A Guide to Mindfulness Exercises for Relaxation and Anxiety Relief

September 27, 2021

“Mindfulness seeks to leave personal shame in the past, remove fear of the future, and live in the present. Only then can you free yourself from anxiety.”

At times, stress is both necessary and good for us. But if anxiety and stress are taking their toll on your physical and emotional well-being, it is time to find a way to destress. Mindful thinking is one of the best ways to reconnect your body and mind to activate a natural relaxation response that is hiding within.

For many people, relaxation involves nothing more than flipping on the television and tuning out. But that does nothing to reduce the damage that internal stress might have on your body. Avoiding stress through distraction is like ignoring a gaping wound that won’t heal. To initiate your body’s own natural relaxation response, which seeks to stop the damage done by stress, it takes a lot more intention and thought.

These mindful exercises for relaxation and anxiety will help to lower your heart rate, blood pressure, and bring your mind and body back into balance. Mindfulness exercise involves confronting the stressors that are eating you in a positive manner, dealing with them by being present, and moving past them to find a healthier and happier new you.

Deep Breathing

Young woman meditating with her eyes closed,

When confronted with stress, it is not uncommon for the body to react with an increased heart rate and shallow breathing. When you breathe, you take in oxygen to fuel your cells, and you exhale carbon dioxide. Shallow breathing can lead to an imbalance of the oxygen within your cells.

And when that happens, it can trigger a “fight or flight” response within the brain, leading to the release of adrenaline and cortisol. Both adrenaline and cortisol are stress hormones that can make you feel a heightened sense of fear and anxiety. Over time, if the imbalance becomes chronic, it can lead to anxiety and depression.

Breathing exercises are an excellent way to decrease tension, calm your heart rate, and your blood pressure. Deep breathing can help to keep your stress levels in check and reduce the physiological changes to stressors that might be causing your anxiety.

Steps to Deep Breathing

  1. You can lie down, sit, or stand, just make sure that you are comfortable. Position one hand on your abdomen, while the other rests on your mid-chest
  2. Take in air through your nose and be mindful that you feel the hand over your stomach rising instead of the one placed on your mid-chest
  3. Exhale via your mouth, pushing as much air from your body as you can, while focusing on feeling the hand that is on your stomach lower
  4. Repeat the breathing process until you feel your body relax and the tension drain

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

When you are stressed, the body tends to tense up. And over time, that tense feeling can lead to fatigue, sore muscles, and feelings of anxiety. Progressive muscle relaxation involves consciously relaxing muscle groups throughout the body, by being mindful of them, one at a time.

It is an excellent way to recognize the tension that you might be unwittingly holding. When you are mindful of your body’s reactions to stress, it can become more automatic to relax your muscles. And that relaxation, over time, will have a profound effect on your mind.

Steps to Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Begin thinking about your feet and then work your way up to the tip of your head. The idea is first to tense a muscle group to recognize it, and then to consciously release that tension.

  1. Get into a comfortable position
  2. Use breathing techniques to calm your heart rate
  3. First, focus on your right foot, how does it feel?
  4. Intentionally tense the muscles of your right foot and tighten them as much as you can. Hold the contraction for ten seconds
  5. Then, deliberately let the tension go from your foot, and pay attention to how it becomes light and loose
  6. Stay in the moment by breathing slowly and deeply
  7. Now, focus on your left foot, and follow the same steps
  8. Isolate each body part, one by one, going from your feet to the tip of your head, until you have relaxed all the muscles in your body

Scanning Your Body Meditation

Hawaiian woman laying on floor, relaxing and meditating, surrounded by candles

There are different forms of meditation, this one focuses on isolating different parts of the body. Just like Progressive Muscle Relaxation, you want to start at your feet and move upwards. With this exercise, you don’t want to tense and release, rather you want to just examine how each body part feels without deciding if it is “good” or “bad.”

