Relaxation Techniques

Try one or more of the following techniques for relaxing your mind and body and reducing the physical and psychological tension associated with stress. Research has shown that relaxation techniques are an effective way to reduce not only stress but many of the symptoms associated with mental health disorders.

Take the time to experiment with these techniques to find out which ones work best for you.  These quick and easy techniques can be used in many situations when you might experience stress such as during class, while studying, at a party, at work, or when trying to fall asleep.

Breathing Exercise

Place one hand on your abdomen right beneath your rib cage. Inhale slowly through your nose, drawing a deep breath into your lungs. Your chest should move only slightly, while your stomach rises, pushing your hand up. As you exhale, just let yourself go and imagine your entire body becoming loose and limp. It should take you twice as long to exhale as it does to inhale. Practice three times per day for two to three minutes.

For more information and resources on this technique, click here.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Pay a “mental visit” to your muscles, stopping at each area of the body from head to toe (or toe to head), paying attention to individual areas where tension exists. As you pause at each area, tense and relax each muscle, trying to release unnecessary tension. Spend a few more minutes on those areas that seem to be holding the most tension. 

For more information and resources on this technique, click here.

Visual (Guided) Imagery

Imagine tension flowing out of your body from top to bottom.  Visualize tension draining down your shoulders and arms and out through your fingertips into the air, down your thighs and legs, and out through the soles of your feet into the ground. It’s also helpful to take a mental “vacation,” imagining yourself in a pleasant, relaxing place such as on the beach or in the woods. This can be a place where you’ve been or a place you’d like to be. Take time to imagine the specific details of what you see, hear and feel in this place.

For more information and resources on this technique, click here.


Most of us spend our days on ‘automatic pilot’, not noticing our thoughts, feelings or bodily sensations. This can be especially true for students as they face frequent deadlines, decisions about courses and majors, or relationship issues. Not noticing what you are experiencing can be especially risky if you have a mental health disorder.

Being Mindful of Everyday Activities. Being aware or “mindful” allows you to focus on the events of the moment, and on caring for yourself now, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating what might happen in the future.  One expert in this discipline, Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose in a certain way without judgment.”  As a student, your life and your mind are often so busy that you forget to take notice of the everyday occurrences that keep your senses ‘awake’. For example, as you walk across the Diag, you may be lost in thought while drinking a latte. You may not be aware of how you arrived at your destination or of the steam of the latte as you take a sip. Rather than allowing yourself to miss the moment, pause, take a breath and notice what you are experiencing. Your experiences may be pleasant and worth savoring. But even if they are unpleasant, you will be better able to cope if you face your experiences directly and strive to live “in the moment.”

Practicing Mindfulness through Meditation. Mindfulness meditation, adapted from Buddhist practices, is gaining acceptance in the West as a simple and effective way to keep your mind focused on the present moment, observing your own thoughts and experiences as they occur, without judging them. Practicing mindfulness meditation provides an opportunity to observe your thoughts for what they are -- simply thoughts that come and go, rather than as facts.

How to practice mindfulness meditation:

  • Find a comfortable position.
  • While focusing on your breathing, allow your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations to flow over you, entering and leaving your awareness at their own pace. Recognize each sensation, but then let it fade away, allowing the next thought or feeling to enter your mind.  Continue to acknowledge each sensation, then let it go.
  • You will likely find that your mind is very busy with thoughts about all kinds of things – some pleasant, some unpleasant. Each time you notice that your mind has wandered, gently and without judgment shift your awareness back to your breath.
  • It can be most helpful to practice mindfulness for 30 minutes a day until you become comfortable with the technique.

Tip: To learn more about mindfulness, check out this workshop based on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program designed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. You will learn a variety of ways to work more skillfully with the stress and anxiety related to college life.

The goal of mindfulness meditation is not to change your thoughts in any way, but simply to notice them and as best you can, continuously returning to your breath. Learning mindfulness meditation is similar to learning any new skill such as a language or playing a musical instrument. There are downloadable sites available on the web for guided meditations. Keep it simple. Be patient and kind with yourself. Do not expect that you will be able to “empty” your mind of thoughts and enter a state of deep relaxation. The point of mindfulness meditation is to simply and compassionately begin to notice. Try starting with ten minutes each day, setting a timer to see what happens. Remember that each moment is a new opportunity to begin.

Although derived mainly from Buddhist traditions, mindfulness meditation is a practice anyone can use regardless of your spiritual or religious beliefs.  In fact most religions have a contemplative practice.   With practice, meditation can allow you to develop clarity in your thoughts and feelings, decrease your negative thoughts, and promote a sense of peacefulness and centeredness. You can also contact The University of Michigan Depression Center for information on mindfulness-based cognitive group therapy for depression, which is an eight-week course developed to prevent depression relapse. 


Many people find comfort and strength in their spiritual or religious beliefs.  Reflecting on your personal values, ethics and beliefs through prayer, meditation, or other means can be a helpful addition to the professional help you are receiving as part of your treatment plan. Click here to visit the Association of Religious Counselors for information and a comprehensive list of spiritual resources for U-M students.



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