Feelings of anxiety and stress can be so unpleasant that they disrupt our daily life. We may struggle to focus, sleep, or work, and we might even hurt the people around us.
Fortunately, there are methods we can use to curb anxiety. This post outlines some key relaxation techniques that you can use with your clients or on yourself to reduce anxiety and stress. Most of these techniques are practical, although other cognitive methods are also mentioned.
If you do feel overwhelmed with stress and are struggling to cope, consider consulting an expert who can help you. This post is not meant to replace the invaluable guidance and expertise that a clinical psychologist has but is an additional tool for combating anxiety.
With that said, get a steaming mug of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s begin.
Before you start reading, we thought you might like to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises (PDF) for free. These science-based exercises will equip you and those you work with, with tools to manage stress better and find a healthier balance in your life.
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4 Best Relaxation Techniques for Anxiety
Significant progress has been made toward the nonpharmacological treatment of anxiety. Nonpharmacological treatments include any treatments that are not medications or drugs; examples include relaxation techniques, types of therapies, and even exercise.
Effect of relaxation techniques on anxiety
Manzoni, Pagnini, Castelnuovo, and Molinari (2008) published a meta-analysis looking at the efficacy of different relaxation techniques at reducing anxiety. Typically, relaxation techniques are used to thwart how we feel and think when we find ourselves in an anxiety-inducing situation.
The meta-analysis included the following techniques:
- Autogenic training
- Jacobson progressive relaxation
- Meditation (combined with Benson’s technique)
- Applied relaxation
- Other techniques (none of the above)
Overall, the authors found that relaxation techniques were effective in reducing feelings of anxiety. This positive effect was found in studies that included a control group as a comparison (i.e., a between-subjects design) and studies where participants were compared to their own baseline of anxiety before using the technique (i.e., a within-subject design).
The efficacy ranking of the different techniques differed depending on the type of study design; however, the authors tentatively recommend that meditation, applied relaxation, and progressive relaxation are the best strategies to adopt. These strategies are described later in this post.
These results have been confirmed in other meta-analyses. Specifically, meditation has a positive effect of reducing anxiety in patients with cardiovascular illness (Ospina et al., 2007) and cancer (Bränström, Kvillemo, Brandberg, & Moskowitz, 2010; Elkins, Fisher, & Johnson, 2010).
Effect of mindfulness and acceptance-based interventions
In a more recent meta-analysis, Vøllestad, Nielsen, and Nielsen (2012) compared the outcomes of mindfulness and acceptance-based interventions on anxiety disorders. Mindfulness and acceptance-based interventions include:
- Awareness of breathing
- Redirecting attending to one’s breath
- Body scan
- Walking meditation
Acceptance-based interventions include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Acceptance-Based Behavior Therapy, and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. Vøllestad et al. (2012) provide a summary of these therapies.
Overall, the results indicated that these treatments led to a reduction in anxiety symptoms and depression. Furthermore, these therapies also improved quality of life scores, suggesting that these therapies do more than just reduce anxiety symptoms.
Effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on anxiety
A mindfulness-based relaxation technique often researched is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR; Kabat-Zinn, 1990).
The original concept of MSBR consisted of a mix of meditation, yoga, body scan, and lectures about mindfulness that spanned eight weeks. Program participants are encouraged to practice this intervention for 45 minutes each day for six days per week to achieve the maximum benefit.
Initially, MBSR was designed to assist clinical patients, but it is often used with nonclinical populations too (e.g., Khoury, Sharma, Rush, & Fournier, 2015).
Meta-analyses have consistently shown that MSBR techniques lead to positive outcomes by reducing stress and anxiety, as well as physiological measures such as blood pressure (Khoury et al., 2015), although long-term effects are unknown (De Vibe, Bjørndal, Tipton, Hammerstrøm, & Kowalski, 2012).
Physical activity and exercise
There is also evidence that physical activity, such as exercise, can reduce symptoms of anxiety.
Jayakody, Gunadasa, and Hosker (2014) report that exercise does reduce symptoms of anxiety but is most effective when combined with antidepressant medication, meditation therapy, and/or lifestyle changes.
Subsequent studies have also found a positive effect of exercise on anxiety in nonclinical populations (Rebar et al., 2015); however, the relationship between exercise and anxiety reported by clinical populations is less clear (see discussion in Rebar et al., 2015).
Top 4 Ways to Deal With Stress
Here is a list of ways to help deal with stress.
One of the first steps toward coping with stress and anxiety is to put yourself first. You need to get enough sleep, eat healthily, do exercise, take time to recharge, have uninterrupted time to work, and have time to socialize. Without boundaries, you won’t be able to implement any of the other treatments.
To be able to do all of these things, you need to have boundaries. If you do not have enough time available to take on another task, learn to say ‘No’ or delegate the task to someone else.
You must make time for yourself to do things that you like. Ensure you are in bed at a certain time so that you can get enough sleep. Without boundaries, you won’t have the space to do the necessary muscle relaxation techniques described below or take a ‘breather’ when you’ve had a difficult work week.
