We talk a lot about stress in our society, but very little about relaxation. Odd, isn't it? The ability to relax is, in my view, undervalued. We value driven people, achievers, go-getters. "He's a bit laid-back" is more likely to be an insult than a compliment!

We all need to relax. Heart disease leads too many of us to an early grave. Interpersonal friction damages marriages and relationships. The everyday tensions of life weigh too heavily on us, crushing our sense of joy at being alive. (If I become too lyrical, just slap me)

The ideal image of the truly relaxed person is the sprinter tearing down the track. Watch his face -- see how the skin ripples easily. He's utterly relaxed, even to his facial muscles. He's pumping his arms but, again, see how the muscles float freely. Relaxed. Not holding him back. Now look at his eyes. They're focused on one thing only -- the finishing tape. This is the paradox of relaxation: we perform optimally when we are both relaxed and focused.

This applies in every aspect of life. Relaxation + focus = optimum performance. In social relationships. At work. In sports and athletics. It's the goal of every sports psychologist -- to help their athletes to stay in control of body and mind, even when they are playing the most important game of the year. It's called being "in the zone". It's sometimes referred to as "Daring to lose, to win". Allowing yourself to be bold, to take risks, and not to fear the consequences. Watch a top-flight sportsperson at work and you will see what I mean. It's the difference between competence and mastery, that moment when it all looks so easy.

How do we get "in the zone"? There are two proven relaxation techniques : deep meditation and hypnosis. I use both, personally. If these approaches seem daunting, then let me suggest a few simple techniques which you can use every day, without special training or expense, to help you shed some of your daily load of anxiety.

The first technique is the simplest: just take a deep breath in, hold it, and release slowly. As you release, let your shoulders drop. You'd be surprised how much tension resides in our shoulders. A variation of this technique is the walking meditation. As you walk along, count your paces. Breath in for 4 paces, hold for 4, breathe out for 6. Start again. You can vary the numbers. A singer I know does 12 in, 12 holding and 12 out, but then breath control is her stock in trade.

Another useful, everyday technique is to develop awareness of your body. For example, observe your breathing. Become aware of the breath entering your body. The slight increase in tension in your chest muscles as your chest expands. The release of tension on the outbreath. Any part of your body can be treated in this way. Pay close attention to your body here and now, and you will rapidly shed some of your tension.

A third approach is to use an external object as your focus. A cup, for example. Let everything else disappear from your attention and focus exclusively on the cup. Become aware of its glaze. The porcelain beneath. Sense its curvature. Let its history begin to seep into your soul. I'm getting lyrical again, so slap me. When you focus intently on an everyday object, not forcing the issue but allowing that object to fill your field of awareness, good things happen to your mind and body. It's another example of living in the here and now.

Some people shy away from hypnotherapy and meditation. I can understand the reluctance if you've never experienced the benefits, but I can wholeheartedly recommend both approaches. My own hypnotherapy clients swear by the CDs I give them. How simple is that? Half an hour of 'quiet time' every so often (typically, once per week) can unwind the tensions of work, relationships and the general hassles of modern life.

Whatever solution you choose, you won't regret learning to relax. It's the most valuable investment any person can make.

Jim Sullivan is a hypnotherapist specialising in confidence, self esteem and stress management. He may be contacted via the Confidence Club website

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