Orlando F. Mills, MD, MPH

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Stress is necessary for life: you need stress for creativity, learning, and your very survival. Stress is only harmful when it becomes overwhelming.  Unfortunately, overwhelming stress has become an increasingly common characteristic of contemporary life. When stressors throw your nervous system out of balance, relaxation techniques can bring it back into a balanced state by producing the relaxation response, a state of deep calmness that is the polar opposite of the stress response.

 

Are you feeling stressed?  Try some of these relaxation techniques:

 





Deep Breathing Meditation:

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  2. Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

 

Progressive Muscle Relaxation: A two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body.

  1. Loosen your clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable. Sit or lie down.
  2. Take a few minutes to relax, breathing in and out in slow, deep breaths.
  3. When you’re relaxed and ready to start, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to focus on the way it feels.
  4. Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
  5. Relax your right foot. Focus on the tension flowing away and the way your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
  6. Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
  7. When you’re ready, shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
  8. Move slowly up through your body, contracting and relaxing the muscle groups as you go.
  9. It may take some practice at first, but try not to tense muscles other than those intended.

 

Body Scan Relaxation: Similar to progressive muscle relaxation except, instead of tensing and relaxing muscles, you simply focus on the sensations in each part of your body.

  1. Lie on your back, legs uncrossed, arms relaxed at your sides, eyes open or closed. Focus on your breathing, allowing your stomach to rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. Breathe deeply for about two minutes, until you start to feel comfortable and relaxed.
  2. Turn your focus to the toes of your right foot. Notice any sensations you feel while continuing to also focus on your breathing. Imagine each deep breath flowing to your toes. Remain focused on this area for one to two minutes.
  3. Move your focus to the sole of your right foot. Tune in to any sensations you feel in that part of your body and imagine each breath flowing from the sole of your foot. After one or two minutes, move your focus to your right ankle and repeat. Move to your calf, knee, thigh, hip, and then repeat the sequence for your left leg. From there, move up the torso, through the lower back and abdomen, the upper back and chest, and the shoulders. Pay close attention to any area of the body that causes you pain or discomfort.
  4. Move your focus to the fingers on your right hand and then move up to the wrist,  forearm, elbow, upper arm, and shoulder. Repeat for your left arm. Then move through the neck and throat, and finally all the regions of your face, the back of the head, and the top of the head. Pay close attention to your jaw, chin, lips, tongue, nose, cheeks, eyes, forehead, temples and scalp. When you reach the very top of your head, let your breath reach out beyond your body and imagine yourself hovering above yourself. 
  5. After completing the body scan, relax for a while in silence and stillness, noting how your body feels. Then open your eyes slowly. Take a moment to stretch, if necessary.

 

Mindfulness: The ability to remain aware of how you are feeling right now. Staying focused in the present moment can be applied to activities like walking, exercising, eating, or meditation. Key points for mindfulness are:

  1. A quiet environment. Choose a secluded place in your home, office, garden, place of worship, or in the great outdoors where you can relax without distractions or interruptions.
  2. A comfortable position. Get comfortable, but avoid lying down as this may lead to you falling asleep. Sit up with your spine straight, either in a chair or on the floor. You can also try a cross-legged or lotus position.
  3. A point of focus. This point can be internal—a feeling or imaginary scene—or something external - a flame or meaningful word or phrase that you repeat it throughout your session. You may meditate with eyes open or closed. Also choose to focus on an object in your surroundings to enhance your concentration, or alternately, you can close your eyes.
  4. 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. Instead, gently turn your attention back to your point of focus.

 

Visualization / Guided Imagery: A variation on 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, free to let go of all tension and anxiety.

