Relaxation Techniques: Find one that fits

Breathe in. Breathe out. Learning to relax is more than sitting crisscross applesauce on a yoga mat, repeating a series of “um’s” while your thumb and index fingers meet in unity. We all have things we do to combat the effects of stress on our bodies. Read further to learn what relaxation techniques are, which kind of relaxation techniques are most beneficial, and tips for stress reduction!

Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation Techniques

What is Stress?

Stress is a reaction to any physical or emotional threat. The body undergoes a series of changes as prolonged levels of high stress provokes fight-or-flight mode. The fight-or-flight response evolved as a defense mechanism to protect the body against potentially harmful, life-threatening situations.

As part of the fight-or-flight response, the sympathetic nervous system triggers the adrenal glands to release a cascade of hormones (i.e. cortisol and adrenaline) to prepare for the perceived danger. These hormones increase heart rate, quicken breathing, and elevate blood pressure to supply the body with oxygen to “flee” from danger in a timely manner. Blood flow is rerouted to the muscles rather than vital organs.

Experiencing long term stressors like chronic illness, finance worries, or a loss of relationships keep the body stuck in fight or flight mode. It has detrimental effects on health.

What are Relaxation Techniques?

Relaxation techniques are practices to reduce stress. Although each technique differs, they combine meditation, deep breathing, and movement to combat the combat and heal effects on the body and mind from the fight-or-flight response.

These techniques are effective for everyday stressors, but also mental and physical conditions that contribute to coping with burdens. Conditions most benefited by relaxation techniques are sleep disorders, anxiety, chronic pain caused by fibromyalgia, migraines, chemotherapy side effects, and temporomandibular joint dysfunction.

Relaxation techniques are a relatively inexpensive therapy that is straightforwardly applied regardless of location. Side effects are limited.

Benefits of Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques provide numerous benefits throughout the entire body. The cardiovascular benefits are especially useful, as stress impacts that system as part of the fight-or-flight stress response.

  • Increases blood flow— High periods of stress limit blood flow to only the bare minimum of circulation required for vital organ function. Blood flow in the coronary arteries is compromised but can be optimized through relaxation techniques.
  • Lowers Blood pressure—High blood pressure is a common sign of stress. As the body relaxes and circulation improves, blood pressure decreases to healthier levels.  
  • Decreases heartrate—As stress stimulates the nervous system, the heart rate increases to compensate for the narrowed blood vessels. Relaxation techniques enhance circulation and blood vessels return to normal size. The heart no longer has to beat as hard.
  • Deeper breathing—Impaired breathing is another malfunction caused by stress. Rate of breathing is too quick (hyperventilation) and shallow, but relaxation techniques coordinate breaths to regulate the oxygen being taken into the lungs.
  • Reduces muscle tension—Muscles contract when a person is in fight-or-flight mode. This tension can present as shooting pain, a dull ache, or generalized discomfort that dissipates with the calming effects of relaxation.
  • Pain relief—Relaxation techniques cause a sudden release of endorphins, which acts on the brain’s opioid receptors to relieve pain.
  • Energy— Learning to calm the body increases energy.
  • Boosts immune system—One of the stress hormones released during times of stress is called cortisol. Cortisol suppresses the immune system, making it difficult to fight off germs and bacteria. Those experiencing stress should notice they are not ill as frequently when practicing relaxation techniques.
  • Attentiveness and Productivity—The brain is preoccupied on avoiding danger when coping with stress. Its attention is diverted elsewhere and it is difficult to accomplish tasks. Relaxation techniques restore the mind’s ability to concentrate.

How Relaxation Techniques Alter the Brain

Brain chemistry has an important role in the mechanisms of relaxation. In a state of stress, the sympathetic nervous system is activated to release stress chemicals to keep the body on alert for danger. However, relaxation facilitates the opposite response. Studies show that biofeedback, a type of relaxation technique, is found to decrease sympathetic tone and the symptoms that arise (Critchley, 2001).

During relaxation, the parasympathetic nervous system calms the hyperactive functions of the sympathetic system. It accomplishes this through the neurotransmitter GABA. GABA inhibits the brain’s electricity to maintain optimal levels of other neurotransmitters. Relaxation techniques work to stop the physical symptoms of stress. There is also evidence that relaxation techniques alter the matter of the brain by slowing the natural atrophy of white matter caused by aging. This leads to better emotional regulation, attention, and memory.

Types of Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques are diverse with multiple types designed for any lifestyle. The most helpful techniques differ from person to person. Integrating a combination of techniques can produce an array of advantages. The following techniques require 30 minutes 2 to 3 times daily.

Guided Imagery

Go to your happy place. Allow your mind to envision a relaxing scene. That is guided imagery. Guided imagery is a relaxation technique which connects the body to the senses by visualizing mental images which include the perception of sight, sound, smell, movement, and touch. It can be accomplished individually or with the assistance of a train professional.

For example, think of a serene beach vacation.

  • See the blue of the water.
  • Hear the waves crashing against the shore.
  • Smell the aroma of salt in the air.
  • Feel the sensation of the warm sun on your skin.
  • Taste the ice cream cone from the concession stand.

Imagining yourself in the relaxing settings of guided imagery relieves stress.

Deep Breathing

Deep breathing is an integral component of other relaxation techniques, but relaxation is still be achieved when applied alone. It counteracts the rapid, shallow breaths of stress-induced hyperventilation by supplying the body with as much oxygen as possible.

