Feeling Stressed? Rethinking Relaxation Can Help

Emily Boynton Fact Checked
Woman relaxes on a comfortable chair outside
© jaime grill atlas / Stocksy United

Even though we’re only partway through the year, I think we can all agree: 2020 has been stressful. And with so much going on, it can feel like the entire world is living in a giant pressure cooker. 

One of the best ways to cope with stress is through relaxation, which can help ease tension and prevent stress-related health issues like headaches, fatigue and even increased risk of heart disease. 

“It’s important to give yourself space and permission to feel relaxed, especially in times where everything feels really out of control,” says Emily Dworkin, an acting assistant professor in the UW School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. 

While the concept of relaxation is easy enough to grasp, in practice it can be hard to actually do — especially when you have ongoing anxiety around your health, financial stability or safety.

To make things a little easier, Dworkin shares tips on how to relax during stressful times. 

Build a calming routine

Turns out, the key to relaxation is less about what you do and more about how regularly you do it.

“Try to create a plan for something that you can do daily that is a positive activity,” Dworkin says. “Having something constant is really important when there is so much uncertainty in the world.”

You may find that a taking a couple minutes in the morning for deep breathing works best, that coloring on your lunch break helps you unwind or that you like an old-fashioned bubble bath before bed. 

If you are looking for some relaxation inspiration, Dworkin recommends trying diaphragmatic breathing, a technique that helps you use your diaphragm, a muscle below your lungs, while breathing. 

To complete this exercise, first sit somewhere comfy. Breathe in through your nose for a count of five, focusing on expanding your belly. Hold for a count of five, and then exhale slowly for a count of seven while you say a soothing word. 

“As you breathe out, you’ll feel the stress leave your body,” Dworkin says.

Whatever you choose, intentionally devoting a couple minutes each day to a calming activity will help boost your overall well-being.

Sit with the hard stuff

While incorporating these general techniques into your routine is an important first step, it can take more than some yoga or an exfoliating face mask to calm down when you are dealing with objectively stressful situations like a pandemic.

“When I talk about relaxation, I don’t just talk about basic self-care activities,” Dworkin says. “It’s also about giving yourself some space to feel your feelings.”

It may seem counterintuitive, but setting aside time to move through feelings of worry, stress and anxiety can help you ultimately feel calmer and more relaxed.

This is because when you ignore your difficult feelings, they don’t just go away. Instead, they can fester and cause harm to your mental and physical health.

In contrast, if you let yourself experience your painful emotions, it will turn down the intensity of those feelings in the long run, Dworkin says.

You can use a meditation app to help you do this, or simply get quiet and tune into yourself. You can also try setting aside time daily to write about your stresses. 

No matter how you decide to sit with your emotions, the key is to not judge what you are experiencing. 

“Relaxation is giving space for the positive and the negative. When you finally pause and allow yourself to feel what you are feeling without judgment, your mind can settle and relax,” Dworkin says.

Find calm in a crisis 

In general, allowing your feelings to move through you without pushing them away is the best practice; however, there are some crisis cases where you may need to help your body relax in the moment by subduing strong emotional reactions. 

For example, if you work in healthcare and find donning personal protective gear triggers a panic response, you can utilize relaxation techniques to quickly calm down racing thoughts and bodily reactions. 

Similarly, if your fear of going into your doctor’s office has prevented you from getting necessary care, short-term options can help you relax long enough to get in the door. 

To do this, Dworkin recommends a practice called grounding — though she notes to use it sparingly, and only as a short-term solution when it is not possible, safe or healthy to feel your feelings.

“Essentially, you try to distract yourself from the emotional reaction,” she says. “Grounding in a crisis would be something like looking around and naming three things you can see, hear and touch. It’s checking in with your senses and getting your mind off of the intense emotional response.”

In short, grounding can help you cope with stress when you are in situations where you can’t reasonably sit with what you are feeling. Later, when you’re no longer in that moment and stressful environment, you can create a space where you can address those emotions and let them pass through.

Use what works for you

Especially during stressful times, try not to put pressure on yourself to relax in a certain (read: Instagram-worthy) way.

The best way to relax will differ depending on the situation you’re in and what you enjoy. Likely, what works for you will involve a combination of different activities and techniques. 

“It’s up to you how you want to relax,” Dworkin says. “The key is allowing yourself the space to do it.”

The info in this article is accurate as of the publishing date. While Right as Rain strives to keep our stories as current as possible, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve. It’s possible some things have changed since publication. We encourage you to stay informed by checking out your local health department resources, like Public Health Seattle King County or Washington State Department of Health.