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When we refer to relaxation, we usually refer to something that we do because we enjoy it. It generally lifts our mood and helps us to feel better. There are some different forms of relaxation:
Activity Based Relaxation
This is a form of relaxation that is generally focused on an activity or a task. You might go swimming, jogging, gardening, do some crocheting or painting, or do some reading (there are lots more possibilities!). All of these are activities that, if you enjoy them, will generally give you a sense of satisfaction and improve your sense of well-being.
Passive Relaxation Vegging
This is a form of relaxation that is less task-oriented. It involves relaxing and usually allowing your body to rest. Some examples are watching television, or listening to music. It is passive in the sense that you are being entertained, rather than actively doing something to entertain yourself.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation _ Deep Breathing _ Visualization
Progressive muscle relaxation is what we will be focusing on in this section. It is focused specifically on learning to relax our muscles, slow down our breathing, and helping our bodies and our minds to recover from some of the stressors of the day. The rest of the handout describes aspects of progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing in more detail. Note that other forms of deep relaxation, such as meditation, may also be beneficial. This site focuses on progressive muscle relaxation because it is one of the easiest to learn, but if it doesn’t fit well for you, consider exploring other options. We have also included a brief description of visualization at the end of the section – you can use it by itself, with deep breathing, or add it onto a progressive muscle relaxation session.
What are the benefits of progressive muscle relaxation?
- In the Lake of Stress Section, we talked about the “fight or flight” response, and how that response could be triggered unnecessarily in modern society. Progressive muscle relaxation helps us to engage our parasympathetic nervous system, and to bring the body down from “high alert.” Once we have mastered the skill, we can use it in high stress situations, and, more importantly for health benefits, we can use it on a regular basis to help our body tolerate stress more effectively.
- Studies have shown that people who take time to do progressive muscle relaxation on a regular basis (approximately three to five times per week) have health benefits. Some examples: decreased headaches, lowered blood pressure, fewer stomach problems, reduced pain, and improved sleep.
- Many people with anxiety find that learning these relaxation skills can help them to manage feelings of panic or anxiety. Very rarely people experience increased feelings of anxiety or panic when practising relaxation. If you have these experiences, stop the exercises and talk to a health professional.
- Taking an opportunity to regularly clear your mind, and then focus it (which is part of progressive muscle relaxation) can also have benefits in learning to focus your attention outside of the progressive muscle relaxation. It may also have benefits in memory (because you learn to attend more closely to information you can remember it better!).
There are three basic skills that you will be learning in this section. They are deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization. They form the core of skills that will help you with generally lowering your stress or arousal level and, hopefully, improving your well-being. We’ll start out with deep breathing.
When you have an opportunity, watch an infant breathe. What part moves when he/she breaths? You’ll probably notice that his/her stomach moves in and out. It is this kind of breathing – sometimes called deep breathing, stomach breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing that we want to learn.
As adults we often breathe using our chest muscles or our shoulders. If you watch yourself in the mirror, you might notice our shoulders going up and down, or the top of your chest going in and out. This kind of breathing is often called chest or shallow breathing. This kind o breathing can actually increase of feelings of stress or anxiety, and may decrease the amount of oxygen available to our body.
When we breathe with our stomachs, a muscle called the diaphragm, which is just below our lungs, drops. This allows our lungs to expand deeply, and to inhale lots of oxygen. When we breathe out, the diaphragm goes back up, and pushes against our lungs to force the air out. Thus, when we are practicing deep breathing, the goal is to have our stomachs go out, when we breathe in, and to have our stomachs go in, when we breathe out.
In order to practice, try lying flat on your couch, a bed, or the floor (most people find it easier to feel their stomachs going in and out when they are lying flat). Make sure that you are comfortable, and that you don'’ have on clothing that is too tight around the waist (belts, tight pants, pantyhose, etc.). Lace your fingers together, and place them overtop of your stomach. As you breathe in, focus on trying to expand your stomach, and pushing your fingers apart. As you breathe out, focus on bringing your stomach back in, and having your fingers come together again. This will likely feel very awkward and unnatural at first, so don’t get frustrated if it doesn’t come right away. Try doing (2 sets of 10) or (4 sets of 5) with a bit of break in-between (usually a few minutes is enough). Some people find they catch on after about one week. Other people find they need about five to six weeks before it really becomes comfortable.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that was developed to help people teach their bodies what it feels like to be relaxed. When we are rushing around during the day, we often begin to carry our bodies more and more tensely. Some people find it difficult to imagine what it would be like to be completely relaxed. Progressive muscle relaxation helps people to rediscover what relaxed muscles feel like, helps to slow your mind down, can help you get to sleep at night, and can help you to feel less anxious or worried. But it does take some practice!
