6 Relaxation Techniques You Thought Worked But Don’t

These stress-management strategies aren't effective

Stress can come at us from all directions—work, relationships, even our own habits—and it can sometimes feel overwhelming to even the most easygoing among us. Fortunately, there are many ways to manage and relieve stress, so we have options for how to approach stress management in a way that works for our personality and circumstances. The problem is that some relaxation strategies are far more helpful than others, and it’s not always easy to tell which relaxation techniques work best.

There is no shortage of advice on how to handle stress, but a well-meaning friend’s advice or a simple internet search often yields tips that aren’t as effective as they seem. At best, these techniques can be a waste of time, money, or energy, or a distraction from stress management techniques that work far better. At worst, they can cause damage, lead to unhealthy habits, interfere with medications, or create more stress instead of minimizing it.

The following stress-management strategies are common but misleading. Some are overhyped or don't have enough research behind them. The bottom line: you may think that they're helping you relieve stress, but there are important caveats to consider.

1
Venting Your Frustrations

It may feel better to complain about your workday to a good friend or loved one, and this can temporarily take pressure off. However, if this becomes a habit it can ultimately lead to rumination, a state of mind where you dwell on the negative and keep re-triggering your stress response without moving onto more effective and active coping strategies.

The promise of venting and receiving emotional support is the idea of releasing the stress you are feeling inside. More often though, it feels magnified as the focus remains on the problems you face rather than potentially workable solutions. This will get you stuck in a negative, stressed state of mind, and continuous venting can become a habit—an unhealthy one at that.

Instead Try

Finding support—the right kind. While venting to a friend may not be the best long-term strategy for stress relief, finding a friend that can help you is effective. Help can come in the form of resources that you can use or help to reframe your situation in a positive way.

Also known as positive reappraisal, looking at the positives in a situation, finding the opportunities, and simply being aware of less negative ways to view your circumstances can be a route to relaxation. This is because your body’s stress response is triggered when you perceive a threat to your safety or to the status quo, but the response is based on your perceptions rather than on the actual threat level. If you or someone else can show yourself that the danger isn’t as threatening as it seems (and it usually isn’t), and if you can remind yourself of the resources you have available, you will feel less stressed by what you face. You can also take advantage of resources you may not have realized you had.

Either way, if you can get practical help from a friend—what’s called instrumental social support—this can relieve significant stress.

2
Throwing Things

Sometimes you may feel upset enough to throw something, and that is the premise behind anger rooms, which became popular as people realized that they could actually live the fantasy of breaking a room full of things to vent frustrations. While these rooms can be a fun night out with friends or even a cathartic novelty experience to try, they don’t function as well as other stress management techniques for the same reason that other forms of venting frustrations can backfire—they can exacerbate feelings of anger rather than helping to release or minimize them.

Smashing things with a hammer can provide a healthy dose of cardio, but there are more cost-effective ways to get exercise.

Instead Try

Planning. For some people, taking charge and coming up with a to-do list or schedule feels hands-on and helpful. This may mean drawing up a list of what needs to be done the next day or week so that you can relax in the knowledge that you’re not forgetting anything.

3
Using Herbal Supplements

While some herbal supplements can have an effect on mild to moderate feelings of anxiety and depression, little research has been conducted on most. Among the supplements that have been researched, most of the studies are smaller and some provide conflicting results.

Researcher Thomas Lenz from Creighton University in Nebraska conducted a review of several studies on herbal supplements and found the following:

  • Kava: This supplement has been found to significantly lower anxiety but has been linked to liver failure, so it may not be safe to take.
  • St. John’s Wort: Several studies have found this supplement to be effective for treating mild anxiety and other negative emotional states, but some studies have found no effect.
  • Valerian Root: This herb, taken in conjunction with St. John’s Wort, has been found to be effective for anxiety and sleep disorders, even rivaling diazepam in effectiveness after two weeks; however, studies are conflicting in these findings. Lower doses have been found to be safe, but higher doses may create changes in heart rhythm and vision.

