The science of relaxation: learn to de-stress using your senses
Whether it’s running late for work, revising for exams, or something bigger concerning family or friends, stress occurs on a daily basis for the majority of adults in the UK. But learning how to deal with it is important for mental and physical wellbeing.
One of the most common relaxation methods is visualisation, picturing a scene and focusing on the smallest of details using all of your senses.
But how do you visualise a calming atmosphere when you’re surrounded by office desks, traffic or road works?
Take this opportunity to learn, by listening to different sounds, learning about different scents, and watching different scenes, and discover how to unwind using all your senses.
A study at the University of Sussex has scientifically proven that nature sounds help us relax, and Jo, a Londoner, agrees. “Just generally being outside is relaxing” she tells WNOL. Orfeu Buxton from Pennsylvania State University explains that when we sleep, we can hear threatening and non-threatening sounds, with water being considered the latter. It tells our brains not to worry, whereas harsher sounds, like alarms and thunder, can be considered threatening, and wake us up.
Most of the people WNOL spoke to mentioned “birds singing” as a calming sound. A study led by Dr. Daniel Cox found stress, depression and anxiety levels decreased when participants were watching birds. Listen to the clip and see how the bird calls make you feel.
For many people living in cities, traffic can be a trigger for stress. But compare it to the sound of waves crashing against rocks – it’s surprisingly similar. None of the people WNOL spoke to had ever considered this, but one man did say white noise, like car engines, is soothing, along with the ocean, so this visualisation is likely to help him destress.
Lavender is arguably the most popular scent for relaxation, with a range of pillow sprays being sold to improve sleep. But why does it work so well?
One suggestion from Christabel Majendie, a sleep therapist at Naturalmat, is that linalool, a part of lavender oil, acts as a sedative by affecting vital neurotransmitters that help us sleep.
Maybe it’s time to try one of those pillow sprays…
Jasmine is another scent that has been proven to combat stress, with its subtle, sweet smell helping participants of a study fall into a deeper sleep than if they were exposed to lavender.
A couple of Londoners mentioned jasmine when asked to list calming scents, which could act as an alternative for those who are not a fan of lavender.
Finally, pine (aka Christmas trees) is proven to be a relaxing scent, with its essential oil being found in most health stores. A study from Kyoto University in Japan found that stressed participants who were taken for a 15 minute walk in a forest everyday, were considerably more relaxed afterwards, compared to a group who were not taken for walks. Burning the oil above a candle can fill a room with its aroma, helping you unwind after a long day.
The University of Illinois found that the more trees in a scene, the less stress a person feels. It’s arguably one of the easiest to visualise, with trees scattered all around London, 8 million to be exact, and was a popular response among Londoners, who all said they enjoy watching the branches sway in the breeze.
For many people, watching a crackling fire can help them wind down, and this no coincidence.
Dr. Christopher Lynn explained to the Telegraph that watching a fire lowered blood pressure and increased relaxation the longer people were exposed to it. When Jo was asked what she thought she explained, “as long as it’s a cold winter’s night and I have a good book it’s relaxing”, which sounds like a pretty perfect moment.
You’ve already listened to water, but watching it is also proven to lower stress and anxiety levels. Professor Michael Depledge and environmental psychologist Mat White found that showing images of landscapes containing a water feature alongside greenery resulted in positive responses in the participants that significantly lowered stress levels.
The ocean was a popular response from Londoners, who all enjoy staring at the waves moving back and forth. “I like the waves crashing against the shore” said one person, who finds the British seaside and pebbled beaches more calming than ones with sand.
So how do you feel?
After watching the videos, listening to the sounds and imagining the different scents, have you been able to visualise the perfect, peaceful environment?
If you have, try picturing it whenever you’re stressed, or need a moment to yourself, focusing on everything from what you can see and hear, to how it makes you feel. Let your muscles grow heavy and your breath soften, and leave all your worries behind.
Audio and video recorded by Alysia Georgiades