Anxiety relaxation techniques: how to relax when you have anxiety

Introducing and using techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing and visualisation can help you to relax your body and mind.

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What's the purpose of relaxation techniques?

Common symptoms of anxiety include heart rate increases, muscle tension and an increase in your rate of breathing.

By using relaxation techniques as part of your strategy to deal with anxiety, you can start to manage your physical and psychological symptoms more effectively, improving your physical and mental health. These techniques will help to instruct both your body and brain to relax. They'll also act as a good distraction, giving you an opportunity to distance yourself from the worried thoughts that caused your anxiety in the first place.

Anxiety relaxation techniques

Give these five exercises a go as part of your strategy for coping with anxiety.

1. Deep breathing exercises

These simple breathing exercises help to slow your heart rate down and reduce your blood pressure, both of which increase when you’re anxious. This will leave you feeling calm and relaxed.

There are plenty of established breathing exercises for anxiety. Here’s how to do one of the most effective – diaphragmatic belly breathing:

  • Find somewhere quiet and sit down in a chair or lie down on a sofa
  • Place one hand on your chest and one just above your belly button. Breathe in deeply through your nose and imagine this breath going down through your body so that your belly rises naturally
  • You should feel the hand on your stomach rise, but your chest will remain relatively still. Focus on the difference in movement between your hands
  • Exhale slowly through pursed lips. you should then feel your stomach – and the hand on top – fall naturally
  • Repeat the process for 10 minutes or until your anxiety has reduced

Watch: breathing exercises for anxiety

Join our expert therapist, Priory's Adele Burdon-Bailey, as she takes you through key breathing exercises designed to reduce anxiety and return you to a state of calm.

2. Muscle relaxation exercises

Muscle relaxation helps you to relax muscles that are tense as a result of your anxiety.

During a muscle relaxation exercise, you tense and relax certain muscle groups one at a time. As you do so, you should notice a difference in how that part of your body feels. The tension and stress should dissipate, leaving the area feeling loose and relaxed.

Here's how to quickly relieve anxiety-induced muscle tension:

  • Find a quiet place and sit comfortably. Start by gaining control of your breathing, focusing on the air coming in and out of your body
  • Curl your right foot and squeeze tightly for about 5 seconds. Notice the tension in your foot
  • Slowly uncurl your foot. As you do, focus on how you feel. The tension will slowly leave your foot
  • Repeat the process in various parts of your body, working muscle groups like your hands, legs, shoulders and neck. You could work your way up your body, relieving tension as you go
  • In time, you’ll notice that each part of your body feels lighter, and free from any tension that existed before

3. Visualisation exercises

When you feel anxious, you may find that you focus on the worst possible scenarios. During these moments, learning to visualise something calm and serene can distract you from these anxious thoughts and instruct your body to relax.

Below are some tips to help you with visualisation:

  • Think about somewhere you’ve gone to where you felt relaxed. It could be a beauty spot on a holiday, your favourite local park or even your garden. The place you choose should have no connection to stress or anxiety. You may want to picture an imaginary location that you’ve never been to before, like an exotic beach or a secluded forest
  • Close your eyes and imagine yourself in this space, feeling calm and relaxed
  • Imagine the entire sensory experience – what can you hear, what do you see, what can you smell and what can you touch? When thinking about touch, is there a gentle breeze blowing through your hair, sand between your toes and warmth against your skin? Try to picture every single detail
  • Remain in this scene for 5 to 10 minutes. During this time, breathe deeply and relax your muscles, using the exercises we have already mentioned
  • When you start to feel relaxed, slowly open your eyes

4. Engage in mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice that allows us to engage in the present. Using techniques like yoga, meditation or breathing exercises, mindfulness trains us to acknowledge and control our feelings, emotions and bodily sensations. Practising mindfulness is a good way of managing thoughts that might be causing you to become anxious.

Here are two exercises that heavily involve mindfulness:

  • Guided imagery: close your eyes and think of a peaceful scene (like a beach or garden). Guide yourself through the scene, imagining the sounds, scents and sensations as you do
  • Body scan: combining breathing and muscle relaxation, body scanning challenges you to focus on an area of the body where you feel tension and mentally release it

10-minute meditation for anxiety

Written and narrated by Priory Therapist, Adele Burdon-Bailey, take 10 minutes from your day to ease anxiety and stress with this guided meditation.

5. Try some calming music

Calm, soothing music can be a quick win when you want to reduce your anxiety and stress levels. Acting as a distraction from anxious thoughts, keeping us present and forming an emotional release, music provides many anxiety-busting benefits. The science confirms it too; a study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that music can be “considered a means of stress reduction in daily life, especially if it is listened to for the reason of relaxation.”

Classical or slow and soft pop alternatives are often the best types of music to listen to, but find what works for you.

6. The 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 method

Similar to the visualisation exercises above, you could also try the 5,4,3,2,1 method (follow it step-by-step on our Instagram) as a means of distraction. Name:

  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can feel
  • 3 things you can hear
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste

Known as a grounding technique, this method encourages you to focus on your senses, bringing your attention back to the present and allowing you to relax.

How often should I practise anxiety relaxation techniques?

At first, do your preferred technique two to three times a day. The more you do it, the more comfortable it will feel. Try to commit to the techniques for a total of around 20 minutes a day.

Even if you can only practise for a few minutes a day, over time the technique should become second nature, where you're able to use it to relax yourself in moments when anxious thoughts appear.

What should I do if these techniques don’t work for me?

If you haven’t used relaxation techniques for your anxiety before, it can take a little bit of work for them to feel natural. We understand that at the start, you may feel frustrated about your inability to do them.

Try to do the exercises regularly. For some people, it can take time for the exercises to be effective.

Page clinically reviewed by Alison Hardy (Dip. in counselling, PG CBT), Senior Lead Cognitive Behavioural Therapist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford

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