To engage in deep breathing, sit or lay comfortably while placing a hand on your stomach. Inhale through your nose—your abdomen should rise as you take deep breaths through the abdomen. Pay close attention not to breathe from your chest, as oxygen intake is not as sufficient. Next, exhale through your mouth. Count slowly as you exhale. Repeat these steps multiple times.

Progressive Relaxation

Progressive relaxation targets groups of muscles that are tense during periods of stress. The technique is marked by a pattern of contracting and releasing one muscle at a time. Inhale and contract a single muscle group simultaneously for 5 to 10 seconds. Exhale, release the tension, and rest for 20 seconds before repeating the process in another muscle location. Progressive relaxation is particularly effective when performed from the lower to the upper body: feet, then calves, the hips and buttocks, the stomach, chest, back, arms, hands, neck and shoulders, and lastly, the face.

A positive of progressive relaxation is that you learn to recognize how the muscles feel in both a relaxed and tense state. Identifying muscle tension early prevents it from progressing to cause symptoms of stress.

Self-Hypnosis

Hypnotherapy is based on Sigmund Freud’s view that consciousness is divided into the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious. Hypnotism seeks to reframe the deepest part of the mind—the unconscious. The state of self-hypnosis is similar to driving a car when you have no recollection of how you arrived at your destination.

Self-hypnosis is a relaxation technique carried out in a capacity of focused awareness. Prior to beginning self-hypnosis, consider the statement you wish to program into your unconscious. After the statement has been established, employ deep breathing and focus on an object in a relaxed position. Disregard all thoughts aside from those pertaining to the object. Count down from 10, repeating your chosen statement after each number until you are relaxed.

Autogenic Training

Autogenic training acts on the autonomic nervous system to reduce anxiety. It combines hypnosis with meditation on particular sensations of heaviness and warmth in various locations of the body. Once relaxed and breathing slowly, focus attention on a single part of the body while repeating statements about the aspired sensations.

For example, begin with the soles of your feet. Repeat, “My feet are warm” six times. Next, focus on your calves. Repeat, “My calves are very heavy” six times. This is done in increments of six for all body parts up to the head. Breathing deeply is imperative to the effectiveness of autogenic training.

Mindfulness Meditation

How often do worries of the past and future cause stress? Mindfulness meditation focuses awareness on the here and now. In a quiet space, your breathing—inhaling and exhaling—is your anchor to the present moment. Try to maintain concentration on your breath. As your thoughts wander, acknowledge those that deviate from your breath without responding and then steer them towards your breath again. Repeating an encouraging statement during meditation is a common practice.

Yoga and Tai Chi

Yoga and tai chi two Chinese traditions now implemented as exercise. They combine body movement, breathing, and meditation to achieve relaxation. Yoga includes holding both moving and stationary poses, whereas tai chi is practiced with free-flowing dance-like movements. The exercise improves circulation, flexibility, and chronic pain as endorphins are released.

Yoga is a Relaxation Techniques
Yoga is a Relaxation Techniques

Syncing your breath with the movements is key to the relaxation element. Practicing either with a trained professional is recommended to learn the sequence and avoid injury. A professional can also aid in redirecting your thoughts to sustain meditation.

Body Scan

The body scan technique is similar to progressive relaxation. Instead of tensing and releasing muscle groups, you focus on the sensations of one area of the body without labeling them as “good” or “bad.”

Body scanning is typically executed from the lower to the upper body. Start with deep breathing as you lay with your eyes closed. As you continue breathing slowly, wiggle the toes on one foot and note what you feel. Does it ache? Tingle? Focus on one body part for 1 to 2 minutes.

Self-Massage

A day at the spa is not the only way to experience a soothing massage. Self-massage as a relaxation technique entails taking matters into your own hands. Knead the muscles on your neck and shoulders. Massage delicate areas like the face and deep muscle knots by using smaller, circular movements with your thumb and fingertips. The convenience of self-massage is that it can be done independently and swiftly without attracting attention.   

Tips for Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques do not have to be a long, arduous process. They are relatively simple. These tips ensure relaxation is even easier!  

  • Speak to a physician—Various physical and mental health conditions can impact the practice of relaxation techniques. Always speak to your doctor about which techniques are safe for you.
  • Find a quiet location—Distracting stimuli prevents focusing fully on relaxation. It is best to practice relaxation techniques without background noise from conversations, people, or the television.  
  • Wear comfortable clothes—Tight, uncomfortable clothing adds to the muscle tension that occurs when stressed. While attempting to relax, lounge clothes are preferred.
  • Be consistent—To reap the benefits of relaxation techniques, practice them regularly. Make relaxation a daily habit rather than an activity done periodically.
  • Remember to breathe—Coordinating breathing is a huge aspect of relaxation because the cells need oxygen to relax.
  • Healthy diet—While relaxation provides energy, consuming a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables supplies the necessary energy to prepare the mind and body for practicing the techniques.

What is your favorite relaxation technique?

References

Critchley, H.D., Melmed, R.N., Featherstone, E., Matthias, C.J., & Dolan, R.J. (2001). Brain activity during biofeedback relaxation: A functional neuroimaging investigation. Brain, Volume 124, Issue 5, Pages 1003–1012, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/124.5.1003

Laneri, D., Schuster, V., Dietsche, B., Jansen, A., Ott, U., & Sommer, J. (2016). Effects of Long-Term Mindfulness Meditation on Brain’s White Matter Microstructure and its Aging. Frontiers in aging neuroscience, 7, 254. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2015.00254