Practising relaxation

Depression feeds off stress. Managing our stress better is one of the key things we can do to keep depression at bay. And the foundation for managing stress levels is knowing how to relax.

Start practising now

It is very easy to start mastering the skill of relaxation if you practise. Don’t wait until you feel especially stressed or low before you try it for the first time. The key is to do a bit of practice every day so that when you need it your body knows what to do without thinking too hard.

Step 1: Do you know how to breathe?

Sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it? But proper deep breathing is the foundation of relaxation, and something many of us hardly ever do! Knowing how to ‘take a deep breath’ is not just about distracting yourself from something stressful. Deep breathing cuts straight into any downward stress spirals at a biological level, feeding our brains with the right mix of gases to be able to think more clearly and take control of ourselves.

A simple breathing exercise
  • Pause and draw your attention to your breathing for a few breaths.
  • When you are ready, consciously breathe in slowly through your nose feeling the breath travel right down your body and pushing out your belly (put your hand on your belly to feel it rise).
  • Then release the breath even more slowly through your nose.
  • Do 10 more breaths like this counting to at least 3 or 4 on the in-breath and 6 or 7 on the out breath.

Step 2: Practise every day

Practise this deep breathing at least once a day. A good time is right after you get up in the morning, but you can do it anywhere anytime.

Step 3: Add a tension-reducing exercise

Once you’re comfortable with regular deep breathing practice, build in a conscious tension-reducing exercise. Use the simple exercise here, or use a recording (see below).

  • While breathing comfortably, focus on each part of your body in turn, from toes to forehead.
  • Tense each group of muscles hard and then release them.
  • This can be done lying down on your back, or sitting comfortably in a chair with your back supported.
  • You can also just focus on one group of muscles, like your shoulders and neck.

Step 4: Use your imagination

While doing these breathing and muscle-relaxing exercises, you can also use your imagination to fill your mind with calm, soothing imagery.

What usually works best is to go in your mind to your choice of beautiful natural scenes, wherever you would feel comfortable and at peace – perhaps on a quiet beach at sunset, or beside a babbling brook..

Step 5: Choose other techniques to suit you

Once you have included the basic relaxation techniques into your daily habits, you can build on them in whatever ways are most appealing to you. Some ideas include:

  • Relaxation recordings
    These have someone talking you through relaxation, muscle-relaxing and visualisation exercises. You could make your own relaxation recording by reading these scripts onto an mp3 or similar.
  • Self hypnosis
    Self hypnosis uses deep relaxation techniques to make your mind more suggestible to positive messages. You can get self hypnosis tapes to focus on a wide range of issues, including general relaxation, helping you get to sleep, anger management, anxiety control and so on.
  • Yoga, pilates or some martial arts
    Yoga and other such classes are a good place to learn and practise breathing and muscle-relaxing techniques, as well as providing a very good form of relaxing exercise.
  • Meditation
    Some yoga and martial arts teaching can include meditation techniques, or you can get special classes or books to teach you. Meditation does not have to have anything to do with religion. It is simply a way of training the mind to empty itself of thoughts. This can be very useful when your internal running commentary is caught up in depressed thinking. (See ‘Practising mindfulness’ for more)
  • Having a ‘quiet time’
    Often depression makes you fearful of quiet, alone time, as this can be the time when the depressed thoughts crowd in and are particularly bothersome. But keeping yourself constantly busy and occupied can also leave you stressed and tired. As you get better at challenging depressed thinking, it is worth building in a positive ‘quiet time’ each day or at least each week, when you plan a quiet, soothing activity on your own.This could include a long pampering bath, listening to mellow music with the lights dim, or going for a gentle walk in natural surroundings.

Avoid damaging ways to ‘chill’

Do your usual methods of relaxation fit in with what you’ve learnt on this page? Make sure you aren’t being misled by unhelpful ways to ‘chill out’ like relying on alcohol or drugs, watching too much mindless telly, or listening to depressing music. Remember that active relaxation methods, such as exercise or pursuit of an engaging creative or purposeful task, are also very effective. It is also often helpfully relaxing to be in the company of others, as discussed on the next page.

Next: Connecting with others

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Relaxation practice


Stress spirals
Modifying stress levels
Practising mindfulness