Your guide to a less stressful, more relaxing 2017

"Relax more" might be the best resolution you can set for yourself in 2017.

Has 2016 left you stressed and burnt out? Relax.

In fact, "relax more" might be the best resolution you can set for yourself in 2017.

"Given that we live in such a fast-paced environment with so many things competing for our attention, it makes sense that it is hard to stay focused on the moment and feel relaxed," says Hanna McCabe-Bennett, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Ryerson University. "People who have a hard time staying focused in the present moment … likely have the most trouble relaxing."

But while extreme stress can lead to physical and mental health deterioration, not all stress or anxiety is bad.

"We need anxiety and worry to tell us when to jump out of the way of a honking car, when to study for an upcoming exam, when to check in on a relationship, or when to stay home because the roads are really really icy," says Dr. Allison Ouimet, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa. "'Relaxing' your way out of some of these worries can be counterproductive."

But for those burnt-out folks looking for a little additional R&R in 2017, we've got you covered.

We went to the experts — a meditation teacher, a yoga instructor, an anxiety expert and two psychologists — to get their best tips on how to relax better in the New Year.

Practise meditation

Practising meditation is a great way to stay centred when your stress levels are trying to send your anxiety spiralling out of control, said McCabe-Bennett.

But mastering the practice takes work.

"Think of meditation as brain training," says Catie Fenn, a Toronto-based meditation teacher, lawyer and founder of Love Warrior, an organization through which she teaches people how to find balance and focus in their lives. "You wouldn't go to the gym and expect results immediately.  In the same way, you cannot expect that you will sit down to meditate and every thought you had will be magically erased and you will feel overwhelming bliss immediately."

Fenn encourages her new-to-meditation clients to keep it simple: focusing on their breath by inhaling and exhaling for six seconds each, or breathing in while thinking of the word "let" and exhaling thinking of the word "go." Let your mind wander, she tells them, but when it does, bring your focus back to your breath.

"Meditation simply allows us to become less attached to our thoughts and also slows down how rapidly they come," she said. "(Meditation unravels) how tightly our minds are wound so we have less internal chatter and clutter."

Fenn encourages beginners to start meditating in short, consistent spurts. She started with just two minutes a day for 30 days. Meditation apps such as Headspace or Calm can also guide new meditators through their practice, she said.

Take preventative measures

Don't wait until stress hits before you take action, says Dr. Roger Covin, an Ottawa-based clinical psychologist and author of The Need to be Liked.

"Know your body, and pay attention to the things that amp it up," he said. "For example, many people drink too much coffee, and caffeine is a drug that tends to cause anxiety or stress symptoms — shaky, muscle tension, sweaty palms, dry mouth."

Figure out what your stress triggers are and do your best to mitigate them.

Let go of unrealistic standards

Perfectionists, we're talking to you.

"Perfectionistic thinking is associated with anxiety and difficulty relaxing," said psychologist Ouimet. "If people want to relax their mind and body, they may need to relax their standards."

Often, the standards people are trying to meet are ones they set for themselves, said Ouimet. When they don't meet those standards, they may berate and criticize themselves, she said.

If you recognize you have a problem, Ouimet suggests starting your road to recovery with a visit to a psychologist or other mental health practitioner.

Practise yoga

There's nothing quite like stretching in a quiet room to calm the mind.  

"The benefits of a regular yoga practice are limitless," says Libby Clark, a yoga teacher and the owner of Calgary-based Karma Yoga Studio. "As you notice the balance that a yoga practice creates on your digestive system, sleep rhythm, anxiety, fitness and the like you'll see how much more naturally relaxed you become."

Clark advises people new to yoga to try out different yoga studios and find a studio with classes and yoga teachers you jibe with. There'd be nothing worse than hoping for light stretching and finding yourself with a month-long membership to bootcamp-like yoga classes. Many studios offer discounted memberships or free classes to first-time clients.

Try progressive muscle relaxation

Ever find yourself massaging your forehead, suddenly realizing how tight your muscles are? Progressive muscle relaxation — a technique that involves tensing and relaxing muscles — can help.

McCabe-Bennett recommends giving yourself a 20-minute window, preferably in a room where you can sit or lie down comfortably, to practise progressive muscle relaxation. Start by tensing different muscle groups, such as your shoulders or stomach muscles, one at a time. Hold the tension for about 15 seconds, then release. Aim to tense and relax all the muscles in your body over the 20 minute period.

"With enough practise, you'll be able to start noticing muscle tension and relaxing that tension in the moment," she said.

For more instruction on progressive muscle relaxation, the AnxietyBC website has useful tips.

Take a deep breath and exhale

This is an easy one you can try right now. Feel better?


Katrina Clarke is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends. You can find her on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.

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