It usually takes more than sheer willpower to achieve a state of inner calm when you're anxious or upset. That's where relaxation techniques can come in. These are methods of conditioning you to "dial down" the psychological and physiological components of the stress state. Most of these techniques are easy to learn, though some do require a bit of practice at first. Consulting briefly with a clinical psychologist or another practitioner with specific expertise in this area is often a good way to get started; alternatively, there are a number of well-produced instructional books and videos available.
• The relaxation response. This is a technique developed over time more than thirty years ago by Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at Harvard, as part of his effort to help patients combat the physiological underpinnings of hypertension and hypertensive heart disease. The relaxation response is intended to lower heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate.
In order to attain the relaxation response, sit quietly in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and relax your muscles, moving from your toes up to your face. Try to clear your mind of all thoughts by focusing exclusively on your breathing and repeating the word "One," either silently to yourself or softly aloud. If you find your attention drawn to a distracting thought or sound, refocus on "One" and your breathing. Practicing this technique for ten to twenty minutes each day will train you to reach a relaxed state more and more quickly. Dr. Benson's 1975 book The Relaxation Response is an excellent resource.
• Progressive muscle relaxation. Edmund Jacobson, a psychologist and physiologist who pioneered progressive muscle relaxation in the 1930s, believed that individuals could attain relaxation by appreciating the difference between tension and release in the muscles. While sitting comfortably or lying down, close your eyes and concentrate on major muscle groups in your body, starting with your feet and working your way up to your face. First, tense the muscles in your right foot by clenching your toes, holding the tension for ten seconds. Then quickly release the tension. Next, do the same thing with your lower right leg, followed by the entire right leg, and so on, working your way through all of the major muscle groups in your body. The idea is to experience the sensation of releasing physical tension. Edmund Jacobson's original 1938 book, Progressive Relaxation, provides a comprehensive overview and outlines the recommended sequence of muscle groups.
• Visualization. Find a quiet spot where you will not be disturbed, get comfortable, close your eyes, and visualize yourself in a place that you associate with ultimate relaxation, tranquility, and well-being; it might be a particular location that you've visited or a place you've seen in a photograph, or it can be a place entirely of your imagination. Concentrate on what each of your five senses would experience in this specific place—what you'd see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. Many people think of their favorite beach on a warm summer day, a gentle breeze, a rolling surf, salt spray, and seagulls. Others imagine themselves floating in a cool mountain lake, gazing up at fluffy clouds passing by. Or you might think of a favorite room from your childhood, surrounded by your prized possessions. After about five or ten minutes, mentally depart from this idyllic spot and gradually refocus your attention on your external surroundings.
• Diaphragmatic breathing. The goal here is to take progressively deeper breaths that move your diaphragm, the muscle between the abdomen and the chest. Lie down and inhale through your nose. As the air fills your lungs, let it push your abdomen up and out about an inch. Hold your breath for a second or two, then slowly exhale and let your abdomen fall. With each inhalation, imagine that you are breathing in relaxation; with each exhalation, imagine that you are breathing out tension and anxiety. Continue for five minutes or so.
Several relaxation techniques have been found effective for reducing stress. See the sidebar "Relaxation Techniques" for details of these methods.
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