Tools: Reducing stress by relaxing the body

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Self-care checklistTension diaryTen ways to relax your stress awayBreathing for relaxationProgressive muscle relaxationDo-anywhere stretching exercises

How well am I taking care of myself?

Rate yourself:
5=Frequently, 4=Occasionally, 3= Rarely, 2= Never, 1= Didn’t occur to me

Physical self-care

◯ Eat regularly

◯ Eat healthfully

◯ Exercise

◯ Get regular medical check ups

◯ Get medical care when needed

◯ Take time off when sick

◯ Get massages/ body treatments

◯ Dance, swim, walk, run, play, etc

◯ Take time to be sexual

◯ Get enough sleep

◯ Wear clothes I like

◯ Take vacations

◯ Make time away from phones, computers

Other: ___________________________

Emotional self-care

◯ Spend time in the company of those I enjoy

◯ Stay in touch with important people in my life

◯ Give myself affirmations, praise

◯ Love myself

◯ Revisit favourite books, movies

◯ Seek out comforting activities, objects, people, relationships, places

◯ Allow myself to cry

◯ Find things that make me laugh

Other: ___________________________

Psychological self-care

◯ Make time for self-reflection

◯ Have my own personal counselling

◯ Write in a journal

◯ Read literature unrelated to school/work

◯ Try something I am not expert in or in charge of

◯ Notice my inner thoughts, judgements, beliefs, attitudes, feelings

◯ Let others know different aspects of myself

◯ Engage my intelligence in a new area

◯ Practice receiving from others

◯ Be curious

◯ Say ‘no’ to extra responsibilities when I need to

Other: ___________________________

Spiritual self-care

◯ Make time for reflection

◯ Spend time with nature

◯ Find a spiritual connection or community

◯ Be open to inspiration

◯ Be aware of non-material aspects of life

◯ Try at times not to be the expert or in charge

◯ Be open to not knowing

◯ Identify what is meaningful to me

◯ Meditate/pray

◯ Sing

◯ Have experiences of awe

◯ Contribute to causes in that I believe read or listen to inspirational literature

Other: ___________________________

School/ workplace self-care

◯ Take a break during the day

◯ Take time to chat with colleagues/ other students

◯ Make quiet time to complete tasks

◯ Identify exciting, rewarding projects

◯ Set limits with clients, colleagues, friends

◯ Arrange a comfortable work space

◯ Get regular feedback from mentors, supervisors, etc

◯ Negotiate my needs (e.g., schoolwork, extension, deadlines, etc.)

◯ Have a peer support group

Other: ___________________________


◯ Strive for balance within my academic and work life

◯ Strive for balance within my WHOLE life: family, relationships, school, play, rest.

Action Plan:

From the activities above, highlight five you would like to start now.

Download a PDF version


Tension diary

Date What increased my stress/tension? (e.g. event, person, mood, etc.) Stress level (1=low stress, 10=high stress) What did I do to decrease my stress/tension level? How useful was this strategy?
(1= not useful, 10=very useful)

Ten ways to relax your stress away

  1. Breathe deeply.
  2. Stretch. Try yoga or tai chi.
  3. Exercise aerobically.
  4. Take a warm bath.
  5. Get a massage.
  6. Eat healthfully.
  7. Let it all out: Laugh, Cry, Sing, or Talk.
  8. Have guilt-free fun.
  9. Hang out with people who you can relax with.
  10. Drink calming liquids e.g. chamomile tea, warm milk.

Photo by Matthew. Used under Creative Commons International Attribution License 4.0.

Take a deep breath and relax

How breathing for relaxation works

While babies breathe from the belly, adults tend to breathe from the chest causing shallower breathing. Consequently, less oxygen is taken in with each inhalation and the blood is forced to move through our system very quickly so that enough oxygen gets to the brain and organs. Deep breathing can reverse these effects.

Calming breath exercise: 5 in – 5 hold – 5 out

This breath exercise will help you achieve a deep state of relaxation quickly. Use it when you feel anxiety coming on. It will also reduce panic reactions such as hyperventilation. A note of caution: avoid taking excessively deep breaths repeatedly and stop the exercise if you feel faint.

  1. Sit, stand, or lie down — up to you. If sitting, ensure both feet on planted on the floor. Wear loose, comfortable clothing.
  2. Breathing from the abdomen, inhale slowly through the nose to the count of 5. 1…2…3…4…5 as you inhale. Imagine a balloon in your belly beginning to fill slowly with air. You may wish to put a hand on your belly to feel this sensation.
  • Pause and hold your breath for 5 breaths.
  1. Exhale slowly, through the nose or mouth, to a count of 5. Feel the ‘balloon’ in your belly deflating slowly. Exhale fully.

Do this for about 2 minutes or more each time. As you relax more and more, you may increase the counting to 6, 7, or more.

Added options

  • Use words
    • Use words on the inhalation and exhalation. E.G. Inhale say ‘in’ and exhale say ‘out’. Try the word RELAX: Inhale say ‘re’; exhale say ‘lax’.
  • Use imagery
    • Adding a peaceful, safe scene to your breathing will increase the effect.
    • Imagine breathing in ocean air, the scent of the forest, a flower.

