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This resource is part of a series on low mood and depression. You can find the other parts here:
Stress-related tension is an almost-inevitable part of everyday living. Apart from being an uncomfortable burden, stress-related tension can lead to a variety of problems such as headaches, back pain, and exhaustion, to name a few.
Despite the fact that each of us may experience tension slightly differently, anyone can learn to release that tension. All it takes is:
Knowing how to relax,
Practicing relaxation techniques, and
Choosing a technique that works best for you.
The following steps present different relaxation options. Experiment with them until you find the most effective method of relaxation for you. Alternatively, use different techniques on different occasions.
Note: Each of these techniques is presented with step-by-step instruction. Until you master the exercise, you may want to make an audio recording to help direct you.
Before you begin to relax, you should first determine where you hold tension in your body. For some people, this may be the head, neck, or back. For others, it may be the stomach, etc.
Close your eyes and ask yourself what sounds you are aware of. For example, are you aware of the sound of traffic outside your window? Or perhaps the sound of someone talking far off in the distance? Or the sound of a radio or a television in another room? Take note of the sounds that are around you.
Slowly shift your attention to your body and to your physical state. Start with your head and work down towards your toes, mentally scanning your body and taking note of your body’s sensations. For example, perhaps you are aware of a slight itch at the back of your neck, or tightness in your abdomen.
Once you have scanned your entire body for any areas of tension, open your eyes and take a mental note of where you tend to hold tension in your body.
Deep, full, relaxed breathing is a powerful and profound way of releasing tension and controlling stress. To become aware of your breath, try the following:
Place one of your hands upon your stomach somewhere around your belly button area. Then place the other hand on your chest, right in the centre.
For the next few moments, as you sit still and breathe normally, take note of the pattern of movement of your two hands. As you breathe in and breathe out, does one hand move more than the other? Does the lower hand move more than the upper hand? Does the upper hand move more than the lower hand? Do both hands move at about the same amount? If your upper hand moves more than your lower hand, you are breathing in a short and shallow fashion that will contribute to stress. If your lower hand moves more than your upper hand, you are breathing in a deep and full fashion and this will help manage your stress.
As you take a few more moments to notice your breathing, try to breathe in deeply and exhale fully, so that you feel your lower hand moving inwards and outwards.
Spend a few moments practicing this full, deep, relaxed breathing, using the movements of your hands as a sign that can tell you whether or not you are breathing in a relaxed fashion or a stressed fashion.
Try this breathing technique that is designed to help you relax and release tension.
Once you have practiced this technique a few times each day over the course of one week, you will be able to call upon your skill of relaxed breathing anywhere, at any time. You do not have to lie down to do this; the purpose of lying down in the early stages is just to be sure that you recognize when you are breathing deeply, and that you train yourself to do so at will.
Lie on the floor, or sit comfortably in a chair, with one hand resting around your stomach area, and with the other hand resting somewhere near the top of your chest.
Close your eyes, and bring your attention to your breathing.
Breathe slowly and fully through your nose to a very slow count such as this: Breathe in and hold… one… two… three… and breathe out. one…two… three.
As you inhale, try to focus on causing your lower hand to move up and down with each full breath inwards. Be sure that you breathe deeply enough that you expand your abdomen and feel your lower hand moving inwards and outwards.
Each time you breathe in, pause for a moment when your lungs are full and then slowly exhale through your lips… Again, to a slow count of one…two… three.
As you exhale, try to focus on moving your lower hand move inwards towards your back as if you are pulling inward. Try to feel your lower back pressing towards the floor or into the back of your chair.
Be sure that you expel all of the air from the bottom of your lungs…allowing your hands to collapse naturally inwards towards your body.
Repeat this five or six times… each time inhaling slowly and fully and exhaling slowly and fully.
A modified version for daily use is as follows:
Sit comfortably in a chair.
Breathe in deeply and slowly and say to yourself, “Breathe in relaxation...”
After pausing for a moment, breathe out fully from your abdomen, and say to yourself, “... and release tension.” Pause again before you inhale.
Use this technique on any occasion when you want to release tension.
A good technique to relax your entire body is to alternately tense and relax each of the major muscle groups in your body, as you breathe deeply and fully. With this technique, you need to alternate between tension and relaxation. Specifically, try to make your muscles tense, holding that tension for a few moments, and then, all at once, release the tension while thinking to yourself, “Relax.”
