Being able to relax is such an important skill that I have decided to go back to basics this week! I am going to share some of the information on relaxation from ‘Release Your Worries: A Guide To Letting Go Of Stress and Anxiety’, written with my colleague Michele Murphy and published in 2011. I am also posting some further information on relaxation under Frequently Asked Questions.
The opposite of the stress response is the relaxation response. It is the body’s own way of preventing overstress and stress-related problems. It could be said that we have lost this natural response due to the demands we make on ourselves and others, demands that have become part of modern life. The good news is that the relaxation response can be rediscovered or relearned with a little effort. Relaxation is a way of producing a calm body and a quiet mind. People can lower their level of stress by regular relaxation practice, so that when a stressful situation occurs, we are more able to manage it.
We often look at relaxation training as a preventative measure rather than a cure. What is meant by this is that relaxation practice will work when you are stressed out, but it is better to practise relaxation on a more regular basis so you are getting your stress levels to be generally lower on a day to day basis.
When beginning your relaxation practice, it is important to prepare yourself for relaxation as you want to maximise your chances of being able to successfully relax. When we teach relaxation to someone for the first time we usually do it with them sitting in a chair because this position is easy to adapt to everyday life. For example, you can relax this way while sitting on a bus, while sitting at your desk at work or while sitting in a shopping centre! Or you can lie down to relax.
Here are some tips to follow when preparing for relaxation:
• Choose a special room in your house that you associate with good feelings to practise your relaxation.
• Do not eat a big meal before relaxation practice.
• Do not do relaxation directly after strenuous exercise.
• Go to the toilet before starting your relaxation.
• Try to ensure you will not be interrupted by taking the phone off the hook, informing others that you won’t be available for a while, or putting a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door.
• Make sure the room is not too hot or too cold.
• Turn down the lights, or turn them off.
• Remove contact lenses or glasses.
• Wear comfortable, loose clothing.
The relaxation position in a chair requires you to have your feet flat on the floor and your hands resting palms down on your thighs. We don’t cross ankles or legs or clasp hands together because these small actions require some muscle tension and these positions might disturb the blood supply. You might end up with hands or feet that feel numb or asleep! If for some reason you cannot sit, it is okay to lie comfortably on the floor, bed or couch on your back with arms by your side, legs flat, and your neck supported.
There are some cautions with relaxation. Individuals who dissociate readily (for example, feel disjointed or out of the situation or their body), or those with active psychotic symptoms, should be very careful using these techniques. Also, those with severe depression may find concentrating on these techniques difficult. We suggest that you talk with your doctor, counsellor or therapist as they know you and can guide you as to whether or not these techniques are appropriate for you.
There are many different relaxation techniques and most of them are based on two main things, namely slowing down your breathing and the loosening or relaxing of muscles. Relaxation techniques can be physical or mental or a combination of both. Also, different people will be able to relax in different ways. Some individuals relax through visual means, such as reading, movies, enjoying looking at trees or the ocean. Some relax through the ‘auditory’ sense or sound, such as nature sounds or music; and others like to relax through the ‘kinesthetic’ sense or movement — dance, walking, swimming or tai chi.
When you think about it, breathing is probably the most central thing to life as we need to breathe to survive. When experiencing stress and anxiety, our breathing rates can alter. People commonly report a sense of breathlessness, especially when experiencing panic. Breathing skills can help you feel calmer and more relaxed, and can stop more physical anxiety symptoms from developing.
Breathing techniques are important in learning to relax, because, for example, in times of stress an individual’s breathing rate may increase and breathing can become shallow. This is called hyperventilation. The usual resting breathing rate in an adult is about 12 breaths per minute, but when anxious this may go up to 25 breaths per minute. Shallow breathing reduces the level of carbon dioxide in the circulation. This can make the blood more alkaline and restrict the blood vessels, causing dizziness and headache.
Breathing techniques can be used to slow the breathing rate and lessen shallow breathing. The larger volumes of the lungs are at the base of the lungs, and so effective breathing means expanding your chest by lowering your diaphragm — in doing so the abdomen moves outwards. Often we think taking a full breath involves raising the shoulders, but this is not the case as this is where the smaller volumes of the lungs are. We suggest that you take medium-sized breaths and focus on expanding the chest (rather than lifting the shoulders). At the same time you will feel the abdomen move. Sometimes it helps to imagine the abdomen is like a balloon, and when you breathe in you fill the balloon. This is known as abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, and you will find abdominal breathing is used in activities such as yoga and tai chi, and in many meditation techniques.
Set aside some time to try the following breathing exercises. As with everything we learn, practice is essential. Don’t expect to do them perfectly the first time. Set aside a few minutes every day (several times, if possible) to practice. Here are several breathing exercises to try:
• “Make yourself comfortable either seated or lying down. Whichever position you choose, ensure your back is straight yet relaxed. Place the middle fingers of both hands on your stomach so they are lightly touching each other. As you breathe in, your middle fingers should gently pull away from each other as the abdomen moves, and as you breathe out they will move to touch each other again as your abdomen falls. Take gentle, medium breaths, rather than really deep breaths. Then repeat this process and try breathing ‘in, two, three; out, two, three’. Make an effort to pause and focus on your breath in ways such as this several times during the day.