Steps to Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Try to create an atmosphere that is relaxing. Have soft music playing, dim the lights, unplug the phone, tell your kids you need some quiet time, etc. Do whatever you need to do to create a “spot” in which you can relax.
- Sit in a comfortable chair with your head and back supported. If you are using progressive muscle relaxation to get to sleep, you can do it lying down. If you are using it for pain and stress relief, it is better to sit so that you are less likely to go to sleep.
- Loosen any clothing that is too tight. You may want to remove glasses, watches, etc.
- Begin by taking a few deep breaths (see deep breathing section above). Some people find this very calming, and devote a lot of their relax time to it. Other people only use 5 to 10 breaths to ease their way into progressive muscle relaxation. As you breathe in, imagine that you are taking in your tension or worries. As you breathe out, imagine that you are releasing your tension and worries. If thoughts come into your mind that are intruding on your relaxation time, imagine that they are in clouds, and sailing over you, rather than filling your mind. If other pains begin to intrude acknowledge their reality, but put them in a box. Continue to put them in a box throughout the exercise.
- Begin the tensing and relaxing by making a fist with your right hand, tightening the muscles of your hand and forearm. Hold it tightly for 5 to 15 seconds (usually around 10 seconds works well for people). Do not overtighten your hand or any of the following muscle groups – just enough to feel the tension. Then allow your hand to open and your arm to relax for the same 5 to 15 second time. Do the same thing with your left hand and arm. Focus on the difference between the relaxed state and the tense state. What does the relaxed state feel like to you? Some people describe it as warm, heavy, or tingling. Think about what words or images you would use to describe the relaxed state, and encourage your mind and your body to focus on that relaxed state. Repeat both hands.
- Continuing to focus on the difference between the tense state and the relaxed state of your muscles, move through the rest of the body areas in the same manner. Make a fist with your right hand, and bring it up to your shoulder, tightening your upper arm. Hold for 5 to 15 seconds and release. Repeat with your left arm. Allow any tension in your arms to flow down through your arms, and out through your fingertips. Repeat both arms.
- Change your focus to your head and neck area. Begin by raising your eyebrows as high as you can, hold for 5 to 15 seconds, and relax. Allow your forehead to become smooth and heavy. Repeat. Next bring your eyebrows together, as though you were frowning at someone. Hold for 5 to 15 seconds and relax. Let the space between your eyebrows become wide. Repeat. Next bring your mouth together in an “oo” shape, pursing your lips. Hold for 5 to 15 seconds, and then release, allowing the mouth to fall open naturally, again for about 5 to 15 seconds. Next clench your jaw together tightly. Notice how it feels, tight and constricted. Hold 5 to 15 seconds. Release. Again let your jaw fall slightly open, and allow it feel heavy and relaxed. Repeat.
Now raise your shoulders up toward your ears, allowing your shoulder and neck muscles to tighten. These muscles may already be tight because of stress, so do not over tighten – just enough to feel the tension. Hold for 5 to 15 seconds. Allow your shoulders to drop back down, feeling the tension flowing down and out your arms and fingertips. Stay relaxed for 5 to 15 seconds. Repeat the tensing and relaxing. Next press the back of your head against the back of your chair, tightening the muscles in the back of your neck. Hold 5 to 15 seconds. Relax 5 to 15 seconds. Focus on the heaviness of warmth that you’ve created. If only a small area is able to relax, focus on the relaxed area, and allow it to spread throughout your neck. Repeat the tensing and the relaxing.
Note: If you commonly carry tension in your face, jaw, neck, or shoulder areas, you can use these as mini-tense/relax sessions during the day, to remind yourself to allow those muscles to relax.
