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How to harness the relaxation response

A man wearing over-ear headphones leans back on a couch, eyes closed.

April 8, 2024—Everywhere you turn, you'll find stress. Whether it's from your job, relationships, finances or health—or all of the above—stress can pile up, leaving you feeling drained and overwhelmed.

Frequent stress can damage your health over time. Healthy habits and coping techniques can help manage chronic stress. But it's also important to know how to handle stress when it strikes.

Stress and the relaxation response

When you experience stress, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. It releases stress hormones into your bloodstream that cause your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure to increase.

The relaxation response is a natural antidote to that fight-or-flight response, reports the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health" (NCCIH). It lowers your heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormone levels. And you can trigger that response whenever you're feeling stressed.

Start with these simple techniques from the NCCIH and the American Cancer Society" (ACS).

Pause and breathe. This basic relaxation-response exercise can reduce tension in just a few minutes.

  • Find a quiet place to sit or lie down.
  • With your eyes closed, breathe in and out through your nostrils. Focus on the feeling and sound of your breathing.
  • Continue this relaxed breathing for up to 20 minutes.
  • When you're finished, gently open your eyes. Sit for a few moments longer before slowly getting up.

Go outside for a stroll. Slow your pace. Notice what you see, hear and smell.

Take a vacation—in your head. Picture yourself hiking in the mountains or walking on a beach. Imagine and savor all the details.

Try diaphragmatic breathing. You can keep your eyes open or closed for this exercise.

  • Sit or lie down.
  • Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen.
  • Breathe in deeply, filling your lungs and belly with air.
  • Breathe out slowly, pressing gently on your chest.
  • Relax the muscles in your face, jaw, neck and shoulders.

Practice progressive muscle relaxation. This 15-minute technique offers whole-body relaxation. Focus on the muscles in one area of your body at a time, moving from head to toe (or vice versa).

  • Sit or lie down.
  • Breathe in and tense the muscles in your chosen area for five seconds.
  • Breathe out, relaxing the tensed muscles.
  • Notice the difference between your muscles when they're tensed and when they're relaxed.
  • Rest for a few seconds, then move to the next muscle group and repeat.

Take time to relax

Set aside a few minutes each day to practice relaxation. Just 5 or 10 minutes can help, says the ACS. You'll be better equipped to manage stress as it happens. And it may lead to better sleep, which will help you cope better with stress the next day.

If you feel stressed often, let your doctor know. It may be time to give yourself a stress tune-up.


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