By Kara Mason

How to Relax Your Mind, According to Science


Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is relax.

How many other things are vying for your attention right this second? 

In a world where phone notifications are constantly chiming, the news cycle never ends, and it’s just plain difficult to shut down at the end of the day, it’s no wonder we find it difficult to de-stress, even if for just a moment.

Even so, there’s hope. And it’s backed by research. 

Scientists have long been studying how to relax your mind. You might be surprised to know that it’s really simple, even though the things that keep our minds racing typically are not.

Before we delve into the facts, let’s talk a little about your brain. It uses a lot of energy, about 20 percent of what your body produces, so it’s necessary that it gets some downtime. It’s working hard! Giving your brain downtime isn’t always easy though, especially when we’re stressed and feel like there’s just no time to power down.

If you’re seeking a proven method for how to relax your mind, there are a few strategies researchers suggest.

Exercise 

If your mind doesn’t want to relax, engaging your body can help.

You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever had a runner’s high or you’ve finished a workout and felt an odd sense of zen even as your heart is still pumping. There’s a reason for that. 

Exercise, especially cardio, is particularly good for relaxation. It might seem counterintuitive, since cardio usually involves moving fast, but the scientific processes going on inside your body while you work out actually help you slow things down.

“[Exercise] has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress,” write Harvard health experts. “It's a common experience among endurance athletes and has been verified in clinical trials that have successfully used exercise to treat anxiety disorders and clinical depression. If athletes and patients can derive psychological benefits from exercise, so can you.”

The science behind feeling better after a workout goes like this: exercise reduces stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline), but increases the body’s natural painkillers, otherwise known as endorphins, which are found in the brain.

In other words, your body is calibrating your internal systems to reduce your stressful feelings and increase your positive ones.

While you’re exercising, your mind also begins to focus on the workout and not your stressor. It takes concentration in order to keep moving when you’re elevating your heart rate, so it can help to distract you from stressful thoughts too. Many people enter a state of “flow” while doing cardio like running or swimming, which is a calm mental state where you feel detached from the problems that normally make you tense.

So while a good workout is also a distraction for your busy brain, it has a lot of short and long term physical and mental health benefits.

Doctors say for the best relaxation results you should complete 30-40 minutes of moderate exercise each day (that’s like two episodes of Friends on Netflix -- try watching them on a treadmill instead of in bed). In that amount of time you can your mind, decrease your stress, and help your physical health: a win-win-win.

Meditate with a coloring book

Maybe one of the best ways to calm an overactive mind is to do something simple, like completing a page in a favorite coloring book. The repetition paired with the lightweight focus it takes to finish a coloring sheet is enough to help your mind relax. 

Coloring has calming effects beyond that simple act, however. Researchers believe that there are a few different reasons why a coloring sheet is relaxing. Cleveland psychologist Scott Bea says it’s a combination of shifting your attention from yourself and what’s on your mind into another task. It’s also important that the task is low-risk.

“It is hard to screw up coloring, and, even if you do, there is no real consequence. As a result, adult coloring can be a wonderful lark, rather than an arduous test of our capacities,” he says.

Other researchers have dived even deeper, finding that coloring activates two specific areas of the cerebral hemispheres, making the task the perfect combination of logic and creativity to decrease stress.

Mostly, researchers have focused their questions about the peacefulness that comes with a coloring sheet to mandalas, which have origins in India — the word “mandala” literally translates to “sacred circl”e in sanskrit — but can be found it a lot of gothic architecture too. 

Carl G. Jüng, a 20th century psychiatrists, thought of the mandala as being representative to ourselves as a whole. Some reference his work now as being obsessed with the circle because he saw so much of the human experience in mandalas. Just like us, mandalas are complex and intricate. That may explain why putting our focus them when we want to relax our mind is so helpful. 

Breathing techniques 

There will always be things out of our control: last minute deadlines, cancelled plans, and unexpected meetings. No matter how hard we try, we can’t predict everything; that fact alone is enough to cause a sizable amount of stress. 

Take a deep breath. Hold it. Now exhale. 

Breathing techniques are a quick way to manage stress and relax your mind no matter where you find yourself needing a little mental relief — a train, at your desk, waiting in line for coffee when you’re already running late. We’ve all been there, right?

Dr. Andrew Weil, founder and director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, teaches one specific breathing technique, called 4-7-8 breathing, which help with reducing stress, controlling stress, and even manage cravings. 

This is how it works: breathe in for 4 seconds, hold that breath for 7 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds. 

Dr. Weil suggests cycling through the breathing a couple of times each day for maximum results, about four times a day if possible. You might get a little lightheaded at first, he says; if you do, try sitting or lying down when you do the exercise for a while.

Studies show that practicing breathing techniques work to relax the mind because the effect a “person's heart rate variability, which correlates with stress, and (can) also improve cognition and anxiety.”

Your physical state directly affects your mental state. If you can calm your body’s stress responses, you can calm your mind’s stress responses.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed and forget that our breath is an easy anchor to relaxing our mind. The biggest benefit to practicing breathing techniques is that the only thing you need is yourself. It can be used anywhere and you don’t need a lot of time to feel a little better.