Stress…it’s a part of life, you just can’t escape it. But constant stress can be the cause of numerous physical and emotional ills. Depending of the type and severity of stress you are dealing with, there are a variety of treatment options to consider, but learning to relax and quiet your body, mind, and spirit is beneficial to your overall health.
The benefits of reducing stress and learning to relax are numerous:
- Lower Blood Pressure
- Slow Heart Rate
- Increase Blood Flow to Major Muscles
- Reduce Muscle Tension
- Improved Circulation
- More Energy
- Fewer Physical and Emotional Symptoms
The basic principle of relaxation is to focus your attention on something calming, and to increase awareness of your body. Listed below are some of the more common relaxation techniques. If you don’t find something that works for you here, search the web and you will dozens of great sites offering suggestions for traditional as well as unique ways to restore your spirit and quiet and calm your body and mind.
The important thing is to be aware of the effects stress can have on your physical and mental health, and be patient with yourself…learning to relax requires a bit of effort and some practice, but the rewards are well worth it!!
According to the Mayo Clinic there are three main types of relaxation techniques:
- Autogenic relaxation. Autogenic means something that comes from within you. In this technique, you use both visual imagery and body awareness to reduce stress. You repeat words or suggestions in your mind to help you relax and reduce muscle tension. You may imagine a peaceful place and then focus on controlled, relaxing breathing, slowing your heart rate, or different physical sensations, such as relaxing each arm or leg one by one.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. In this technique, you focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. This helps you focus on the difference between muscle tension and relaxation, and you become more aware of physical sensations. You may choose to start by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes and progressively working your way up to your neck and head. Tense your muscles for at least five seconds and then relax for 30 seconds, and repeat.
- Visualization. In this technique, you form mental images to take a visual journey to a peaceful, calming place or situation. Try to use as many senses as you can, including smells, sights, sounds and textures. If you imagine relaxing at the ocean, for instance, think about the warmth of the sun, the sound of crashing waves, the feel of the grains of sand and the smell of salt water. You may want to close your eyes, sit in a quiet spot and loosen any tight clothing.
For more details visit their website:
The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends these great exercises on their website: http://www.umm.edu/sleep/relax_tech.html
This technique is often most useful when you tape the instructions beforehand. You can tape these instructions, reading them slowly and leaving a short pause after each one.
- Lie on your back, close your eyes.
- Feel your feet. Sense their weight. Consciously relax them and sink into the bed. Start with your toes and progress to your ankles.
- Feel your knees. Sense their weight. Consciously relax them and feel them sink into the bed.
- Feel you upper legs and thighs. Feel their weight. Consciously relax them and feel them sink into the bed.
- Feel your abdomen and chest. Sense your breathing. Consciously will them to relax. Deepen your breathing slightly and feel your abdomen and chest sink into the bed.
- Feel your buttocks. Sense their weight. Consciously relax them and feel them sink into the bed.
- Feel your hands. Sense their weight. Consciously relax them and feel them sink into the bed.
- Feel your upper arms. Sense their weight. Consciously relax them and feel them sink into the bed.
- Feel your shoulders. Sense their weight. Consciously relax them and feel them sink into the bed.
- Feel your neck. Sense its weight. Consciously relax it and feel it sink into the bed.
- Feel your head and skull. Sense its weight. Consciously relax it and feel it sink into the bed.
- Feel your mouth and jaw. Consciously relax them. Pay particular attention to your jaw muscles and unclench them if you need to. Feel your mouth and jaw relax and sink into the bed.
- Feel your eyes. Sense if there is tension in your eyes. Sense if you are forcibly closing your eyelids. Consciously relax your eyelids and feel the tension slide off the eyes.
- Feel your face and cheeks. Consciously relax them and feel the tension slide off into the bed.
- Mentally scan your body. If you find any place that is still tense, then consciously relax that place and let it sink into the bed.
This one may seem like a bit of a contradiction to the previous one, but by alternately tensing and relaxing your toes, you actually draw tension from the rest of the body. Try it!
- Lay on your back, close your eyes.
- Sense your toes.
- Now pull all 10 toes back toward your face. Count to 10 slowly.
- Now relax your toes.
- Count to 10 slowly.
- Now repeat the above cycle 10 times.
By concentrating on our breathing, deep breathing allows the rest of our body to relax itself. Deep breathing is a great way to relax the body and get everything into synchrony. Relaxation breathing is an important part of yoga and martial arts for this reason.
- Lie on your back.
- Slowly relax your body. You can use the progressive relaxation technique we described above.
- Begin to inhale slowly through your nose if possible. Fill the lower part of your chest first, then the middle and top part of your chest and lungs. Be sure to do this slowly, over 8–10 seconds.
