Constant stress is one of the defining features of modern life, and the source of many common health problems. Stress plays an obvious role in nervousness, anxiety, and insomnia, but it is also thought to contribute to a vast number of other illnesses.

In the past, most people engaged in many hours of physical exercise daily, an activity that reduces the effects of psychological stress. Life was also slower then and more in harmony with the natural cycles of day and season. Today, however, our bodies are relatively sedentary, while our minds are forced to respond to the rapid pace of a society that never stops. The result is high levels of stress and reduced ability to cope with it.

There are several ways to mitigate the damage caused by stress. Increased physical exercise can help, as can simple, common sense steps like taking relaxation breaks and vacations. If these approaches don’t have adequate results, there are more formal methods that may be helpful.

This article discusses a group of stress-reduction techniques often called relaxation therapies. In addition to these methods, yoga, Tai Chi, hypnosis, massage, and biofeedback can also help induce a relaxed state. For potentially helpful herb and supplement options, see the Stress article.

There are many types of relaxation therapies, and they use a variety of techniques. However, most of them share certain related features.

In a great many relaxation techniques, one begins by either lying down or assuming a relaxed, seated posture in a quiet place and closing the eyes. The next step differs depending on the method. In autogenic training, relaxation response, and certain forms of meditation, one focuses one’s mind on internal sensations, such as the breath. Guided-imagery techniques employ deliberate visualization of scenes or actions, such as walking on a quiet beach. Progressive relaxation techniques involve gradual relaxation of the muscles. Finally, some schools of meditation incorporate the repetition of a phrase or sound silently or aloud.

All of these techniques are best learned with the aid of a trained practitioner. The usual format is a group class supplemented by regular home practice. If you are diligent enough, experience suggests that you can develop the ability to call on a relaxed state at will, even in the middle of a very stressful situation.