Effects of breathing for relaxation

Because it releases the body‘s own painkillers (endorphins), deep breathing can relieve muscular-skeletal tension, headaches, stomach aches, and sleeplessness. It allows blood pressure to return to normal, which is good for your heart. Practice daily. By extending your practice to a month or longer, you will begin to retrain yourself to breathe from the abdomen.

Your breath goes with you wherever you go so you can use it anytime, anywhere.

Progressive muscle relaxation

This exercise asks you to tense and release various muscles. If you have a special problem with any muscle group, you can either skip that part or do it gently. You can keep your eyes open or closed, whichever is more comfortable. Take a moment to get comfortable. If you are in a chair, you may wish to uncross your arms and legs and ensure your back and neck are comfortable.

Feet & legs

Begin by lifting the feet slightly off the floor. Point your feet and curl the toes inward until the toes are scrunched into a little ball. Curl as far as you need to feel the tension without strain. Concentrate on the toes and count to 5. Now uncurl your toes and gently drop your feet to the floor. Feel the blood rushing into the feet, thighs and calves. Can you feel the difference between tension and relaxation?

Buttocks/low back

Next, slowly draw your knees together and imagine placing a penny between them. Explore the sensation of your knees pressing into the coin. Can you feel its edges? Its smooth, flat face? While you press, breathe in and out, slowly and evenly. Now hold for 5. And release. Study the difference between the tension and the relaxation in the buttock, low back, and pelvis.


Imagine your navel. Take a deep breath in and watch the navel push outwards.  Exhale evenly and pull the navel towards the spine till you have squeezed all the air from your lungs. Hold for 5. Release and let the navel settle into its normal resting place. Now let the breathing go back to its natural rhythm and the stomach totally relax. Relax into the heaviness of your stomach.


Shrug both shoulders up to the sky as high as they will go without straining. While you hold, listen to the tension. What is it saying to you? Hold for 5. Drop your shoulders back to their normal resting place and enjoy the calming breath. Allow the warmth and heaviness of the relaxation to suffuse this area.


Clench your fists and bend your elbows, bringing your fists towards your chest. While you hold be aware of the tension in your hands, forearms and biceps. Breathe in and out while you hold for 5. Now, open the hands slowly and feel the blood racing back into each finger. Study the warmth created by the fresh surge of blood or any other sensations you experience.

Facial muscles

Playfully make a big frown. Feel the corners of your mouth pull down till you look like a sad clown. At the same time, you may squint your eyes, clench your jaw and wrinkle up your nose. Whichever feels right for you. Enjoy imagining what you look like at this moment as you hold for 5. Let go and return to a relaxed expression. Be amazed by the softness of the face.


We are now finished relaxing the muscles of your body. You are now feeling completely relaxed and at peace. Let all residual tension leach out of your body slowly. If you find that there are places of tension, just note them. Then if you wish, breathe into those areas and let the breath help you loosen the tension.

Do-anywhere stretching exercises

These exercises take only a few moments, and can help melt away mental and muscle tension. For exercises in your chair, sit up straight, pelvis in neutral position, and feet flat on the floor.

Rag-Doll Dangle: Stand or sit, legs apart, and bend at the waist. Shake your arms and hands loosely. Let your head hang and sway. Slowly straighten, one vertebrae at a time.

Head Roll: Drop your chin to your chest. Rotate your head to the right and turn your chin to your shoulder. Repeat in the opposite direction.

Head Tilt: Keeping the shoulders down, tilt the left ear to the left shoulder. Place your left hand on the right side of the head and allow the weight to pull your head GENTLY to the side. Extend your right arm down and flex your right hand. Hold for 10. Repeat on the opposite side.

Head Nod: Let your head fall forward so your chin almost touches your chest. Link your hands and place them at the back of your head. Apply GENTLE pressure.

Head Lift: Curl your fingers around the sides of your neck, fingers meeting in the back. Lift straight upward and forward as though you were trying to lift your head off your shoulders. Turn your head slightly from right to left while you continue to lift.

Full Body: Extend your right arm straight up and reach as high as you can. Spread your fingers. Feel your right side stretching. Lower the arms and repeat with your left arm.

The Butterfly: Lace your fingers around the back of your head. Wing your arms wide and hold in place. Slowly bend forward until your chin is close to your chest. Hold. Come up slowly.

Pelvis Tilt: Tilt your pelvis forward so your lower back rounds, and then tip your pelvis backward so your lower back arches and your belly protrudes a little. Keep your neck, shoulders and stomach relaxed. Repeat several times slowly.

Basic Twist: Sit up straight on the edge of the chair. Slowly twist to the right side, turning your head in the same direction while keeping your shoulders relaxed. Observe how other muscles besides the twisting muscles near the spine jump into action. The right shoulder may rise up toward the ear or move backward. Relax more each time. Do the other side.

Basic Twist with Variation: Do the same slow twist to the right while turning the head to the left. This is impossible to do with hunched shoulders. An excessive arch in the lower back will also make it a struggle. Sit tall yet relaxed. Observe how muscles around the shoulders and chest may want to force the motion. Try to resist this, and activate only the twisting muscles.