Learn to recognize signs of anxiety
The next step is to identify how anxiety and stress manifest in your life. For example, some people have trouble sleeping when they are stressed out, whereas others might feel irritable.
Monitoring these symptoms is difficult because you need to be aware of what to look for. However, developing this awareness is very useful because it can help you implement supportive strategies before your anxiety becomes overwhelming and destructive.
Here are some ways to monitor signs of anxiety:
- Look at your behavior in the past few months and think back to times when you felt very stressed. Can you find any examples of your behavior that repeatedly appear during this period?
- Keep a journal for a few weeks where you track how you feel, your level of anxiety, and any other behaviors that you think might be informative, such as sleep, eating, mood, energy, your thoughts, amount of time spent working, and motivation.
- Ask your parents, family, and friends if they are able to tell when you are stressed out or anxious.
When you know how your anxiety manifests, then you can take steps to tackle these symptoms. For example, if you struggle to focus, then you can consider meditation techniques. If you feel tense, then consider muscle relaxation techniques.
Muscle relaxation techniques
Muscle relaxation techniques can be very useful at reducing anxiety. When feeling anxious, do the following exercise:
- Sitting or lying down, focus on isolating different muscles.
- Starting with one set of muscles, like your shoulders, clench these muscles and then release them.
- Work through the different groups of muscles, one after the other, clenching and then releasing the muscle group completely.
To be effective, these techniques should be practiced often, even in times when you are not feeling stress.
Techniques aimed at developing mindfulness are very effective at treating anxiety and stress (Kushner & Marnocha, 2008).
Some examples of these techniques include:
In each of these techniques, you will learn how to turn your attention inward, calm your mind by reducing the effect of distracting thoughts, and consequently direct your thoughts constructively.
Some mindfulness techniques require more time than others. For example, a body scan typically only takes three minutes, whereas yoga can last between 20 and 90 minutes. Consequently, some of these techniques are more easily implemented in different contexts. For example, body scans and relaxation exercises can be used at work or in any quiet place, like a parked car. Yoga, however, needs more physical space.
Mindfulness techniques are difficult to master and require regular exercise; knowing this, it’s important not to feel disheartened if it feels impossible. Make sure to prioritize time and space for regular practice. The effects are not immediate, but it will get easier with practice.
A Look at Body and Muscle Relaxation Techniques
Meditation refers to an exercise where you practice awareness to clear your mind of distracting thoughts and feelings (Kushner & Marnocha, 2008). There are different types of meditation, but they share the primary goal of increasing mindfulness and helping patients control their thoughts, guiding or directing them in a useful way.
Mindfulness can be developed through meditation, but also through exercises like mindful walking, mindful drawing, and mindful journaling.
Progressive relaxation was first described by Edmund Jacobson in 1924. The premise is that the patient learns to tense and relax specific muscle groups one at a time until maximum relaxation is achieved.
Together with the therapist, the patient learns how to identify, tense, and relax a tense muscle/muscle group.
Armed with this knowledge, the patient can identify when they are feeling tense and learn how to relax muscles that contribute to this sensation. The full technique is described by Jacobson (1924, 1925), or you can read our guide on Progressive Muscle Relaxation.
Applied relaxation stems from the understanding that anxiety develops from the interaction of multiple systems (Hayes-Skelton, Roemer, Orsillo, & Borkovec, 2013; Öst, 1987). For example, if you start to feel anxious and develop physical symptoms like increased heart palpitations, then your cognitive system is also activated.
Once you become aware of how you are feeling, this makes you feel anxious. The full technique is outlined in Öst (1987).
With applied relaxation, the patient uses the techniques of progressive relaxation but in an applied setting. First, the patient has to learn how symptoms of anxiety manifest for them. Then if the patient recognizes their symptoms of anxiety, they can use the relaxation techniques to deactivate the spread of the anxiety from one system to the other.
5 Useful Worksheets and PDFs
Learning to identify symptoms of anxiety is difficult, but the Interoceptive Exposure worksheet can help.
With this worksheet, people are taught how to identify various symptoms of anxiety through certain activities; for example, breathing rapidly, spinning around, or concentrating on a spot. If you experience any discomfort or dizziness, then complete these exercises under the supervision of a clinician or doctor.
The STOP the Panic worksheet is similar to the applied relaxation technique. Both techniques can be used in a stressful situation when anxiety or panic is imminent. This worksheet outlines a four-step process to reduce feelings of anxiety by focusing on each of the following:
- Slower breath
- Thoughts and feelings
- Open up
- Personal values
Cognitive Restructuring of an Event discusses how we cognitively frame stressful events. Specifically, you learn how to reframe negative thoughts about a particular event into positive ones.
Changing the way that we think about events can also change the way we feel about events, which ties in with the applied relaxation technique (i.e., multiple systems work together when we feel anxious). This type of exercise requires regular practice, so don’t feel despondent if it doesn’t work for you immediately.
Here are two excellent worksheets that can be used to teach progressive muscle relaxation to children.
The Noodle Caboodle worksheet is better suited for younger children or a classroom setting. Using this exercise, children are taught how to become like a noodle by relaxing their muscles.
