5 Basic Tension & Relaxation Exercises

“There is no need to go to India or anywhere else to find peace. You will find that deep place of silence right in your room, your garden, or even your bathtub.” – Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

Visualizations allow us to create mental scenes or images that promote a sense of general relaxation and well-being.  We all visualize to some extent in our daily lives, even if we don’t consciously call it “visualization.”  Consider how many times in an average day you daydream about doing something pleasant, reflect on a recent fun time that you had with friends/family, or simply recall vivid memories (pleasant or unpleasant) from the past.  If we choose to harness the power of visualization in an active and conscious manner, then we are preparing ourselves to reap a multitude of benefits.

Relaxation Exercises

The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook explains that the benefits of visualization include effective treatment of chronic pain, headaches, muscles spasms, and anxiety.  Once you begin to actively practice the following tension-relieving and relaxation exercises, you will start the process of tapping into your own power to soothe yourself, release pain, and promote relaxation.

(1) Eye Relaxation

  • Place your palms gently over your closed eyes
  • Block out as much light as possible
  • Focus on seeing the color black
  • Use a mental image to keep your focus on the color black
  • Continue this focus for a few minutes and then gradually readjust to the natural light of the room

(2) Metaphorical Images

  • Lie down, gently close your eyes, and relax
  • Actively visualize an image that reminds you of tension and then choose to replace it with a image that reminds you of relaxation
  • Possible images for tension: the color red, bright flashing lights, a tightly wound cord
  • Possible images for relaxation: the color red morphs into a light blue, the flashing lights soften to a calm candle flicker, the cord unwinds
  • Scan your body and notice the places that you are holding onto tension
  • Focus on the parts of your body where you feel the most tension, and call up your relaxation images as you focus on the tense area

(3) Creating Your Special Place

  • A “special place” is a safe refuge where you are completely free to relax and seek guidance
  • Begin to imagine your personal special place in your mind, constructing it with specific images and attributes
  • Allow a private entry into your safe place
  • Build it to be peaceful, comfortable, and safe
  • Go to your safe place in your mind and take in all of the details (colors, smells, tastes, textures, sounds, etc.)
  • Remind yourself that you can come here whenever you wish

(4) Finding Your Inner Guide

  • Your inner guide is represented by a person or animal that instructs, supports, and clarifies
  • Think of this inner guide as a direct link to your own inner wisdom and subconscious
  • When you are feeling unsure, tense, or afraid, you can visualize your inner guide to help you relax and see the underlying causes of your stress
  • Follow your path to your personal safe place, inviting your inner guide to join you there
  • Imagine your guide there with you in your special place – ask him/her the questions that are on your mind … just let the answers come naturally
  • Each person’s inner guide is different and can provide a different type of calm, peace, and wisdom

(5) Listening to Music

  • Listening to music for the purpose of relaxation is quite different than listening to music for fun in the car or in the background at home
  • Select music that you know to be particularly soothing to you and unlikely to provoke intense emotional responses (e.g., excitement, sadness)
  • Allow half an hour by yourself in a comfortable environment to devote to this practice
  • Scan your body for any areas of particular tension, pain, or relaxation
  • Each time an unrelated thought enters your mind, simply notice it, release it, and return your focus to your present sensations
  • Notice what it was like for you to maintain a focus on the present moment, noticing bodily sensations, and letting go of distracting thoughts

Which one of these tension-relieving and relaxation exercises can you practice today?  Devoting just a few minutes out of your normal daily routine to doing something different, with the goal of becoming in tune with your body and letting go of stress can be quite freeing.  The more time spent avoiding the source of our pain, tension, or stress, the more long-term suffering that we create for ourselves.  Spending just a few small chunks of each day practicing mindfulness and letting go of tension through visualization and relaxation exercises can save you the cost of the long-term consequences of stress.

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Davis, M., Eshelman, E.R., & McKay, M. (2008). The relaxation and stress reduction workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: coldplay:a message by visualpanic / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Mary Ross on June 15, 2011 at 11:11 am

    I love the image in my mind of your “cord unwinding”. I recall a teacher of mine who used to ask us to imagine a red rubber ball held very tightly in our fist… all distorted in shape. When we just “let go” it returns to its proper form. I know I am like that squished ball when I am “not mindful”, not in the moment of peace and awareness of my thinking and surroundings.

    I have really been trying to practice “mindfulness” since reading, thinking about and applying your thoughts and exercises. Thank you so much!

    • Laura on June 16, 2011 at 5:34 pm

      Mary – I’m glad to hear that the imagery of the “cord unwinding” was helpful to you. It sounds like you have been actively focusing on bringing mindful awareness into your experience more. I hope that you have noticed positive changes in your daily experience and interactions with others as a result of practicing mindfulness. It is a big step to be aware of how you feel when you are “not mindful.” I hope that it becomes easier over time to begin to notice moments when you are feeling “unmindful” or disconnected from yourself or others. This is the beginning of stepping outside of yourself and observing your own behavior. I look forward to exploring the topic of mindfulness and its benefits much more in the future.

      Thank you for your comment!

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