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10 relaxation techniques for busy professionals

There is a lot going on in the world at present, and you aren’t alone if you are feeling a little stressed, disheartened, demoralised or melancholic in response to the daily news (never mind what might be going on in your own personal life), writes Karen Gillespie.

Between the New Zealand shooting, Brexit, catastrophic weather events, plane crashes, Australian and NSW election nonsense and the usual carrying-on in Trump-land, you have to look hard to find something to feel cheerful about!

These societal and governmental influences on our wellbeing are hard for us to exert any control over (unless you chose to join the march in London last Saturday or some similar public action). So this leaves us with one choice – to be mindful of our reactions to these external happenings and manage our stress response.

Relaxation can take many forms. It’s a very individualised experience – one person’s relaxation (e.g. running) might be another’s worst nightmare! Each to their own, and it’s important to find something that works for you and brings you a sense of ease, release from tension and hopefully physiological benefits into the bargain.

In our work with leaders, we often encourage them to experiment with simple relaxation techniques that can be applied at work, at home or in the car – and are relatively quick at achieving a calmer state. “Relaxation” doesn’t have to mean taking a holiday or being horizontal on the couch. We encourage everyone to have a few favourite techniques that help lower their internal tension throughout each day.

Drawing from a literature review on this topic, we are presenting 10 forms of relaxation. Some are easy to learn and practice on your own, and some require the help of trained practitioners. Which of these can you experiment with?

Progressive muscle relaxation

This was developed by the physician Edmund Jacobson in the early 1920s. Jacobson argued that since muscle tension accompanies anxiety, one can reduce anxiety by learning how to relax the muscular tension. Recent research has demonstrated many long-term benefits of progressive muscle relaxation, including decreased blood pressure, heart rate and even headaches. Those of you who find exercise a good way to “switch off” may also find progressive muscle relaxation techniques suit you.

Guided imagery

This has been component of ancient medicine, religions and cultures for thousands of years but was first presented in an academic context in 1982. It involves exploring the image of a safe, comfortable place (specific to you) using all your senses and linking aspects of this image to your relaxed physiological state. There is research demonstrating its benefits for a multitude of health concerns including depression, stress reduction, asthma and pain management.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Otherwise known as “belly” or deep breathing, it is marked by expansion of the abdomen rather than the chest when breathing. Daily practice in inhaling and exhaling more deeply and slowly will have immediate benefits to calm you down and help you feel more grounded and ready to tackle the next thing in your day. The longer-term benefits are a reduction in anxiety, asthma and hypertension. If you can master concentrating on your breathing, then meditation and mindfulness might also be beneficial.

Autogenic training

This is a self-relaxation procedure in which the individual learns a set of directions/exercises that command the body to relax and control breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat and body temperature. There are six standard exercises that – with the use of visual imagination and verbal cues – make the body feel warm, heavy and relaxed. Studies have shown the technique to positively impact tension headache/migraine, mild to moderate hypertension, coronary heart disease, asthma pain disorders, anxiety disorders, mild to moderate depression/dysthymia, and some sleep disorders.

Relaxation response

It is a simple practice that, once learned, takes 10 to 20 minutes a day to achieve relaxation. It involves: a) repetition of a word, sound, prayer, thought, phrase or muscular movement, through which concentration is achieved; b) passive return to the repetition when other thoughts intrude. During the process, the body moves to a state of physiological relaxation, where blood pressure, heart rate, digestive functioning and hormonal levels return to their normal state.


This is a process that teaches an individual how to change physiological activity in their body for the purposes of improving health and performance. Precise instruments measure physiological activity such as brainwaves, heart function, breathing, muscle activity and skin temperature. These instruments rapidly and accurately “feedback” information to the individual. The presentation of this information – often in conjunction with changes in thinking, emotions and behaviour – supports desired physiological changes.

Over time, these changes can endure without continued use of an instrument. Biofeedback has been used successfully for the treatment of headaches, the control of high blood pressure and type II diabetes and cardiac disease. This technique is done with a trained practitioner and equipment.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction

Such reduction is a structured eight-week group program employing mindfulness meditation to alleviate mental and physical suffering, associated with physical, psychosomatic and psychiatric disorders. It has been used successfully in the management of anxiety and depression, diabetes, in chronic disease and in chronic pain. It may also improve patient’s psychosocial adjustment to cancer and offer psychological and health benefits to cancer patients.

Emotional freedom technique

This has been shown to rapidly reduce the emotional impact of memories and incidents that trigger emotional distress. Once the distress is reduced or removed, the body can often rebalance itself, and accelerate healing. It involves the person tapping on nine acupoints on their body, while speaking aloud a specific, meaningful short phrase.

According to the literature, this acupressure paired with imaginal exposure reduces brain hyperarousal and counter-conditions anxiety and traumatic memories. It can result in reduced pain perception and has been shown to be an effective intervention for some phobias, anxiety and depression, psychological trauma and PTSD.

Transcendental meditation

It is a simple, psychophysiological stress reduction procedure, introduced to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a scholar of the ancient Vedic tradition of India. The technique is simple and easily learned (from a practitioner): in effect, it is a 20-minute practice twice daily, sitting with your eyes closed and repeating a mantra – a meaningless sequence of sounds specific to you – to promote a natural shift of awareness to a wakeful but deeply restful state. Studies show that regular practice of TM has a positive impact on the brain functioning and attention and builds resilience to stressful situations.

Cognitive behavioural therapy

This is an established, evidence-based structured and time-limited psychological treatment for several health conditions such as anxiety disorders, major depression and health problems such as insomnia, headache and tinnitus, among others. The individual works with a trained practitioner to gain awareness of detrimental beliefs and thought habits and replace these with life-enhancing thoughts and beliefs.

Karen Gillespie is an occupational psychologist and co-founder of GLWS Wellbeing. This post originally appeared on the GLWS blog.

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