By Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, ACC, CPM

Relaxing sounds easy, doesn’t it? Sit down, put your feet up, and decompress. And the incentive to relax is certainly there: current studies are consistently circulating through our news feeds about the negative impact that stress can have on our physical and psychological well-being.

But the reality is that relaxing can be easier said than done in a world so wrought with tragedy and trauma as our global landscape is today.

I am writing this on a plane coming home from France, three days after the terrorist attack in Paris that left 130 innocent people dead. As we face these acts of violence and the unpredictability of our world, it is hard to avoid existing in a consistent state of anxiety. Add to this heightened global atmosphere of stress the “normal” challenges and obligations of daily life, and the picture is daunting.

Or is it? What if you looked at relaxing objectively, breaking the process of reaching a relaxed state into categories, the way you might with any large project? Each of us will likely have a slightly different path to relaxation, but by focusing on several basic, key actions that can affect our physical and mental well-being, we can make inroads: focused breathing, visualizing a safe space, and eating foods that can enhance relaxation— all can make a difference.


As a first step, close your eyes and take a deep breath. Think about your breath and the way you are bringing the air into your body and then pushing it out. Now inhale and exhale again, this time sharpening your focus on your breath: What do you notice in your body? Perhaps your shoulders feel tense, or maybe your feet are tingling. Make a mental note or jot down your observations.

Breathing affects your whole body. When you breathe deeply, a positive physical chain reaction occurs. Your breath sends a message to your brain to relax, and then your brain forwards the message to your body. When you breathe deeply and purposefully, stress reactions like a fast heart rate and rapid breathing give way to more-peaceful, relaxed feelings. From another perspective, when you focus on breath, your attention shifts away from your stressors.

Find A Safe Space

Do you have a place where you feel sheltered from the world? The good news is you have the ability to create this—and it need not involve spending any money! The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Creating a safe mental space—a creative visualization that brings you peace—is yours to think about and construct.

Take a moment and envision what you would want to have there. Be detailed and specific. Think about colors you like. Maybe your place is outside, surrounded by quaking aspen trees, or near a beach, or maybe it involves sounds or music. Jot down all the details. The beauty of being able to do this is its availability to you. If you can visualize it, you can create this space for yourself wherever and whenever you need it. For example, if you are in your office and feeling particularly stressed, close your door or go into the restroom or any other place where you can have some privacy; close your eyes, take a breath, and visualize your space. Let your breath take you to your place. What do you notice?

You might find it helpful to also have a physical space dedicated to relaxing. What physically represents relaxation to you? It might be as easy as decluttering and adding a candle and some beach glass—or whatever objects are soothing for you—to a corner of your bedroom.

Eat Well to Be Well

In addition to fueling our bodies, what we eat can affect our mood. Foods such as warm milk and turkey have calming effects because they are rich in the amino acid tryptophan. And don’t forget the complex carbohydrates, such as oats, that help us absorb tryptophan. Other foods that have anxiety-relieving properties are those high in selenium, such as Brazil nuts and shitake mushrooms. Magnesium is another important mineral that helps with relaxation; spinach, basil, and pumpkin seeds are high in this mineral. As in most aspects of life, balance is key. Adding these foods to a well-balanced diet might help you relax. And consider trading that cup of coffee or black tea for green tea: L-theanine is an amino acid that promotes relaxation and is found in green tea. Is your diet helping you relax?

Other Paths to Relaxation

The foregoing suggestions help with relieving stress, but there are many others. Exercise, for instance, can produce calming hormones and contribute to an overall feeling of well-being. Think about what works for you, and consider starting a journal to describe a process or model of reaching relaxation. This journal can be a place to write about feelings that bring you to a relaxed state, activities that you think are helpful, and drawings or photos of peaceful places or ideas that bring on relaxation. Commit to writing an entry daily—but keep it to one or two sentences so it doesn’t become a chore that provokes additional stress. Take time to construct a relaxation model that works for you. As with all the ideas here, shifting your focus to concentrating on relaxing is a big-picture way to start on your path.

Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, ACC, CPM, is a certified coach and mediator. Denise creates and delivers programs for corporations and organizations throughout the United States and Europe on social and emotional intelligence and nonviolent communication. Her coaching clients span all corners of the globe and all walks of life, from the international business executive to the stay-at-home parent. She received her MSW degree from Columbia University and has worked as a family therapist at The Paine Whitney Clinic in New York. She earned an advanced certification in systems and relationship coaching and is CTI certified. She has also been a substance abuse therapist at the Bronx VA Medical Center in New York and had a private therapy practice in Prague, Czech Republic. Prior to receiving her MSW, Denise held various leadership roles in the financial services industry. Contact Denise at


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