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How to Gradually Become a More Relaxed Person

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I’ve tried many getting-to-sleep tips over the years, and one of the best involves vigorous stretching in bed.

Lying on your back, you extend your arms and legs out, squeezing your butt and pointing your toes, stretching in both directions like you’re a giant banana. This is to create muscle tension throughout the whole body.

You hold the stretch for a few seconds. When you release it, a certain feeling that is almost the opposite of tension — a feeling of relief and relaxation — floods into the body. It feels great, and seems to prime the body for rest.

You can get a hint of this quality right now. Make a fist and squeeze it for a few seconds, which will tense up your whole forearm. When you release the fist, the tension will dissipate, and you might notice a feeling of relief and relaxation come into your forearm.

It can be subtle. But once you’re more aware of it, this restful quality can remain indefinitely, as long as you keep the muscles relaxed. With some practice, you can tune into this relaxed feeling without tensing anything first, and you can feel it throughout the whole body.

That’s why everyone loves the “corpse pose” exercise that so many yoga classes end with. You lie on your mat, letting each muscle group go supple, allowing the floor to support you. It feels wonderful, and often long overdue.

This sort of tension-releasing exercise points to an underappreciated human ability: you can train yourself to be more relaxed.  

It’s easy to cultivate relaxation like this when we make a point of it, but we don’t do it by accident. Because most of our time is spent doing things and manipulating our surroundings, our bodies default to a kind of inadvertent tension. We can easily go about our days with tight faces, raised shoulders, and tense limbs, usually without doing anything to release the buildup.

Our cultural ideas of relaxation tend to involve some sort of external intervention — drinks, vacations, entertainment, or some other kind of stimulation, more to distract us from tension than actually relieve it. We’d probably get more lasting value from a few daily minutes of lying on the floor, letting the body go supple.

Once you’re used to relaxing the body, you can do it any time you aren’t moving. Waiting rooms. Park benches. Office chairs. Porches. Nobody can see you do it, so you can do it at dinner, in meetings, or on dates.

Even a few seconds of releasing tension offers some relief and relaxation. If you make a habit of this practice, you’re virtually always bringing the tension level back down, many times a day. You’re training your body to relax itself.

Mental stress and rumination do not prevent you from doing this. The mind can carry on while you attend to the body. You might notice, however, a feedback loop—the body tends to tense up when the mind is agitated—and how relaxing the body eases the mind.

I’ve been privately relaxing in this way for years, and now the default state of my body is to be supple and relaxed like this. That’s not to say I don’t have my blow ups and breakdowns. Those are inevitable, but between the blowups, I find real relaxation and enjoyment almost every time I sit in a chair, lie down, or wait for anything.

As with many of my internal quality-of-life practices, deliberate relaxation always been a hard thing to explain to people, which is why I made a whole course on it.

I’m about to run a second group session of Mindfulness for Relaxation, where I teach people how to cultivate this kind of relaxation, and then use a simple mindfulness technique to deepen that feeling and start to settle the mental activity too.

If you like the idea of introducing a daily relaxation period, or if it feels like a good time to establish a habitual mindfulness practice, you’ll get a lot out of the course.

[Learn more about the course] | [Ok, sign me up]

Once you’re registered, you can do the course at your own pace. A group of readers is going to start on Wednesday, November 18, if you want to join them, but that’s totally optional.

(Those of you who have taken MFR before, under the nickname Camp Calm Relax, will get an invite via email to partake in the new session for free.)

In other news, next week Raptitude will return to its regular posting schedule. I spent the last month untangling three interconnecting website issues, and they’re finally resolved. I’ve got a backlog of writing that’s waiting to see you.



Photo by Sabri Tuzcu

LanChi Pham November 9, 2020 at 11:16 am

Dear David,

I love your last line: “I’ve got a backlog of writing that’s waiting to see you.” It makes me feel like there are a group of soon-to-be friends who are waiting to connect with me. What a great feeling.



David Cain November 9, 2020 at 12:42 pm

I’m glad to be back in the writing chair again!

Sarah November 9, 2020 at 11:35 am

I think the act of deliberately relaxing the body is one of the most important things we can do for our overall well-being. Your point about the feedback loop of a relaxed body potentially relaxing an agitated mind really resonates with me. It really does seem to make a difference when I start to spiral. Thanks for the reminder and I will look into your course!

David Cain November 9, 2020 at 12:42 pm

Agreed, and it’s seldom talked about outside of meditation circles. But what a different it makes to daily well-being.

TJ November 9, 2020 at 12:16 pm

Always read your article first thing – such a positive education. Love the kitten photo – very apt. Watch kitty stretch every single muscle with bottomless finesse then curl into a purr bomb with sleep the only intention. Well done you.

David Cain November 9, 2020 at 12:43 pm

Cats are probably the best role models we have when it comes to relaxation. They make an art of it.

Donna November 9, 2020 at 12:23 pm

Loved this piece of writing, smiled at the memories of people farting in yoga sessions long ago as they finally ‘let go’ and unclenched.
Do you have any tips for the horrible morning cortisol rush? I sleep not too badly but wake up and immediately get the body panic, and my brain is quick to supply reasons why I SHOULD be feeling so stressed. There’s always something. I’ll try the stretching then but just wondered if you had any thoughts. Best wishes from Devon, UK.

David Cain November 9, 2020 at 12:48 pm

You reminded me of a moment on retreat when someone farted about five minutes into a guided instruction meditation. The teacher said “Yes, let everything go.”

The brain is amazing at supplying justifications for our stress. It really is just trying to get you to do things. Doing the relaxation exercise then is still worthwhile, and as I said, mental stress does not interfere with intentional relaxation of the body.

It won’t cure the stress, but it’s still worthwhile. I believe reducing stress is more about longer-term lifestyle influences. My strategy is the “focus on the inputs” strategy here:


Andrius November 10, 2020 at 4:22 am

The exercise to relax while lying down that you suggest here is very good. Taiji Quan is a good form of exercise to learn to also stay relaxed while moving. Much more tricky to do, as movement always involves at least some tension. But Taiji teaches to keep that tension at minimum, and it can be very rewarding.

David Cain November 10, 2020 at 9:36 am

I have never tried Taiji, but it sounds like it’s right up my alley. I didn’t realize it involved staying relaxed while moving. Can you recommend a place to start?

Annie November 15, 2020 at 9:30 am

Hi David, this act of deliberately relaxing becomes even more powerfull when the release is performed slowly and gradually. Are you familiar with the work of Thomas Hanna? He developed the field of Somatic Education where this technique is used to address physical pain.

LennStar November 18, 2020 at 1:34 pm

Well, be liek water. You hear it in every kung-fu movie, right?

btw. because of the picture: Scientifically a relaxed cats is physically a liquid. That research even got a (Ig)Nobel price! https://www.trepluscommunities.com/cats-are-they-considered-solid-or-liquid

ilman December 2, 2020 at 4:10 am

What a great post this is! I really have appreciate for this awesome post.

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