Using the Relaxation Response to Relieve Stress
For many of us, relaxation means zoning out in front of the TV at the end of a stressful day. But this does little to reduce the damaging effects of stress. To effectively combat stress, we need to activate the body’s natural relaxation response. You can do this by practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, rhythmic exercise, and yoga. Fitting these activities into your life can help reduce everyday stress, boost your energy and mood, and improve your mental and physical health.
What is the relaxation response?
When stress overwhelms your nervous system, your body is flooded with chemicals that prepare you for “fight or flight.” This stress response can be lifesaving in emergency situations where you need to act quickly. But when it’s constantly activated by the stresses of everyday life, it can wear your body down and take a toll on your emotional health.
No one can avoid all stress, but you can counteract its detrimental effects by learning how to produce the relaxation response, a state of deep rest that is the polar opposite of the stress response. The relaxation response puts the brakes on stress and brings your body and mind back into a state of equilibrium.
When the relaxation response is activated, your:
•heart rate slows down
•breathing becomes slower and deeper
•blood pressure drops or stabilizes
•blood flow to the brain increases
In addition to its calming physical effects, the relaxation response also increases energy and focus, combats illness, relieves aches and pains, heightens problem-solving abilities, and boosts motivation and productivity. Best of all, anyone can reap these benefits with regular practice.
How to produce the relaxation response
Simply laying on the couch, reading, or watching TV—while sometimes relaxing—isn’t going to produce the physical and psychological benefits of the relaxation response. For that, you’ll need to actively practice a relaxation technique.
How to practice deep breathing
The key to deep breathing is to breathe deeply from the abdomen, getting as much fresh air as possible in your lungs. When you take deep breaths from the abdomen, rather than shallow breaths from your upper chest, you inhale more oxygen. The more oxygen you get, the less tense, short of breath, and anxious you feel.
•Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
•Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
•Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
•Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.
•If you find it difficult breathing from your abdomen while sitting up, try lying down. Put a small book on your stomach, and breathe so that the book rises as you inhale and falls as you exhale.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body. With regular practice, it gives you an intimate familiarity with what tension—as well as complete relaxation—feels like in different parts of the body. This can help you to you react to the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies stress. And as your body relaxes, so will your mind.
Progressive muscle relaxation can be combined with deep breathing for additional stress relief.
Practicing progressive muscle relaxation
Consult with your doctor first if you have a history of muscle spasms, back problems, or other serious injuries that may be aggravated by tensing muscles.
•Start at your feet and work your way up to your face, trying to only tense those muscles intended.
•Loosen clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable.
•Take a few minutes to breathe in and out in slow, deep breaths.
•When you’re ready, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to focus on the way it feels.
•Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
•Relax your foot. Focus on the tension flowing away and how your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
•Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
•Shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
•Move slowly up through your body, contracting and relaxing the different muscle groups.
•It may take some practice at first, but try not to tense muscles other than those intended.
•Progressive muscle relaxation sequence
•Right foot, then left foot
•Right calf, then left calf
•Right thigh, then left thigh
•Hips and buttocks
•Right arm and hand, then left arm and hand
•Neck and shoulders
Rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, mindfulness meditation switches the focus to what’s happening right now, enabling you to be fully engaged in the present moment.
Meditations that cultivate mindfulness have long been used to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions. Some of these meditations bring you into the present by focusing your attention on a single repetitive action, such as your breathing, a few repeated words, or the flickering light of a candle. Other forms of mindfulness meditation encourage you to follow and then release internal thoughts or sensations. Mindfulness can also be applied to activities such as walking, exercising, or eating.
A basic mindfulness exercise:
•Sit on a straight-backed chair or cross-legged on the floor.
•Focus on an aspect of your breathing, such as the sensation of air flowing into your nostrils and out of your mouth, or your belly rising and falling.
•Once you’ve narrowed your concentration in this way, begin to widen your focus. Become aware of sounds, sensations, and thoughts.
•Embrace and consider each thought or sensation without judging it good or bad. If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing. Then expand your awareness again.
•Practicing mindfulness meditation
•To practice mindfulness meditation, you’ll need:
•A quiet environment. Choose a secluded place in your home, office, or outdoors where you can relax without distractions or interruptions.
•A comfortable position. Get comfortable, but avoid lying down as this may lead to you falling asleep.
•A point of focus. You can meditate with your eyes closed or open so this point can be internal—a feeling or imaginary scene—or external—a candle flame or a meaningful word that you repeat throughout the meditation.
•An observant, noncritical attitude. Don’t worry about distracting thoughts that go through your mind or about how well you’re doing. If thoughts intrude during your relaxation session, don’t fight them, just gently turn your attention back to your point of focus.
Starting a regular relaxation practice
Learning the basics of these relaxation techniques isn’t difficult, but it takes regular practice to truly harness their stress-relieving power. Most stress experts recommend setting aside at least 10 to 20 minutes a day for your relaxation practice. If you’d like to maximize the benefits, aim for 30 minutes to an hour.
Tips for making relaxation techniques part of your life
•Set aside time in your daily schedule. If possible, schedule a set time once or twice a day for your practice. If your schedule is already packed, remember that many relaxation techniques can be practiced while you’re doing other things. Try meditating while commuting on the bus or train, taking a yoga or tai chi break at lunchtime, or practicing mindful walking while exercising your dog.
•Don’t practice when you’re sleepy. These techniques are so relaxing that they can make you very sleepy. However, you will get the most benefit if you practice when you’re fully alert. Avoid practicing close to bedtime or after a heavy meal or alcohol.
•Expect ups and downs. Don’t be discouraged if you skip a few days or even a few weeks. Just get started again and slowly build up to your old momentum.
If you exercise, improve the relaxation benefits by adopting mindfulness.
Instead of zoning out or staring at a TV as you exercise, try focusing your attention on your body. If you’re resistance training, for example, focus on coordinating your breathing with your movements and pay attention to how your body feels as you raise and lower weights.
Article adopted from: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/relaxation-techniques-for-stress-relief.htm