- Move your focus to your upper back, mid-back, and abdomen. Begin by pressing your shoulder blades together. Hold them together for 5 to 15 seconds. Release 5 to 15 seconds. Repeat the tensing and relaxing. Take a couple of deep breaths in and out, releasing any remaining tension. Next arch your lower back slightly, just enough to tense the lower back muscles. Hold 5 to 15 seconds. Release 5 to 15 seconds. Repeat tensing and relaxing. Tuck your abdomen in as tightly as you can. Hold for 5 to 15 seconds and release 5 to 15 seconds. Repeat tensing and relaxing. Take a couple more deep breaths in and out again, releasing any remaining tension.
- Finally, move your focus to your buttocks and your legs. First, squeeze your buttocks together, hold for 5 to 15 seconds, and release for 5 to 15 seconds. The final area is your legs, which can be done separately or together. Bring your legs straight out in front of you and point your toes toward your face. Tighten both your calves and your thighs. Hold for 5 to 15 seconds, and release for 5 to 15 seconds. Repeat the tensing and relaxing. Allow any tension that was in your legs to flow down through your legs and out the bottom of your feet.
You have now completed the whole body progressive muscle relaxation. Do a scan or check of your body. If any parts are still tense, repeat the tensing and relaxing for that muscle group. Allow yourself to stay in the relaxed state for a few moments. When you are ready, open your eyes, and gradually orient yourself to your surroundings once more.
It is important when you are tensing and relaxing the muscles not to over tighten a muscle that is already tense. Tense the muscle enough to feel the tension, but not so much that you increase pain. If you have an injured muscle group, you may be uncertain if you should be tensing that muscle group in the manner described. Consult a psychologist or physiotherapist for assistance in determining alternative methods of tensing and relaxing that muscle group.
There are a variety of different ways that you can order or combine this tensing and relaxing series. Generally people find it helpful to practice the progressive muscle relaxation in the order given above. After you have learned the technique, however, you can experiment with which muscle groups need to be tensed and relaxed more often in order to achieve a relaxed state, and which muscle groups need little attention. Modify the exercise to make it most beneficial for you.
Shortening Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Most people find that they are able to learn to relax deeply using progressive muscle relaxation after practicing for 3 to 6 weeks (approximately 3 times per week). After you feel comfortable with the technique, and it comes quite naturally and easily, you may want to try shortening it. There are usually two stages:
Stage One: Four Large Muscle Groups
In this stage you tense four large sets of muscles groups, rather than the individual muscles.
- Begin by making fists with both hands, and bringing both hands up to your shoulders. At the same time raise your shoulders and tighten your neck muscles. Your entire arm, neck, and shoulder area should be tensed. Hold for 5 to 15 seconds, release for 5 to 15 seconds. Repeat the tensing and relaxing.
- Next tighten all your face muscles and clench your jaw. Hold for 5 to 15 seconds, then release. Each time you release, focus on the warmth, heaviness, or tingling that you notice in the relaxed muscles.
- Bring your shoulder blades together, arch your lower back, and tighten our stomach. Hold for 5 to 15 seconds, and then release for 5 to 15 seconds. Repeat the tensing and relaxing. Take a couple of slow deep breaths to exhale any tension remaining.
- Raise your legs and point your toes toward your face. Hold for 5 to 15 seconds, and release for 5 to 15 seconds. Repeat the tensing and relaxing. Allow any tension remaining to flow down your legs and out the soles of your feet.
Stage Two: Overall Tensing and Relaxing
Eventually you will be able to tighten your whole body, relax it, and achieve that same state of deep relaxation that you once achieved through tensing and relaxing each separate muscle group. In this stage you focus your mind on tensing all the muscles in your body simultaneously, holding the tension for 5 to 15 seconds, and then releasing. You may need to repeat two or three times, and you will want to extend the relaxed state for a period of 3 to 5 minutes at least. This provides a good tension break at work, or can be combined with imagery or visualization to extend the relaxation period.
These techniques are some variations on the above methods, and can often be used “on the spot.” They can be particularly helpful for dealing with tension as it accumulates during the day. Becoming more aware of increased tension in your body will allow you to use these techniques effectively (taken from a handout by Mark Lauderdale & Jan Kowal).
- Deep Breathing
Just stop wherever you are. Take a deep breathlet the air out very slowly. Imagine that you are breathing in energy and breathing out tensionet all the tension go. Repeat several times.
