By Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D.
The following are some wonderful ways to reduce anxiety and stress--and promote relaxation, calm, and peace within yourself. Some techniques take practice to achieve results. However, the results are well worth any effort, as a calm and relaxed body and mind are less prone to health issues than an agitated body and mind.
Breathing strongly influences your mind, body, and moods. By simply focusing your attention on your breathing, and without doing anything to change it, you create relaxation.
There are many worse places to have your attention--on your thoughts, for one, since thoughts can be the source of anxiety, guilt, and unhappiness. Get in the habit of shifting your awareness to your breath whenever you find yourself dwelling on upsetting thoughts.
2. Progressive Relaxation
Progressive relaxation is a way of releasing tension in muscles. Often taught in yoga and by instructors like massage therapists and psychologists, there are many variations of progressive relaxation.
Here's one common technique. Lie on your back in a comfortable position.
Take deep, slow breaths. Be aware of any muscular tension and release it. One way to do this is to first tense a muscle deliberately and then relax it. Start with your toes and move up to your head. Finally, lie still with your eyes closed, concentrating on your breath and enjoying the feeling of peace and freedom from tension.
For many people, exercise is their main method of reducing stress and promoting relaxation. One of the benefits of regular exercise is its moderating effect on emotions. If you feel angry or upset, a brisk walk or a half hour of lifting weights will often put you back in a good mood.
While exercise is a great way to burn up excess energy, it does not teach you how to process stress differently. For that reason it is not recommended as your sole method of relaxation, but as a complement to another techniques. Yoga is an excellent promoter of relaxation as well as a good form of body conditioning.
4. Massage and Body Work
For a relaxing experience, get a massage or other form of body work. In order to benefit, you need to be totally passive and surrender to the touch of a skilled therapist. There is evidence that the state of the mind is reflected in the state of the musculature. Body work is one route into the unconscious mind.
Some of the best techniques are Trager work, a system that uses rocking and bouncing to lull the recipient into a dreamy, altered state, and watsu, done in warm water.
5. Visualization and Guided Imagery
Visualization and guided imagery involves using your imagination to influence your physical and emotional states. For relaxation and stress reduction, you may want to start with images you get from books or tapes. Or simply recall a scene from the past when you were supremely content, secure, and centered. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and picture yourself back there. Try to make the image bright and clear, and try to hear, feel, and smell the surroundings.
Biofeedback uses technology to help you learn relaxation. You can develop awareness of an involuntary function and learn to change it. In a common biofeedback setup, temperature sensors are connected to your fingers, and skin temperature is converted to an audible signal, perhaps a beep tone: the faster the beeps, the higher the temperature. Your job is to make the beeps go faster by raising your skin temperature. To do this, you have to relax. The point is to incorporate what you learn into daily life.
Biofeedback works best for people whose tension is expressed in bodily complaints such as migraines, hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, ulcers, and intestinal problems.
Meditation is directed concentration. Meditators learn to focus their awareness and direct it onto an object: the breath, a phrase or word repeated silently, a memorized inspirational passage, or an image in the mind's eye. Whenever you become aware that your attention has strayed, gently bring it back to your chosen object.
Researchers have documented lowered blood pressure, decreased heart and respiratory rate, increased blood flow, and other measurable signs of the relaxation response. Try to meditate every day for 20 minutes.
Mantram is the practice of repeating in the mind certain syllables, words or phrases that help unify consciousness and counteract negative mental states. Repetition is a way of focusing the mind and counteracting the damage done to both mind and body by thoughts that produce anxiety, agitation, and unhappiness.
Mantram is especially helpful for people with restless minds, whose turbulent thoughts keep them from relaxing, concentrating, and falling asleep.
Though hypnosis has fallen in and out of favor over the past few hundred years, it is currently accepted as a useful method of relaxation, pain control, and management of habits like smoking and overeating.
Hypnotherapy is a good choice for people who think they have no idea what it feels like to relax. A few sessions of hypnotherapy can also teach you how to use visualization for self-improvement and can help you begin a meditation practice.
10. Drugs and Herbs
Tranquilizers are used by many to relax, but are not as safe or effective as the methods described above. There are natural substances that you can try. Spearmint and chamomile teas are both mildly relaxing, and you can drink as much of them as you want. A stronger remedy is passionflower, available at health food stores.