Overwhelming stress has unfortunately become a predominant characteristic of contemporary life. When your mind is in stress for over a long period of time, it produces some stress hormones. In this state, the heart rate increases, respiration becomes rapid and shallow; there is a rise in blood pressure, and the brain moves into a primitive “survival” mode, suppressing normal thought functions (evaluation, planning, deciding, encoding, memory, etc.). As a result, sometimes we react rather than being able to evaluate and plan a response to the stressor. Prolonged stress can be exhausting and can contribute to the development of disorders, such as chronic high blood pressure, heart disease/stroke, and increased risk of anxiety/depression.
About Relaxation Techniques
Practically speaking, it’s not possible to avoid all sources of stress in our lives. But we can develop healthier ways of responding to them. When stressors throw your nervous system out of balance, relaxation techniques can bring it back into a balanced state by producing relaxation response, a state of deep calmness that is the polar opposite of the stress response. For many people, de-stressing activities may mean slouching in front of the television, having a glass of alcohol, reading a book, or surfing the Internet. All these activities may provide you a sense of temporary relaxation, but contribute very little to reduce the damaging effects of stress. To effectively combat stress, we need to activate the body's natural relaxation response. Fitting these activities into your life can help reduce everyday stress and boost your mood.
Producing the Relaxation Response
Relaxation is more than a state of mind; it physically changes the way your body functions. When your body is relaxed, breathing slows, blood pressure and oxygen consumption decreases, and some people report an increased sense of well-being. This is called the “relaxation response.” Being able to produce such response using relaxation techniques may counteract the effects of long-term stress. This kind of stress may contribute to or worsen a range of health problems, including depression, digestive disorders, headaches, high blood pressure, and insomnia.
Relaxation techniques often combine breathing and focused attention to calm the mind and the body. Most methods require only brief instructions from a reliable source or experienced practitioner before they can be done without assistance. These techniques may be most effective when practiced regularly and combined with good nutrition, regular exercise, and a strong social support system.
To Get Started
- Find a quiet, relaxing place, where you will be alone for 10-20 minutes to do these exercises. The techniques work best if there are no distractions.
- Practice once or twice a day.
- Stick with the technique that works best for you. Not every technique will work for every person.
- Keep trying. Don't worry if you don't notice a major change immediately. You may need to practice for a few weeks before you begin to feel the benefits.
- Try one or more of the techniques described below.
Types of Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation Technique 1: Relaxed Breathing for Stress Relief
Practice deep breathing at a regular time and in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Loosen or remove any tight clothes you have on, such as jeans or jackets and remove your shoes. Make yourself feel completely comfortable.
Sit comfortably on a chair, which supports your head or lie on the floor or bed. Place your arms on the chair arms, or flat on the floor or bed, a little bit away from the side of your body with palms up. If you’re lying down, stretch out your legs, keeping them hip-width apart or slightly wider. If you’re sitting in a chair, don’t cross your legs.
Good relaxation always starts with focusing on your breathing. Start with breathing in and out slowly in a regular rhythm as this will help you to calm down.
Practice this relaxed breathing for three to five minutes, two to three times a day (or whenever you feel stressed).
Relaxation Technique 2: Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Stress Relief
This relaxation technique involves a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body. You can combine deep breathing with progressive muscle relaxation for an additional level of stress relief.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: A Step Wise Approach
Most progressive muscle relaxation practitioners start at the feet and work their way up to the face. For a sequence of muscle groups to follow, you may follow the instructions given below:
Relaxation Technique 3: Visualization/Guided Imagery
Visualization or guided imagery is a variation of traditional meditation that requires you to employ not only your visual sense, but also your sense of taste, touch, smell, and sound. When used as a relaxation technique, visualization involves imagining a scene in which you feel at peace and free to let go of all tension and anxiety.
Choose whatever setting is most calming to you; whether it’s a tropical beach, a favorite childhood spot, or a quiet wooded glen. You can do this visualization exercise on your own in silence, while listening to soothing music, or with a therapist (or an audio recording of a therapist) guiding you through the imagery.
Don't worry if you sometimes zone out or lose track of where you are during a guided imagery session. This is normal. You may also experience feelings of stiffness or heaviness in your limbs, minor, involuntary muscle-movements, or even cough or yawn. Again, these are normal responses.
Guide to Practice Visualization
Relaxation Technique 4: Mindfulness for Stress Relief
Mindfulness relaxation can be experienced when one is fully aware of the present moment. Thinking about the past and blaming and judging yourself, or worrying about the future, can often lead to a degree of stress that is overwhelming. By mindfulness, one can practice to stay calm and focused in the present moment, which can help bring the nervous system back into balance. Mindfulness can be applied to activities, such as walking, exercising, eating, or meditation.
Practicing Mindfulness Meditation
Key points in mindfulness mediation are:
Training, Licensing, and Certification
There is no formal credential or license required for practicing or teaching most relaxation techniques. However, the techniques may be used or taught by licensed professionals, including physicians, recreational therapists, and psychologists.
If You Are Thinking About Using Relaxation Techniques for Health
- Do not use relaxation techniques to replace conventional care or to postpone seeing a health care provider about a medical problem.
- Ask about the training and experience of the practitioner or instructor you are considering for any complementary health approach.
- Look for published research studies on relaxation for the health condition in which you are interested. Remember that some claims for using relaxation therapies may exceed the available scientific evidence.
- Tell all your health care providers about any complementary health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.
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