The point of this exercise is to first cause yourself to experience tension, hold that tension, and suddenly release it. You will find that this helps you attain a more relaxed state than if you simply try to relax from a normal, non-tensed position. It’s kind of like swinging a pendulum: to get the pendulum to swing far to one side, you first pull it far to the other side and let go.
A couple of important points:
When you release the tension in the muscles, let it go all at once, not slowly. Let your muscles become suddenly limp.
Be cautious about tensing your muscles too much (especially those in your neck and back). As well, over-tightening your foot muscles can lead to cramping.
Most people have only limited success when they first try this exercise. However, once you practice this twice a day for two weeks (e.g. upon awakening and upon going to sleep) you will find that you can use it to attain a more relaxed state than you have ever experienced. It is a profoundly powerful technique of relaxation once you become skilled at it.
To practice this technique:
Sit in a comfortable chair and curl both hands into fists. At the same time, tighten your forearms and your biceps. Hold the tension for a few moments. Keep holding, then all at once, let go of the tension… just… relax.
Let’s do that one more time. Curl both hands into fists, tighten your forearms and your biceps, and hold the tension for a few moments. Keep holding, then all at once, let the tension go… and just relax.
Next, wrinkle your face, almost as if you are smelling something awful. Purse your lips… and raise your eyebrows. Now hold this tension in your face for a few moments… keep holding…continuing to breathe normally…
And all at once, let the tension go. Just relax.
Let’s do that one more time. Wrinkle your face, almost as if you are smelling something awful. Purse your lips… and raise your eyebrows. Now hold this tension in your face for a few moments… keep holding…continuing to breathe normally… And all at once, let the tension go. Just relax.
Next, slightly round your back and tighten your abdomen. Keep breathing normally, and hold this for a few moments, then all at once let the tension go, and relax.
Let’s do that again. Slightly round your back and tighten your abdomen, keep breathing normally, and hold this for a few moments. Then, all at once, let the tension go, and relax.
Finally, tense your feet by lifting your toes upward, tightening your shins. Hold this for a few moments, breathing normally. Then, all at once, let the tension go, and relax. And one more time.
Tense your feet by lifting your toes upward, tightening your shins. Hold this for a few moments, breathing normally. Then, all at once, let the tension go, and relax.
Now spend a few moments focusing on your deep, relaxed breathing, allowing all of the muscles in your body to relax. Just let the tension flow away from you… with each breath inwards, breathe in feelings of relaxation and calm…. and with each breath outwards, release any tension and any stress.
Your imagination is a powerful tool to help you relax. It simply involves pairing a peaceful, relaxing image with another relaxation technique (e.g. visualization paired with relaxed breathing).
Keep in mind:
When using visualization, try using all of your senses. Imagine what your peaceful scene sounds like, what it smells like, what you can feel.
Be sure that you are free from other distractions or interruptions for the period that you are doing the relaxation exercise (e.g. turn off your phone, put a “do not disturb” sign on your door).
Let your imagination run free and wild. Visualization is fun! You can imagine anything you want. Try the following.
Lie down, close your eyes, and relax. Take slow, deep breaths, and, as you spend a few minutes in this position, think about any of the following:
Warm, beautiful colours, fading from one hue to another (e.g. a warm red fading to a pale blue).
A beach scene, with palms swaying gently in the warm breeze and the ocean waves lapping against the white sand. A favourite image from the present or from your childhood (e.g. watching your puppy bounce through some tall grass).
Any special place that holds meaning and peace for you.
To master a technique of relaxation, you need to practice. The goal of practicing relaxation is to become so skilled at relaxing that you can invoke a relaxed state whenever and wherever you need to.
Choose one of the techniques above, or a combination of techniques (e.g. a combination of breathing and visualization).
What might interfere with trying your chosen technique of relaxation (e.g. motivation, forgetfulness, unsure how to relax)?
Write down some potential obstacles and how you will deal with them if they arise. For example: “My biggest obstacle is that I will forget to practice. So I will post a reminder by my bed that I will see before getting out of bed in the morning, and upon going to bed at night.”
Successful change requires that you track your progress so that you know when you are being successful at relaxation.
At the end of this section, there is a relaxation practice log that you can use to keep track of your progress. If you prefer, you can keep track of your progress in a notebook or journal of your choosing. Whatever method you choose, be sure that your practice log contains a measure of your state of relaxation before and after your practice session.
Finally, a good action plan includes a reward to celebrate your success. How will you reward your progress? How often will you reward yourself?
For example: “When I finish my first week of practice, I will reward myself by going out to a fun movie with a friend.”
Use this 10-point scale before and after you practice a relaxation technique.