Just Relax

If only it were that easy. A comprehensive study of more than 10,000 subjects and 40 techniques has shed some light on the complexity of relaxation. There are more than 15 subjective states that people describe as relaxation, from feeling mentally quiet, energized, joyful or disengaged to a sense of the mystery of life, according to Jonathan C. Smith, PhD, founder and director of the Roosevelt Stress Institute in Chicago. And there are a multitude of ways to achieve relaxation, from professionally taught techniques that provoke deep relaxation—yoga, meditation and self-hypnosis, for instance—to those that calm on a gentler level—petting a cat, taking a bath, listening to music.

Smith's research defines relaxation in a broader sense, using not just the physiological state of lowered heart rate and slowed breathing, but psychological terms, as well. In short, it's both body and mind that must register a sense of peace. "Just as you can't say love is only an adrenaline rush, or grief a dip in serotonin levels, it's the same with relaxation," says Smith.

What he found was that not all techniques click for everyone. There's a lack of perseverance in the pursuit of calm. "Many people learn a technique but never practice it," he says. Why? "The shoe doesn't fit," says Smith. People's responsiveness to various methods depends on personality and goals. "If your issue is insomnia, yoga would be a bad choice—it's energizing rather than sleep-inducing." At Smith's institute, all patients fill out an exhaustive questionnaire and are taught the six hard-core relaxation techniques (yoga, meditation, self-hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, imagery). That way, they can pick and choose the ones that work and skip the others. He likens it to selecting food at a cafeteria—pile the plate only with what appeals. Smith has authored three books on his relaxation research. A fourth book will be out in August offering what he calls the "whole rainbow of stress management techniques" with do-it-yourself self-assessment quizzes.

—Barbara Hey