• A simple breathing technique that helps you slow down your breathing rate involves closing your mouth and taking a breath in through your nose for a count of three and then exhaling the breath through your nose for a count of three. Repeating this breathing pattern should result in 6-second breathing cycles. Breathing through the nose helps most people slow down their breathing naturally, but if you find it uncomfortable it is okay to breathe through your mouth. It is helpful to use a word to say to yourself in your mind as you exhale, such as ‘relax’, ‘calm’, ‘peace’ or whatever you find calming. In this way the word becomes strongly associated with your relaxed state and, with practice, simply saying that word can bring about the state of relaxation in your body and mind that we are working towards. It is also helpful if you use diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing during this technique.
• Breathe in and out through your nose if comfortable with this, or in through the nose and out through the mouth. Simply be aware of the breath in and then the breath out. Breathe at a gentle, slow pace, and feel the cooler air moving in. Breathe out and feel the warmer air move out. Repeat several times. You might like to incorporate saying ‘relax’, ‘peace’ or ‘calm’ in your mind as you breathe out, and focus on letting go of tension and stress each time you breathe out.
• Observe and feel the breath. Rest your attention where the air enters and leaves the body, whether that be through the nose or the mouth. Maintain your focus on this for a few minutes. During this exercise, distracting thoughts or images may come into your mind. There is no need to try to stop these thoughts coming into the mind. Simply notice them, and let them pass, allowing the attention to return gently to an awareness of the breath.
These breathing techniques will help you focus simply on the breath, and let go of thoughts or concerns. As a result, they will help you feel calmer in yourself. Again, practice is vital. These breathing techniques become easier as you practise and become more familiar with them. Start with just a few minutes, and gradually increase your time relaxing.
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a good simple relaxation technique for beginners, that combines the slowing of the breath and the letting go of tension in the muscles. The progressive muscle relaxation technique aims to help you relax in three different ways. First it helps you to develop slow, regular breathing as an aid to relaxation, as described above. Secondly it helps you to recognise the feelings of relaxation in each of your muscle groups and finally it helps you to associate the word ‘relax’ with feelings of physical relaxation. Therefore, eventually you can use the word ‘relax’ as a trigger for relaxing your body and mind.
As with everything we learn, practice is essential. Don’t expect to do it perfectly the first time. Set aside a few minutes every day to practise, or preferably several times a day. Try the following exercise:
“Start by slowing down your breathing using the ‘slowing the breath’ technique above and saying ‘relax’ to yourself as you exhale. To begin the technique you should be in the sitting relaxation position and let your eyes gently close. Then you might like to notice some of the sensations and feelings in your body right now. Systematically go through your muscle groups using the following prompts and let go of any feelings of tightness, and focus on increasing sensations of comfort and looseness in your muscles.
Notice the sensations in your toes and feet and let the relaxation flow like a gentle wave or stream up through your ankles, through the calf muscles, up through your thighs, right up to the tops of your legs. Maybe you can notice a gentle heaviness in your legs as they sink down into the chair comfortably.
Next, allow the gentle wave of relaxation to continue up into the middle part of your body. Up through the buttock muscles, pelvis and stomach. Through the hips and into your lower back. Flowing at its own pace up through the back, up and down the spine. The wave of relaxation continues gently flowing up into the chest, between your shoulder blades and into the shoulders. Now let the relaxation flow into your neck and throat, progressing into your scalp and across your forehead. Now it flows down your face, around your eyes, into the cheeks, your mouth and jaw. Your teeth should be slightly apart and your tongue resting loosely in the base of your mouth.
This gentle wave of comfort then flows back down into your neck and shoulders and down through the arms. Then the relaxation flows into the muscles of the upper arms, through the elbows, through the wrists, into the hands and fingers, right to the very ends of your fingertips.
Finally, take time to enjoy these wonderful feelings of relaxation throughout your entire body. Enjoy these feelings for as long as you want, and when you are ready, gently open your eyes and return to the present moment.”
Relaxation strategies do not need to be new, complex or time-consuming. Below are some relaxation ideas you may like to experiment with:
• Reading a book or watching a movie.
• Simple stretches that can help loosen tight areas.
• Having a bath or massage.
• Taking a walk somewhere with nice scenery.
• Listening to or playing music.
• Having a cup of tea or coffee with a friend.
• Engaging in a hobby such as painting, gardening or photography.
• Yoga, tai chi, hypnosis.
If you would like to learn more about relaxation, refer to ‘Release Your Worries A Guide to Letting Go of Stress and Anxiety’ (Exisle, 2011), available from the shop on this website and in many libraries.
There are also several relaxation CDs available on the website:
• ‘Keeping the blues away’ has a good basic relaxation for everyone (3 tracks 12-40 minutes long)
• ‘Release Your Worries’ is a recording of the brief meditations described in the book – all are short but the whole CD is about 45 minutes, and by the end you will have learnt a great deal and you will be very relaxed!