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Home Magazine 2012 Magazine Vol 1 5 The art of relaxation

Page 5 2012 Vol 1

The art of relaxation

Relaxation can help increase 
your sense of calm and reduce
anxiety and stress

The art of relaxation

Feeling stressed? Do you accept it as part of life? According to psychologist Gillian Needleman, the stress encountered in modern environments is rarely life or death, but our bodies can’t tell the difference. “We can be exhausted by the frequent perception of stress,” she says. “Our rushed busy lifestyles, the effects of hormonal changes such as menopause, lack of fitness, illness, poor nutrition and thinking habits can all cause stress.”

Signs of stress

These may include difficulty concentrating, memory problems, frequent worry and negative or anxious thoughts. Stress can make us moody, irritable, feel overwhelmed and generally unhappy – even depressed. Physical symptoms like aches, pains, chest tightness, nausea, dizziness, bowel habit changes, loss of libido and increased frequency of colds/flu may also result. Stress can also lead to changes in eating or sleeping routines and use of alcohol, cigarettes or other drugs.

How can relaxation help?

Our familiarity with the term ‘work-life balance’ often doesn’t translate into practice. “Relaxation can help increase your sense of calm and reduce anxiety and stress,” Gillian says. Relaxation techniques can slow heart and breathing rates, reduce blood pressure and decrease muscle tension. People who practice relaxation may experience enhanced energy and immunity, more restful sleep, increased concentration and smoother emotional states.

Positive thinking

Positive thinking and affirmations can counter negative thoughts and improve self-confidence. An example of an affirmation might be “I am at peace”. Gillian says worry and negative anticipation produce stress. “Rather than focus on or worry about the future, realise that the most powerful place is the present,” she encourages. “Live in the moment by reminding yourself where you are right now and choosing your thoughts and behaviour.”


Have you ever noticed feeling less stressed after a good laugh? Laughter yoga teacher Carolyn Nicholson says our bodies can’t distinguish between fake and real laughter. “One gets the same physiological and psychological benefits,” she explains. “Laughter yoga combines unconditional laughter with yogic breathing. Laughter is simulated as a body exercise in a group and soon turns into real and contagious laughter.” When we laugh, our body starts to produce natural chemicals that lower blood pressure and heart rate, increase immune system function and reduce stress. “Laughter lowers our inhibitions so that we connect with others and our childlike joyful nature more easily,” Carolyn adds. “In my experience, laughter can lift people out of depression and help foster a positive and hopeful attitude.”

Physical activity

Research indicates that just 10 minutes of exercise is all that is needed to put people in a more positive mood. “Exercise can release endorphins which give you a feeling of happiness, keep cortisol (a stress hormone) in check and help your mind to relax,” Gillian says. “Aim to do an exercise you enjoy three to four times each week.” Rhythmic exercise like running, walking, rowing or cycling is most effective at relieving stress when you focus on your body’s movement and how your breathing matches the movement.

Deep breathing is a simple but powerful relaxation technique that can be done anywhere, anytime

Relaxation exercises

1. Progressive muscle relaxation involves methodically tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in the body. With practice, you learn to feel the difference between tension and complete relaxation. This awareness helps you recognise and offset the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies stress. A variation is to simply focus on the sensations in each part of your body so you become aware of where the tension is – the neck, shoulders, and head are common stress points.

2. Deep breathing is a simple but powerful relaxation technique that can be done anywhere, anytime. It helps focus you on the present moment by concentrating on the ‘in and out’ breaths. In Eastern philosophies, mastery of the breath is the key to controlling the body’s life force energy. With every inhalation, you draw energy into your body. With every exhalation, you let go of tension in your body. Deep breathing can be combined with aromatherapy and music.


Some people don’t find sitting still very relaxing. Hobbies can offer distraction from daily routines and tensions and open your mind to life’s possibilities. Do you dream about volunteer work or making mosaics? There’s no time like the present!


Yoga combines a series of physical postures, deep breathing and meditation. Research suggests that yoga might improve mood and general sense of wellbeing, counteract stress and reduce heart rate and blood pressure. It may also improve muscle relaxation, overall physical fitness, strength and flexibility.

Meditation and mindfulness

There is some evidence to suggest that meditation may help reduce anxiety, stress, blood pressure, chronic pain and insomnia. Mindfulness is the ability to remain aware of how you’re feeling right now. Rather than worry about the past or future, the aim is to stay calm and focused in the present moment. The technique can be applied to activities such as walking, exercising, eating or meditation. In a controlled study of cancer patients who did mindfulness meditation for seven weeks, 31% had fewer symptoms of stress and 65% had fewer episodes of mood disturbance than those who did not meditate.

Visualisation or guided imagery

This involves imagining a scene in which you feel at peace and free to let go of all tension and anxiety. It might be a beach or forest – imagine whatever feels right for you. Use each of your five senses to enhance the experience. Or try to imagine a candle and focus on the gentle movement of the flame to anchor your thoughts. Imagine the delicate scent of the candle and feel its warmth. Other suggestions are to imagine a river and visualise sending your worries downstream or imagine that you are a piece of wax that’s slowly melting your body into gentle relaxation.


Ask the expertAsk the expert:

Help! I’m stressed!

‘I’m a 61 year old who works four days a week. On my day off, I care for my two grandchildren while my daughter is at work. I’ve also got an 83 year old mum who lives alone and needs my help on the weekends with shopping and housework. I’d love to take an overseas holiday with my husband before we get too old but I’m worried that things would fall apart at home without me. I’d like to know how to relax more but I don’t think I’m the meditating type’.

Gillian says: You sound like a nurturing and caring woman but you need to adopt the same nurturing attitude towards yourself! Imagine you are your best friend – how would you care for yourself? Start by acknowledging the importance of looking after you. You may benefit from talking with a psychologist and challenging the belief that life will fall apart if you’re not around. It’s possible to plan for your holiday in a way that minimises disruption and worry, for example enlist the help of a paid carer if you can afford to, or see if a friend can help out in your absence. If the idea of sitting still to relax doesn’t appeal, you may find it easier to do something that absorbs your concentration, for example a hobby or physical exercise.


Tips from the experts

  • There’s no one technique or perfect type of relaxation – try a variety of techniques to see what works for you.
  • Being time-poor is no excuse not to relax – five minutes of deep breathing can make a difference to your stress levels.
  • Schedule in your relaxation so you’re more likely to do it – even if it’s just five minutes of visualisation on the train … make it happen.
  • Relaxation shouldn’t be costly and can take as little or as long as you want.
  • Being under-stimulated can be a source of stress – you may need some new interests or hobbies.
  • Laugh! Try this: say ‘Ho ho, ha ha ha’ three times in a row – are you smiling already?

For more information

Your doctor

Australian Psychological Society or call tollfree 1800 333 497 to find a psychologist in your area

Laughter Yoga Australia

University of the Third Age

Content Updated February 2012

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