This doesn’t mean that no supplements can be effective, but it does mean that you need to do your research, see what works well for you personally, and consult a doctor to be sure that there would be no negative reactions between any supplements and medications you are already taking.

Instead Try

Aromatherapy. While many might expect to find aromatherapy on the list of things that don't work for stress relief, research does find that aromatherapy can be helpful. Lemon balm has also been found to be effective. Best part? Aromatherapy is cheap and easy to incorporate into your life.

4
Just Ignoring It

There’s something to be said for putting stressful thoughts out of your mind—this is a great way to stop rumination before it starts. However, if you consistently ignore problems or tell yourself that everything will be fine and that you shouldn't concern yourself with what is going on, this is a step too far in the wrong direction.

A study conducted in Spain examined different coping techniques and their connection with negative emotional states and heart disease. Researchers found that denial was a coping strategy that had more negative consequences than positive ones, contributing to negative feelings and higher heart disease risks.

It may feel comforting to slip into denial or refuse to think about something rather than proactively coping with it—but ultimately denial leads to more stress. Without obsessing, it helps to face problems straight-on and change what you can in the situation. If you engage in denial long enough, it may become too late to stop things from getting worse.

Instead Try

Distraction. While denial isn’t the most effective coping strategy, distraction has been found to be helpful. This means that you face a problem and then let it go by focusing on something else that’s less anxiety-provoking and more relaxing. Do your best in a situation and then move on from it until you’re able to do something else.

5
Leaving the Situation or the Person

The study that found denial to be ineffective also identified disengagement as a relaxation strategy that may do more harm than good.

In the moment, it may feel like a relief to leave a stressful situation or dump a person who seems to be creating stress in your life, and sometimes that is the best long-term solution. However, we may all too often give up and disengage—losing something that still may have value—when we can fix things instead, potentially salvaging the situation and creating something better and stronger than we had before.

This means that sometimes it can feel stressful to work through a conflict with a friend, but dumping the friend before attempting to discuss and solve the problem can mean losing a potentially good friend and even creating an enemy—something that can cause more stress in the future. The same holds true for jobs—leaving a stressful job before attempting to solve the problems that create stress can make for a more stressful situation in the long run.

Remember, this doesn’t mean that you should never part ways with a toxic friend and that you should stay at a stressful job for decades. It just means that leaving a situation without trying to salvage it—engaging in “avoidance coping” as your go-to strategy—can feel like an effective relaxation strategy but can ultimately create more stress.

Instead Try

Active coping. This has been found in many studies to be the best way to deal with stressful situations in your life. This means that you change what you can rather than just complaining or trying to avoid facing it.

6
Assigning Blame (Especially Self-Blame)

There’s a fine line between assessing a situation to determine what went wrong so that the same mistakes can be avoided next time, and harshly blaming oneself for said mistakes. It’s often helpful to examine things after the fact to determine what could be done differently next time. However, when this slips into self-blame, it can be more damaging than helpful.

Researchers have found that self-blame is one of the more common coping strategies that create more harm than good, so if it’s one of yours, you’re not alone. If you find yourself examining what went wrong and taking responsibility for what you can change and do differently next time, this is fine. If this slips into beating yourself up for not knowing better, gently remind yourself that now you know better and can do better, and congratulate yourself on a learning experience then move on.

Instead Try

Humor. Finding a way to laugh in the face of stress is a quick way to feel more relaxed physically and emotionally. It helps you to look at things in a different way, distract yourself, and feel closer to others. It can even help you to more easily accept what you can’t change and ease away from blaming yourself.

Sources:

Doering LV, Dracup K, Caldwell MA, et al. Is coping style linked to emotional states in heart failure patients? J Card Fail. 2004;10(4):344-9.

Moss M, Hewitt S, Moss L, Wesnes K. Modulation of cognitive performance and mood by aromas of peppermint and ylang-ylang. International Journal of Neuroscience, January 2008.​

Sanjuan, Pilar & Magallares, Alejandro & Avila, Maria & Arranz, Henar. (2016). Effective and Ineffective Coping Strategies: Psychometric Properties of a Reduced Version of Brief-COPE For Heart Patients.

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