Steps to Scan Body Meditation

  1. Start on your back with legs uncrossed and arms relaxed at your side. You can do this exercise with your eyes open or closed.
  2. Focus on how you are breathing for two or more minutes until you begin to feel relaxed
  3. First, focus on your toes of the right foot. While you consider if it is feeling any sensations, continue deep breathing. Imagine that each breath you take is flowing right to your right toe. And then, focus for three to five seconds
  4. Next, move that focus to the sole of the same foot. Think about any sensations while you are deep breathing, and then imagine that deep breath flowing to the sole. After two to five minutes, continue to the rest of the leg. And eventually make your way to hips, down the left leg, and then up to the tip of your head
  5. After you have performed a “scan” of your body from head to toe, sit in silence and be still. Focus on how your body feels

Visualization – Guided Imagery

Also known as guided imagery, visualization is another form of meditation that involves imaging a happy place where you feel safe, at peace, and where you can let go of anxiety and tension. You can choose any location that brings you happiness, like a white sandy beach or a rolling brook. If you want, you can use other aids like calming music or sounds to enhance your ability to lose yourself.

Close your eyes, and find your “happy place.” Try your best to imagine it as vividly as possible. Think about things like what you would hear, see, smell, feel, and taste. Guided imagery works best if you can incorporate as many as your senses as possible.

While guiding yourself through the place where you feel serene and safe, take note of how your body feels – the relaxation that comes naturally when you are in a peaceful environment. If you start to drift off or lose track of what you were thinking, that is okay. It is not uncommon to feel that your limbs are heavy or to start to feel sleepy, they are both normal responses. And they do not interfere with the effectiveness of the exercise.


Massage is one of the best ways to reduce tension, relax tired and overworked muscles, and to relieve pain. But you don’t have to go to a professional spa to get the benefits of a massage. Self-massage can bring about the same health benefits to help relieve stress.

Steps to Self-Massage

Use a combination of different hand maneuvers to relieve tension. First, try chopping your muscles with the edge of your hand or using your fingers to tap them. If you feel a muscle knot, use your fingers to apply deep pressure. And try long strokes, kneading across your muscles lightly. For example, if you are massaging your neck:

  1. Knead the muscles up to your shoulders and into your neck. Making a fist, softly pound the sides of your neck and back by going up and then down. Use your finger or thumb in a tiny circular motion at the base of when your skull rests. Then, finish by massaging your scalp with the tips of your fingers
  2. Next, move onto your face. Use tiny circular motions with your fingers and thumbs. Focus on your temples, jaw muscles, and forehead. Then, take your middle finger and massage your nose and work outward to your eyebrows, immediately moving on to your temples
  3. Once you have finished massaging your face, close your eyes and use breathing techniques to help your muscles release tension

Mindful Meditation

Mindfulness is a component of all of the above exercises because it is a way to live in the present and to feel sensations and choose to change what you can and accept what you can not. Dwelling on either the future or the past does nothing to help you move forward. It just creates inner stress and anxiety. Mindful exercises help you to focus on what is presently happening, as a spectator and to choose not to allow the perception of it to affect you.

Mindfulness involves focusing your attention on things such as the breathing exercise above, or a single action that you repeat over and over, like a self-affirmation. Other types of mindful meditation allow you to release negative thoughts or sensations.

Mindfulness does not come naturally to most. It is difficult to override the inner voice that keeps us stuck in regrets and worries that cause anxiety and depression. And it might be difficult at first to feel the benefits of mindful meditation, but don’t give up. Every time that you pull yourself into the present and leave behind the regrets of the past, you will strengthen new mental patterns that will stop you from worrying about your past or what is to come.

Steps to Mindful Meditation

  1. Sit in a quiet place where you won’t be distracted or interrupted
  2. Close your eyes and try to focus on a something concrete like your breathing, the airflow in the room, or even the breath as it leaves your body
  3. You can use a self-affirmation that you repeat over and over while you practice mindful meditation
  4. If your thoughts begin to wander or you lose focus, don’t fight against it. Acknowledge your thoughts, and then dismiss them, and return to your focus without ascribing judgment

Mindfulness helps stay in the present and to let go of those things that we hold onto, like past shame, or fear of the future. It isn’t the stress of everyday life, rather the way that you choose to cope and deal with stress that affects your health and happiness.

By being mindful of your actions and feelings, you can override those responses that might be causing you turmoil and anxiety. And once you recognize your body’s responses, you can initiate its own natural relaxation response and seek a happier and healthier new you.

Stress doesn’t come from outside; it is created internally by how you interpret and react to those things in your life that are uncomfortable or difficult. So choose to stay in the moment and let go of those things that might be keeping you stuck and feeling out of control.

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