The Progressive Muscle Relaxation sheet targets older children. The concept is the same as Noodle Caboodle, except that the language and imagery are more mature. Both sets of exercises are taught by a clinician/teacher who needs to guide the children through the exercise. Like most techniques, these exercises should be practiced regularly, either in class/therapy or at home.
PositivePsychology.com and Mindfulness X© Resources
At PositivePsychology.com, you’ll find many resources that help with anxiety, mindfulness, and deep breathing exercises. A few resources that address the techniques described in this post are listed below.
Personal Needs Meditation
During Personal Needs Meditation, clients learn how to identify personal needs that need extra attention. As mentioned earlier, we tend to neglect our personal needs during times of stress, and consequently, we feel depleted and run down.
This meditation takes only 15 minutes and can be performed at home or with the helpful guidance of a clinician.
Adaptive and Nonadaptive Coping Thoughts
This tool helps clients identify helpful and unhelpful cognitive coping strategies.
During the exercise, clients reflect on the types of thoughts that they have during a stressful period and learn to classify these thoughts as active, surrender, passive, or over control. Once clients have learned how to categorize their thoughts, they can work together with a clinician to develop better coping strategies.
Initiating Physical Activity
This intervention tool will help clients incorporate an exercise regime in their daily lives. Clients are encouraged to identify why they want to start exercising and to reduce the barrier to entry by listing expected obstacles and possible solutions.
The type of exercise doesn’t need to be vigorous and can include low-intensity exercise such as yoga. This tool can also be adapted for other types of activities that require a regular commitment. For example, clients can use this tool when starting a meditation habit.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This 20-minute exercise teaches patients how to tense and relax different muscle groups as a way to induce relaxation.
Although this exercise doesn’t need to be taught by a clinician, clients will benefit from expert guidance to help them direct their attention to different muscle groups and check whether the muscle is thoroughly relaxed. However, after the first session, the client should be able to practice the exercise at home by themselves.
This science-based mindfulness training masterclass is the ideal tool to understand the science behind mindfulness and how to apply it practically to relaxation techniques and thereby anxiety and stress management.
The course is in high demand; it is an online self-paced course consisting of eight training sessions, and it comes with videos, exercises, slides, and worksheets.
A Take-Home Message
Feelings of anxiety and stress can be paralyzing and make us feel powerless over our surroundings.
However, there are a number of relaxation techniques that can effectively reduce anxiety. All of these techniques are easy to use; however, like most nonpharmacological treatments, you need to practice them regularly to reap the benefits.
For further reading, take a look at these posts:
- The Art of Coping: Strategies and Skills to Help Your Clients Cope
- Anxiety Therapy: Types, Techniques and Worksheets
- 20 Best Mindfulness Meditation Podcasts of 2020
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises (PDF) for free.
If you wish to learn more, Mindfulness X© is our eight-module mindfulness training package for practitioners and contains all the materials you’ll need to not only enhance your mindfulness skills, but also learn how to deliver science-based mindfulness training to your clients, students, or employees.
- Bränström, R., Kvillemo, P., Brandberg, Y., & Moskowitz, J. T. (2010). Self-report mindfulness as a mediator of psychological well-being in a stress reduction intervention for cancer patients—A randomized study. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 39(2), 151–161.
- De Vibe, M., Bjørndal, A., Tipton, E., Hammerstrøm, K., & Kowalski, K. (2012). Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) for improving health, quality of life, and social functioning in adults. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 8(1), 1–127.
- Elkins, G., Fisher, W., & Johnson, A. (2010). Mind-body therapies in integrative oncology. Current Treatment Options in Oncology, 11(3–4), 128–140.
- Hayes-Skelton, S. A., Roemer, L., Orsillo, S. M., & Borkovec, T. D. (2013). A contemporary view of applied relaxation for generalized anxiety disorder. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 42(4), 292–302.
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- Jayakody, K., Gunadasa, S., & Hosker, C. (2014). Exercise for anxiety disorders: Systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48(3), 187–196.
- Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York, NY: Delta Publishing.
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- Kushner, K., & Marnocha, M. (2008). Meditation and relaxation. In W. T. O’Donohue & N. A. Cummings (Eds.), Evidence-based adjunctive treatments (pp. 177–205). Burlington, MA: Academic Press.
- Manzoni, G. M., Pagnini, F., Castelnuovo, G., & Molinari, E. (2008). Relaxation training for anxiety: A ten-years systematic review with meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry, 8(1), 41.
- Ospina, M. B., Bond, K., Karkhaneh, M., Tjosvold, L., Vandermeer, B., Liang, Y., … & Klassen, T. P. (2007). Meditation practices for health: State of the research. Evidence Report/Technology Assessment, 155, 1–263.
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- Rebar, A. L., Stanton, R., Geard, D., Short, C., Duncan, M. J., & Vandelanotte, C. (2015). A meta-meta-analysis of the effect of physical activity on depression and anxiety in non-clinical adult populations. Health Psychology Review, 9(3), 366–378.
- Vøllestad, J., Nielsen, M. B., & Nielsen, G. H. (2012). Mindfulness- and acceptance-based interventions for anxiety disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 51(3), 239–260.