be enjoyable, and that you get creative and come up with your own techniques, too.

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Resources for further reading:

Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing by Andrew Weil, M.D.

Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.

The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D.

Author, REAL ARTISTS HAVE DAY JOBS (and other books). Writer of scripts. Host of WELL, THIS ISN’T NORMAL podcast. Patreon.com/SaraBenincasa

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