Simple relaxation techniques
When you are stressed or anxious, it's often hard to relax. So you will probably have a great deal of tension in your muscles – this is one reason for the muscular aches and pains, headaches, stiff neck, tight chest and back pain people suffering from stress or anxiety often experience. Learning to relax is a vital step on your route back to health and happiness. It's also an excellent way to combat insomnia.
Before I explain the techniques, a couple of general points. First, like any new skill, you may find these techniques take practice to master. It's like learning a musical instrument: you wouldn't expect to sit at a piano and play a complex classical piece on your first day. Your stress or anxiety may have been building over months or even years, so it will take time both to learn these techniques and gradually reduce your levels of tension.
Second, the more you try these techniques when you are not stressed, anxious or upset, the more skilled you will become and so can use them even when you feel overwhelmed (I find that many clients stop using self-help techniques when they are having a rough time – which is, of course, when they need them the most). And then the key is to use them every day. Like other cognitive therapy techniques, these are lifelong skills, available to you whenever your symptoms return.
This simple breathing exercise (which is one of the key techniques in compassion-focused therapy) is an effective way to reduce stress or anxiety and increase feelings of calm, peacefulness and safeness. When you become anxious, your respiration becomes fast and shallow 'chest breathing'. This can cause hyperventilation, as you inhale too much oxygen and become dizzy and light-headed. Instead, you need to breathe slowly and deeply, which turns off your ‘stress response’ and switches on your ‘relaxation response’.
Please note – these are only guidelines, not a set of rules. The most important thing is that you find a style and rhythm of breathing that feels calming and soothing to you. So vary the length of breaths, whether you breathe your nose or mouth, and so on, to find the approach that works best for you.
1. Find somewhere private and quiet, then sit comfortably and close your eyes. Turn off your phone so you won't be disturbed. Take a deep breath through your nose to a slow count of three. It can be helpful to count each number in your mind as you breathe, so thinking One, two, three on each breath.
2. Exhale through your nose to a slow count of three.
3. Continue to breathe slowly, deeply and evenly, in and out through your nose. If you are breathing deeply, you should naturally feel your abdomen rising on the in-breath and falling on the out-breath – don’t force this or worry if your abdomen isn’t moving. Breathing slowly and deeply is the most important thing.
4. Repeat this cycle for at least a minute.
5. Once you feel comfortable with this exercise, try increasing the time to five minutes or more. The key here is to breathe slowly and deeply – this has the physiological effect of slowing your heart rate and sending messages to the brain that everything's fine, you can relax.
Progressive muscular relaxation (PMR)
It's important to breathe slowly and regularly while doing this exercise. Tense your muscles, without straining, and concentrate on the sensation of tension. Hold for about five seconds, then let go of the tension for 10-15 seconds. Tune into the sensation of how your muscles feel when you relax them.
1. Feet. Pull your toes back and tense the muscles in your feet. Relax and repeat.
2. Legs. Straighten your legs and point your toes upward. Relax, let your legs go limp and repeat.
3. Abdomen. Tense your stomach muscles by pulling them up and in. Relax and repeat.
4. Back. Arch your back. Relax and repeat.
5. Shoulders & neck. Shrug your shoulders, bringing them up and in towards your chest and pressing your head back. Relax and repeat.
6. Arms & hands. Stretch our your arms and hands. Relax, let your arms hang limp and repeat.
7. Face. Tense your forehead and jaw, lower your eyebrows. Relax and repeat.
8. Whole body. Finally, tense your entire body: feet, legs, abdomen, back, shoulders and neck, arms and face. Hold the tension for a few seconds, relax and repeat.
If you still feel tense at the end of the routine, go through it again. If only certain body parts still feel tense, repeat the exercise in those areas. When you have finished and feel relaxed, stay where you are for a few moments, then stand up slowly and stretch gently.
I run workshops through my company, Calm Self Workshops, for people struggling with stress. The Overcoming Stress workshops take place one Saturday a month at my East Finchley office and cost £150 for a full day.