Relax and Unwind – How to Guide

Friends helping each other relax and unwind

By Paul Clifford with Amy Jaya

The Australian Psychological Society, the peak member body for psychologists in Australia, conducted a Stress & Wellbeing survey of over 1500 Australians in mid 2013.

Respondents reported significantly lower levels of wellbeing and significantly higher levels of stress and distress than in the previous two years.  65% reported that current stress was affecting their mental health with one in five people reporting it had a strong to very strong impact on their mental health.

With so many people reporting higher levels of stress and lower levels of wellbeing, there is a high degree of interest in strategies to reverse this trend – strategies that will help people relax and unwind.

I’ll admit I’m not a ‘take it easy’ kind of person.  I’m pretty much on the go most of the time.  What that means though is I have to work extra hard to relax and unwind.

In this article I am going to talk about a few strategies that help me to relax and unwind.  You’ll notice that some are physical and some are psychological and some are a combination of both.

Exercise:  I love running but I also do Yoga, Pilates and some weight training.  My advice – do the exercise that you enjoy the most.  For me running can be tough but it is simultaneously very enjoyable, and it is enjoyable primarily because it is an exercise in mastery.  I gain a lot of satisfaction from doing it well.  Running stretches out my muscles, allows my mind to switch off from my ‘to do’ list and it gets me out into the fresh air, all important to de-stress.  However, the most powerful de-stressing aspect of running for me is that it provides me with an opportunity for accomplishment, which increases my self esteem and as a result reduces my stress levels.   Doing Yoga or Pilates enables me to calm my mind as well as stretch my body.  Given Yoga and Pilates routines require concentration, especially for a beginner like me, I am focused and in the moment, and as such my mind is taken away from more stressful thoughts.   According to Byrne, A. & Byrne, D.G. (1993), ‘The Effect of Exercise on Depression, Anxiety and Other Mood States: A Review’, (Journal of Psychosematic Research, Vol.37, pp.565-574), “there is now a growing set of reliable research evidence indicating that regular exercise alleviates negative mood states, such as depression and anxiety”.

Entertain yourself:  This could mean listening to music, reading a book, going to a movie or involving yourself in some other fun activity.  Once again the most important thing is that it is something you enjoy.  I find the level of escapism that such activities bring can be highly valuable as they give my mind a break from my worries or concerns.  The other advantage of taking time to indulge in doing your most enjoyable activities is that it elevates your mood which can have an impact on your ability to solve problems.  According to a study by Murray, Sujan, Hirt, & Sujan, 1990, positive mood states were shown to enable individuals to categorize items, people, and situations more flexibly and creatively.  The advantage of establishing the conditions for flexible and creative thinking is that you are better positioned to return to the issues that were worrying you and solve those problems or view them in a more positive light.  What appeared intolerable when in a low mood can suddenly appear very manageable when in a positive mood.  So the seeking out of enjoyable activities can have numerous benefits – they can give you respite from the negative feelings, provide you with moments of positive emotion to savour and they can take you to an elevated position that enables you to better manage or solve your problems.

Let It Out:  A highly beneficial technique for relaxing and unwinding is talking about the issues that are troubling you with a trusted friend, partner or counselor.  They say a problem shared is a problem halved and it is amazing how true this can be.  The other person may provide no meaningful solution, but their ability to listen and demonstrate care and empathy can be significant in helping to ease your tension.  A paper entitled, ‘Research summary on the therapeutic relationship and psychotherapy outcome’ Lambert, Michael J.; Barley, Dean E. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Vol 38(4), 2001, found “common factors such as empathy, warmth, and the therapeutic relationship have been shown to correlate more highly with client outcome than specialized treatment interventions”.  In other words the therapist was more important than the therapy in creating positive outcomes.  In your case it doesn’t have to be a therapist.  A friend or partner may enable the same kind of outcome.

Many of us have a tendency to bottle things up rather than talk about them.  For some, bottling things up can be a strategy of avoidance, others can be fearful of what might arise if the issue is discussed, and for others it could be embarrassment or difficulty in clearly expressing the problem.  Whichever it is, it is helpful to remember the times before where we have shared and how we felt afterwards.  Often it is like a huge weight has been lifted off our shoulders.  Talking it through with someone else can often lead to solutions you could not have thought of on your own.  The sheer act of letting things out to someone else (or on paper as another alternative), can be a cathartic experience, releasing you from tension and helping you to relax and unwind.

Meditate:  This is a new one for me but has already proved to be a great mechanism for giving me some peace of mind and providing a catalyst for longer states of relaxation.  Meditation is a process of calming or stilling the mind with the aim of being in the moment without a myriad of thoughts racing through our head.  I say without a myriad of thoughts because it is almost impossible to avoid any thought.  I prefer to think of meditation as the attempt to silence the mind, knowing that complete silence is a lofty goal that takes considerable practice.

Meditation is particularly challenging when you are experiencing strong emotions.  It is at these times that some cognitive reframing – changing the way you think about the issues and putting a more positive slant on them – might be beneficial beforehand.   The reframing and meditation could be a powerful one-two combination in that instance.

Being able to relax and unwind can involve physical or mental processes.  Often it can involve both.  When life is particularly hectic it would not be wise to use ‘physical’ strategies like exercise or going on holidays as your only tools in an effort to relax and unwind.  Complete time out to rest is important but that won’t get you to your goal of peace of mind unless you simultaneously employ some mental strategies.

The strategies above are just some of the things that may help you relax and unwind.  It is important to try a variety and see what works for you.  Chances are you’ll experience some stressful periods in 2014.  It’s good to have some strategies in place and ready to go when the time arrives.

Remember to leave a comment

Paul Clifford is a psychologist with consulting firm FBG Group

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  1. Viv Rotstein says:

    What a great and inspiring article!

  2. A very useful guide on this topic – thanks

  3. DannyBryant says:

    I liked these suggestions on how to manage stress and wellbeing. I’m curious to know whether the article speculated on whether on possible causes for this increase self-reported stress and lower levels of wellbeing. Is it possibly associated with higher expectations of health and happiness? After all, generally speaking, we are the healthiest we have ever been in human history.

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