- Hold your breath for a second or two.
- Then quietly and easily relax and let the air out.
- Wait a few seconds and repeat this cycle.
- If you find yourself getting dizzy, then you are overdoing it. Slow down.
- You can also imagine yourself in a peaceful situation such as on a warm, gentle ocean. Imagine that you rise on the gentle swells of the water as you inhale and sink down into the waves as you exhale.
- You can continue this breathing technique for as long as you like until you fall asleep.
In this technique, the goal is to visualize yourself in a peaceful setting.
- Lie on your back with your eyes closed.
- Imagine yourself in a favorite, peaceful place. The place may be on a sunny beach with the ocean breezes caressing you, swinging in a hammock in the mountains or in your own backyard. Any place that you find peaceful and relaxing is OK.
- Imagine you are there. See and feel your surroundings, hear the peaceful sounds, smell the flowers or the barbeque, fell the warmth of the sun and any other sensations that you find. Relax and enjoy it.
- You can return to this place any night you need to. As you use this place more and more you will find it easier to fall asleep as this imagery becomes a sleep conditioner. Some patients find it useful to visualize something boring. This may be a particularly boring teacher or lecturer, co-worker or friend.
- Lie on your back with your eyes closed. Place your hands behind your head.
- Make sure they are relaxed.
- Place your thumbs in your ears so that you close the ear canal. You will hear a high-pitched rushing sound. This is normal. Listen to this sound for 10–15 minutes
- Then put your arms at your sides, actively relax them and go to sleep
Visit Healthy.Net ( http://www.healthy.net/ ) for a variety of interesting and unique relaxation exercises in an article written by Dr. Susan Lark. Although these are geared to women, I believe they can easily be adapted to benefit men as well. In addition to the exercises, Dr. Lark also suggests the following:
For centuries, people have used warm water as a way to calm moods and relax muscles. You can have your own "spa" at home by adding relaxing ingredients to the bath water. I have found the following formula to be extremely useful in relieving muscle pain and tension.
Run a tub of warm water. Heat will increase your menstrual flow, so keep the water a little cooler if heavy flow is a problem. Add one cup of sea salt and one cup of bicarbonate of soda to the tub. This is a highly alkaline mixture and I recommend using it only once or twice a month. I've found it very helpful in reducing cramps and calming anxiety and irritability. Soak for 20 minutes. You will probably feel very relaxed and sleepy after this bath; use it at night before going to sleep. You will probably wake up feeling refreshed and energized the following day. Heat of any kind helps to release muscle tension. Many women find that saunas and baths also help to calm their moods.
Music can have a tremendously relaxing effect on our minds and bodies. For women with anxiety and nervous tension, I recommend slow, quiet music classical music is particularly good. This type of music can have a pronounced beneficial effect on your physiological functions. It can slow your pulse and heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and decrease your levels of stress hormones. It promotes peace and relaxation and helps to induce sleep. Nature sounds, such as ocean waves and rainfall, can also induce a sense of peace and relaxation. I have patients who keep tapes of nature sounds in their carsand at home for use when they feel more stressed. Play relaxing music often when you are aware of increased emotional and physical tension.
Massage can be extremely therapeutic for women who feel anxious. Gentle touching either by a trained massage therapist, your relationship partner, or even yourself can be very relaxing. Tension usually fades away relatively quickly with gentle, relaxed touching. The kneading and stroking movement of a good massage relaxes tight muscles and improves circulation. If you can afford to do so, I recommend treating yourself to a professional massage during times of stress. Otherwise, trade with a friend or partner. There are also many books available that instruct people how to massage themselves.
Check out HelpGuide.Org for great information about Yoga, Tai Chi, and other forms of mind/body exercise that can be helpful in relaxing and balancing the body/mind/spirit: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/
What is yoga and how can it help with stress relief?
Yoga is a broad term for a series of personal practices, which bring together your physical, mental and spiritual resources with the goal of attaining a state of wholeness and completeness. The term yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning “to unite.”
There are many forms of yoga, and all have a spiritual component. Most Westerners practice hatha yoga, which focuses on the physical aspects. Yoga teaches you a series of stationary and moving poses called asanas and a form of breath control known as pranayama, as well as concentration techniques.
Yoga postures are designed to balance the different systems of the body, including the central nervous, the endocrine (glandular , and the digestive systems. By slowing down your mental activity, taking your mind off the causes of stress, and having you gently stretch your body in ways that massage your internal organs, yoga helps you create dynamic peacefulness within yourself.
What is Tai Chi and how can it offer stress relief?
