One of the core skills in any stress management or resilience program includes some type of relaxation training. The good news is that relaxation skills are very easy to learn with a little practice. The health benefits of just doing some form of relaxation or mindful meditation are very impressive and some of these benefits will be covered in future blogs.
Before we discuss this easy relaxation procedure it sometimes helps to understand one basic part of how our autonomic nervous system controls the fight-or-flight response. We are biologically wired for the protective fight-or-flight reaction in which our bodies go into high gear to defend ourselves or to escape. When activated through adrenaline and other hormonal changes our heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, blood vessels in the hands and feet constrict, breathing rate increases, and the bronchia in our lungs dilate to let in more oxygen. This stress reaction is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. However, something has to turn the fight-or flight reaction off – otherwise we would all collapse with fatigue! Fortunately, we also have a braking mechanism in the parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts the fight-or-flight reaction. Here your heart rate and breathing rate slows down, blood pressure decreases, and blood flow increases to the hands and feet. These two systems work together to maintain homeostasis, or balance, in our bodily functions. Other biological changes especially in the digestive system also occur in our body as can be seen on the diagram below.
Relaxation training or mindful meditation is vital to all stress management programs because it helps induce the parasympathetic nervous system sooner rather than later to counteract the stress response. Although your fight-or-flight response will eventually subside (as long as there is no continued threat), you can help speed this process up by physically relaxing.
Research has shown that anyone can relax physically under the right set of circumstances. This typically includes a few steps like getting into a quiet space in a comfortable position, and having something pleasant or even neutral to focus upon. Relaxation skills take some time to master and generalize to everyday situations but as with most skills, you will only get better with practice.
Our modified iCope relaxation procedure, which takes about 20 minutes, is as follows: Find a quiet place where you will not be interrupted for the time needed to try this procedure.
1) Get into a comfortable position lying down on your back. You can use a recliner type chair, or simply lie down in bed.
2) Try to loosen your muscles as best as you can. Briefly pay attention to the tension throughout your body, scanning from your head all the way down to your feet. You can roll your head gently side to side and stretch your arms and hands if that helps relax the muscles.
3) Make a mental note of your stress level by rating it from 1 (very relaxed) to 10 (very stressed).
4) Slowly take a very deep breath through your nose. Breathe in deeply enough to extend your stomach and hold it for a few seconds. Then breathe out slowly through your mouth. You can put your hand on your stomach to feel it rise with each deep breath. Repeat this for three more deep breaths.
Now close your eyes and try to keep any other thoughts out of your mind. Allow your breathing to get into a natural and comfortable pace, breathing slowly in and out. Continue to breathe deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth.
In order to get more deeply relaxed, you will want something on which you can focus your attention. Try both of the following methods at different practice times.
a) Every time you exhale simply say a word such as “cope” or “calm” to yourself, and imagine tension flowing out of your body. Focus on your word as you breathe naturally. Do this for the remainder of your practice session.
b) The other method to try at a different time is particularly good for those who can “visualize” an image with their eyes closed. Instead of focusing on a word, imagine a very peaceful and calm scene such as a sunset or a peaceful place from your past.
5) Continue breathing naturally and focusing on your word or your scene for 15-20 minutes. Do not be concerned if you get distracted. This is totally normal and expected. When that happens, and it will, try to bring yourself back to the procedure and remind yourself that you want to continue focusing on your word or scene.
6) When you finish, sit quietly for a few minutes, and make a mental note of your stress level (rating it again from 1 to 10) and what your muscles feel like when you are more relaxed. Doing your pre- and post- stress ratings will help reinforce your relaxation practice. Over time you will see decreases in stress levels during your practice.
7) Open your eyes, but do not stand up suddenly. Remain calm in your body, but alert in your mind. When you feel alert and ready to get up, do so, but try to remember the calm relaxed feelings and sensations (muscle memory) you have just experienced.
To control stress levels in your day-to-day situations where you want something less than the 15-minute procedure, simply take a minute to take 5-6 slow deep breaths whenever you notice your stress level increasing. Also, try to recall your muscle memory of the relaxed feeling you had in your practice sessions.
If you are having difficulty with the 15-20-minute practice sessions after a few attempts at trying it, use some calming music (or one of the many recordings of nature sounds that are easily available on the internet) on which to focus for 15- 20 minutes. If that is not appealing to you, try some of the guided relaxation exercises or the mindful meditation exercises below:
- You can find three different relaxation exercises by a sport psychologist ranging from a one-minute procedure up to a 14-minute guided procedure here.
- And you can find a pleasant 5-minute mindful meditation exercise by searching “Guided Breathing Exercise (Clouds)” at YouTube.
Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.