  1. Find a quiet, relaxed place. Beginners sometimes fall asleep during a visualization meditation, so you might try sitting up or standing.
  2. Close your eyes and let your worries drift away. Imagine your restful place. Picture it as vividly as you can—everything you can see, hear, smell, and feel. Visualization works best if you incorporate as many sensory details as possible, using at least three of your senses. When visualizing, choose imagery that appeals to you; don’t select images because someone else suggests them, or because you think they should be appealing. Let your own images come up and work for you.
  3. If you are thinking about a dock on a quiet lake, for example:
    1. Walk slowly around the dock and notice the colors and textures around you.
    2. Spend some time exploring each of your senses.
    3. See the sun setting over the water.
    4. Hear the birds singing.
    5. Smell the pine trees.
    6. Feel the cool water on your bare feet.
    7. Taste the fresh, clean air.
    8. Enjoy the feeling of deep relaxation that envelopes you as you slowly explore your restful place. When you are ready, gently open your eyes and come back to the present.
    9. 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.

 

Yoga or Tai Chi: Since injuries can happen when yoga is practiced incorrectly, it’s best to learn by attending group classes, hiring a private teacher, or at least following video instructions.

  1. Yoga involves a series of both moving and stationary poses, combined with deep breathing. As well as reducing anxiety and stress, yoga can also improve flexibility, strength, balance, and stamina. Practiced regularly, it can also strengthen the relaxation response in your daily life.
  2. Tai chi is a self-paced, non-competitive series of slow, flowing body movements. These movements emphasize concentration, relaxation, and the conscious circulation of vital energy throughout the body. Though tai chi has its roots in martial arts, today it is primarily practiced 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.  Tai chi is a safe, low-impact option for people of all ages and levels of fitness, including older adults and those recovering from injuries.

 

Rhythmic Exercises such as running, cycling, walking, or rowing are most effective at reducing stress when performed with relaxation in mind. 

  1. Be fully engaged in the present moment; focus your mind on how your body feels right now. As you exercise, focus on the physicality of your body’s movement and how your breathing complements that movement. If your mind wanders to other thoughts, gently return to focusing on your breathing and movement.
  2. If walking or running, for example, focus on each step—the sensation of your feet touching the ground, the rhythm of your breath while moving, and the feeling of the wind against your face.

 

Other suggestions:

  1. Find a special spot for yourself to practice your relaxation technique, whether it is a quiet room in the house or spot in the park.  Try lighting candles or dimming the lights.
  2. There are many CDs and DVDs that offer assistance in guided imagery, meditation, yoga, or tai chi.  You may also find certain music will help set a relaxing tone.
  3. Try using aromatherapy in your relaxation spot.  Lavender, vanilla, chamomile, rose, and frankincense are known to assist in alleviating stress.
  4. Take a warm bath. Add bubbles or lavender bath soap, light candles, and play soft music or a nature CD quietly.
  5. Take a few minutes out of every day to practice some form of relaxation.  This can be when you wake up in the morning, before you go to bed, or even a few minutes at your desk at work or in the bathroom stall if you have no other place to go.
  6. Make time for activities or hobbies that relax you.  Sometimes you just need a break.  Go fishing, sew, sing, paint, or take photographs. 
  7. Spend time with your pet.
  8. Smile and laugh more often.  If you force yourself to do this at first, it will become habitual! Smiling and laugher releases endorphins, which reduce stress

 

Unsure of which relaxation technique to try first?  We all react to stress differently.  Identifying how you most often react to stress may help you choose the relaxation technique that works best for you.

 

When you are stressed, do you:

 

  1. Tend to become angry, agitated, or keyed up? You may respond best to relaxation techniques that help you quiet down, such as meditation, deep breathing, or guided imagery.
  2. Tend to become depressed, withdrawn, or spaced out?  You may respond best to relaxation techniques that are stimulating and energize your nervous system, such as rhythmic exercise.
  3. Tend to freeze- Speed up internally, while slowing down externally? Your challenge is to identify relaxation techniques that provide both safety and stimulation to help you “reboot” your system.  Techniques such as mindfulness walking or power yoga may work well for you.
  4. Alone time or Social Stimulation?  If you enjoy being alone or crave solitude, independent relaxation techniques such as meditation or progressive muscle relaxation will give you the space to quiet your mind and recharge your batteries. If you are in need of social interaction, a class setting will give you the stimulation and support you’re looking for. Practicing with others may also help you stay motivated.

 

Information taken from http://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/relaxation-techniques-for-stress-relief.htm