Part two of the Learn to Relax series: How to Relax.
Last time on Ask Inner Health Studio, I talked about what relaxation is. So we know that the relaxation response is helpful and that it is the opposite of the stress response. But how does one actually achieve a state of relaxation? That’s what I’m going to talk about today – how to relax.
Relaxation is a skill. This means that relaxation is something that can be learned and practiced, it is something we are not necessarily just born knowing how to do (not everyone knows how to relax), and we often are not good at it at first. Each person has the ability to learn how to relax, but not everyone will relax the same way.
Here is an overview of some of the relaxation techniques you might want to try, and how to relax using each one:
Progressive Relaxation – progressively tensing and then relaxing muscle groups – by progressive, I mean one muscle group after another… the relaxation progresses through the body, I suppose. Passive progressive relaxation is the act of relaxing muscles progressively without tensing them first. If you are already very tense, this method might be best (tightening up already-tight muscles can cause muscle cramping).
Visualization – picturing in your mind a relaxing scene – the beach, a meadow, a forest, a peaceful place… whatever you find relaxing.
Autogenics – imagining that your limbs are warm and heavy, your heart rate is slow and steady, and your forehead is cool.
Meditation – focusing the mind on one word or phrase and letting go of other thoughts with an attitude of passive acceptance
Physical – yoga, pilates, other physical techniques
Sensory – sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. Using these senses or imagining various sensations
Deep breathing – breathing slowly and regularly and taking sufficiently deep breaths
Alternative methods – exercise, stretching, crafts, hobbies, dance, music, artwork, walking….. etc
If you would like to find out which relaxation techniques suit you best, try the Inner Health Studio Relaxation Quiz. You will receive scores indicating your probable preferences in visualization, creative, sensory, and muscle relaxation categories. Go to innerhealthstudio.com/quiz.
There are other types of relaxation techniques as well. What kind of relaxation techniques have you tried (or heard about)? Let me know! Go to innerhealthstudio.com/how and fill out the form at the bottom of the page to contribute your ideas.
In the last episode, I talked about the characteristics of the relaxation response. Now I’ll describe some quick tips for how to relax – HOW to bring about the relaxation response. The first way I will discuss is deep breathing, because breathing is the most basic relaxation technique and the foundation of nearly all relaxation methods.
By deep breathing, I do NOT mean taking gigantic breaths in and out. I also DO NOT mean breathing by only moving your abdomen. I know that the conventional wisdom of today suggests that breathing with your chest – uh, where your lungs are! – is wrong, and that the only “right” way to breathe is by moving your stomach in and out. Try it for a moment. Keep your chest still and only move your stomach to breathe. Your stomach is not the organ that is breathing! That’s why this feels so uncomfortable and unnatural. At least, I find it feels that way.
The reason you are told to move your stomach is to encourage you to use your diaphragm to inhale, rather than the intercostal muscles (the muscles between your ribs) and chest muscles. Using your diaphragm to breathe is a good thing – that’s what it’s for – but this isn’t going to somehow make the air fill your stomach instead of your chest.
It’s perfectly okay if your chest moves while you’re breathing. But let your stomach move too. Let your sides expand outward as you breathe in. If the only movement you notice is your chest moving out to the front, you probably aren’t breathing deeply enough. A deep breath involves expansion in the stomach, chest, and sides. It’s like you’re a balloon filling with air.
If you place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach, you will ideally find that both hands move outward with each breath in, and inward each time you exhale.
This is what I DO mean by deep breathing.
The key to deep breathing is to breathe slowly, and make sure to exhale. As you relax, your breathing will become slower and slower. There is no need to worry about taking large breaths – your body knows how much air it needs.
When you begin a relaxation exercise, you are breathing deeply enough if you can do this: inhale to the count of 4, hold for the count of 3, and exhale to the count of 5. That’s it! Breathing deeply means to breathe using your diaphragm (not just shallow breaths with your chest muscles), and exhaling fully.
How to Relax – Some Tips for Relaxation:
– The relaxation response can be accomplished using whatever technique you are comfortable with, whether this is meditation, progressive relaxation, visualization, or something else.
– find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed for the duration of your relaxation session
– make sure you are in a place where it is safe for you to be in a decreased state of alertness (i.e. DO NOT do relaxation while you are driving or engaged in an activity where you must maintain concentration or attention)
– choose a comfortable position – sitting (if your objective is to experience the relaxation response) or lying down (if your objective is to sleep) are usually the best positions
– adopt a passive attitude – noticing, allowing, and experiencing. Don’t try to “make” anything happen. You will experience the relaxation response whether or not you feel any different at the time.
– try different techniques. Guided relaxation can be very effective. You can listen to relaxation scripts recorded by someone else (such as the ones on my relaxation downloads page) or you can record your own audio or follow your own mental script.
– if one kind of relaxation does not work, try another. Not every technique will work for every person. Learn how to relax using techniques that are effective for you.
Coming up next time on Ask Inner Health Studio’s Learn to Relax series: Managing Stress. Do you know how to recognize when you are starting to experience the effects of stress, so that you can deal with it BEFORE it becomes a problem or you experience burnout? Do you know what your early warning signs are? I’ll discuss how to recognize stress early and review some of the ways you can deal with the problem before it even starts.