Tai Chi is a self-paced, non-competitive series of slow, gentle, flowing body movements that emphasize concentration, relaxation, and the conscious circulation of vital energy throughout the body. Though Tai Chi was first developed as a martial art during the 13th century, it is primarily practiced today as a way of calming the mind, conditioning the body, and reducing stress. As in meditation, Tai Chi practitioners focus on their breathing and keeping their attention in the present moment.
As the Mayo Clinic points out, Tai Chi is considered less strenuous and challenging than yoga and is generally safe for people of all ages and levels of fitness. Because the movements are low impact, it’s often appealing to older adults, people with joint pain, and those recovering from injuries. It can also improve balance and reduce the risk of falls. Once you have learned the moves, you can practice it anywhere, at any time, by yourself or with others; and without special clothing or gear.
How does massage therapy ease stress?
A professional massage can provide soothing, deep relaxation and can improve physiological processes such as circulation. As the tense muscles relax, so does your entire body, as well as your overstressed mind. According to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), the most common type of massage is Swedish massage, which is specifically meant to relax and energize you through stroking and kneading the muscles.
Another common type of massage is Shiatsu, also known as acupressure. Therapists use their fingers to manipulate the body’s pressure points to open channels that can release fresh energy and carry away spent energy and toxins. You may consider visiting the consumer section of AMTA’s website to learn more about what massage can do for you, what to expect from a massage and how to find a qualified massage therapist.
If regular massage therapy is out of your price range, try giving yourself a massage. Here’s an example from Northwestern University Health Services:
- Scalp Soother: Place your thumbs behind your ears while spreading your fingers on top of your head. Move your scalp back and forth slightly by making circles with your fingertips for 15-20 seconds.
- Easy on the Eyes: Close your eyes and place your ring fingers directly under your eyebrows, near the bridge of your nose. Slowly increase the pressure for 5-10 seconds, then gently release. Repeat 2-3 times.
- Sinus Pressure Relief: Place your fingertips at the bridge of your nose. Slowly slide your fingers down your nose and across the top of your cheekbones to the outside of your eyes.
- Shoulder Tension Relief: Reach one arm across the front of your body to your opposite shoulder. Using a circular motion, press firmly on the muscle above your shoulder blade. Repeat on the other side.
How can your sensory organs help you relieve stress?
You can use sensory stimuli to help you reduce stress. Methods include:
- Listening to soothing music.
- Taking a long, hot bath or shower.
- Looking at a beautiful scene or picture.
- Using aromatherapy, or various scents, to evoke physical responses.
By enlisting your body as an ally, you may be better able to reduce and relieve your levels of stress.
Massachusetts General Hospital / Benson Institue of Mind-Body Medicine provides some useful tips for “mini-relaxation exercises” when your time is limited or you are on the go. http://www.mbmi.org/basics/mstress_RIAH.asp
Mini-relaxation exercises help reduce anxiety and tension immediately. You can do them with your eyes open or closed (but make sure that your eyes are open when you are driving). You can do them anywhere, any time, and no one will know that you are doing them.
Some good times to "do a mini" are when you are:
- Stuck in traffic
- Put on "hold" during an important phone call
- In your doctor's waiting room
- Someone says something which upsets you
- Waiting for a phone call
- Sitting in the dentist's chair
- Feeling overwhelmed by what you need to accomplish in the near future.
- Standing in line
- In pain
"Minis" are most beneficial for people who elicit the relaxation response on a regular basis. Minis quickly recall this relaxation state, but they can help anyone feel refreshed, calmer, and better able to concentrate.
The basic method for doing a mini is quite simple:
Put your hand just below your navel. Take a deep breath, bringing the air in through your nose and out through your mouth. You should feel your stomach rising about an inch as you breathe in, and falling about an inch as you breathe out. This is diaphragmatic breathing. If this is still difficult for you, lie on your back or on your stomach, where you will be more aware of your breathing pattern. Remember to relax your stomach muscles.
Here are some variations:
Mini Version 1
Count very slowly to yourself from 10 down to zero, one number for each breath. With the first diaphragmatic breath, you say "10" to yourself, with the next breath, you say "nine", etc. If you start feeling light-headed or dizzy, slow down the counting. When you get to "zero", see how you are feeling. If you are feeling better, great! If not, try doing it again.
Mini Version 2
As you inhale, count very slowly up to four; as you exhale, count slowly back down to one. Thus, as you inhale, you say to yourself "one, two, three, four," as you exhale, you say to yourself "four, three, two, one." Do this several times.
Mini Version 3
After each inhalation, pause for a few seconds; after you exhale, pause again for a few seconds. Do this for several breaths.
There are also several other pages on this site that you might find of interest: CranioSacral Therapy , EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), Exercise/QiGong (particularly the Wuji Pose ), Healthy Breathing, Meditation, and Visualization.