Gently push your shoulders up towards your earsonly as far as is comfortable. Hold that position for five secondsrelax. Repeat three times.
Either standing or sittinggently reach as high as you can with comfort and stretch in that position for five secondsrelax. Repeat two times.
Sit down in a comfortable chair. Allow your whole body to relax and become limpvery limp and looseas if all your bones have been taken awayas if you have become a rag doll.
Make any kind of funny face you like as long as you tense the muscles in your face. For example: stick out your tongue, and open your eyes very wide at the same time. Be creative. Hold the position for five secondsrelax. Repeat three times.
- PRACTICE! Most people do not achieve a relaxed state the first time they do these exercises. For people who have great difficulty relaxing it may even take longer than 5 or 6 weeks or practicing three times per week before they start to experience benefits from it.
- Try to associate the relaxed state with a color, word, or image. It will help you move to the relaxed state much more quickly when you need it.
- Most people have times of increased stress in their lives when relaxation is more difficult. During these times you may need to move back to tensing and relaxing each individual muscle group in order to become more relaxed. That is fine! You haven’t lost your ability to relax, and when your stress is reduced, you will be able to go back to the shortened version.
Creating Your Own Relaxation Tape
There are several relaxation tapes available in bookstores, music stores, and gift shops. If they don’t work for you, you might want to consider making your own. Making your own is easy. Borrow a tape recorder that will pick up sound reasonably well. Buy a blank tape, and record onto it your instructions to yourself to relax. The easiest way is to record the tape while you go through the relaxation exercises. Try to keep your voice low, soothing, and slow. Make sure to leave lots of time for both the tensing and the relaxing.
What is Visualization?
Visualization is creating an image in your mind that seems almost real or tangible. Visualization and imagery can have many different forms. You might imagine a relaxed and peaceful scene that becomes a place of mental retreat. If you associate this with a relaxed state, you will likely find yourself able to relax quickly, simply by visualizing your “spot.” Sometimes people use visualization to imagine themselves changing a problem situation as a way of helping themselves to actually make those changes (see Port Hope). Other times people might visualize their pain as a thermometer, and watch the mercury go down, as a way of “tricking” their mind into perceiving less pain. In this handout, we’ll be focusing on visualizing a relaxed “spot.”
Creating Your own Visualization!
When you create your own visualization, you will likely want to include some things:
A Detailed Setting
The setting of your visualization is quite important. Common settings are a lake, an ocean beach, or a very comfortable bed. The scene should be one that you associate with being relaxed and taking things easy. The setting should include lots of detail within it, to increase the sense that it is real. Try including something from each of your senses. For example, if your setting was a lake you might include:
What things do you see at the lake? Trees, water (are there waves? Or is it smooth?), canoes, animals, blue sky, light clouds, etc.
What can you hear? The rustling of the trees, the lap of the waves, the swish of the canoe paddle may all be sounds from your lake scene.
Smell and Taste
What can you smell? Pine, smoke from a wood fire, fresh air are all possibilities. You might taste fresh fish, or the lemonade from your thermos.
What do you feel? A light breeze, sand underfoot, warm air are some possibilities. Note: Generally people find a warm setting to be more relaxing than a cool one. You probably don’t want to be shivering and tense from cold in your visualization!
You will likely want to have some sense of moving into your visualization. Getting out of the car and walking down to the beach would be a common way of moving into a lake visualization. While you are there, you may want to imagine yourself doing some thingsin a relaxed, leisurely way. You might imagine walking along the beach, enjoying the warmth of the sand and wading into the water. You might then visualize going back up to the beach, eating a picnic lunch, watching the clouds go by, and eventually packing up and going home. A small story line will likely help you to stay in the visualization a bit longer.
Smith (1999). ABC Relaxation Theory: An Evidence-Based Approach. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.
DeMartinis, J. E. (2001) Relaxation and Stress Management. In Robinson, D. L. and Kish, C. P. (Eds.). Core Concepts in Advanced Practice Nursing. London: Mosby.
Syrjala, K. L. (2001). Relaxation Techniques. In Robinson, D. L. and Kish, C. P. (Eds.). Core Concepts in Advanced Practice Nursing. London: Mosby.