What are relaxation techniques?
Our fast-paced society can cause people to push their minds and bodies to the limit, often at the expense of physical and mental wellbeing. According to the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard University, 60 to 90% of all medical office visits in the United States are for stress related disorders. Such stress has damaging effects on health and the immune system. Relaxation techniques are helpful tools for coping with stress and promoting long-term health by slowing down the body and quieting the mind. Such techniques generally entail: refocusing attention (for example, noticing areas of tension), increasing body awareness, and exercises (such as meditation) to connect the body and mind together. Used daily, these practices can lead to a healthier perspective on stressful circumstances. In fact, more than 3,000 studies show the beneficial effects of relaxation on health and wellbeing.
What are the types of relaxation techniques?
There are 3 major types of relaxation techniques:
- Autogenic training. This technique uses both visual imagery and body awareness to move a person into a deep state of relaxation. The person imagines a peaceful place and then focuses on different physical sensations, moving from the feet to the head. For example, one might focus on warmth and heaviness in the limbs, easy, natural breathing, or a calm heartbeat.
- Breathing. In breathing techniques, you place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Take a slow, deep breath, sucking in as much air as you can. As you are doing this, your belly should push against your hand. Hold your breath and then slowly exhale.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. This technique involves slowly tensing and then releasing each muscle group individually, starting with the muscles in the toes and finishing with those in the head.
- Meditation. The two most popular forms of meditation in the U.S. include Transcendental Meditation (students repeat a mantra, a single word or phrase) and mindfulness meditation (students focus their attention on their thoughts and sensations).
- Guided imagery. Similar to autogenic training, guided imagery involves listening to a trained therapist or a guided imagery CD to move into a state of deep relaxation. Once in a relaxed state, the images that come up in your mind can help you uncover important realizations about your emotional, spiritual, and physical health.
How do relaxation techniques work?
When we become stressed, our bodies engage in something called the “fight-or-flight response.” The fight-or-flight response refers to changes that occur in the body when it prepares to either fight or run. These changes include increased heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breathing, and a 300 to 400% increase in the amount of blood being pumped to the muscles. Over time, these reactions raise cholesterol levels, disturb intestinal activities, and depress the immune system. In general, they leave us feeling “stressed out.”
However, we also possess the opposite of the fight-or-flight response, the “relaxation response.” This term, first coined in the mid 1970s by a Harvard cardiologist named Herbert Benson, refers to changes that occur in the body when it is in a deep state of relaxation. These changes include decreased blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and rate of breathing, as well as feelings of being calm and in control. Learning the relaxation response helps counter the ill effects of the fight-or-flight response and, over time, allows the development of a greater state of alertness. The relaxation response can be developed through a number of techniques, including meditation and progressive muscle relaxation. It is now a recommended treatment for many stress-related disorders.
What are relaxation techniques good for?
Research suggests that meditation can help improve a person’s quality of life and reduce stress hormone levels.
Clinical studies also show that relaxation techniques reduce the perception of pain. One clinical study found that among patients undergoing colorectal surgery, those who listened to guided imagery tapes before, during, and after the operation had less pain and needed fewer pain medications than those who did not. Another found that relaxation practices, such as deep breathing, progressive relaxation, and visualization enhanced the immune response among breast cancer patients.
Meditation has also been used as part of the treatment for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Vietnam veterans, and to break substance abuse patterns in drug and alcohol abusers. Relaxation techniques can also enhance coping skills in migraine sufferers and reduce stress, as well as improve mood in those with cancer.
In general, studies show that with consistent practice, relaxation techniques can potentially reduce symptoms or improve outcomes in the following conditions:
- Premenstrual syndrome
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Panic disorders
- Chronic tension headaches
- Hyperactivity in children, as in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Labor and child birth
It is extremely important that usual medical care and advice be followed for these conditions as well. Relaxation techniques are meant to complement usual medical care.
Is there anything I should watch out for?
Relaxation techniques are considered very safe. There have been unusual cases where people become more, rather than less, anxious when using the techniques because of a heightened awareness of body sensations. Even more rare are reports of pain, heart palpitations, muscle twitching, and crying spells associated with the use of relaxation techniques. When this happens, it is often related to the process of relaxing and reflecting inward such that emotions become very poignant.
Experts advise people with schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis (thought disorders that distort reality) to avoid relaxation techniques.
Can I learn relaxation techniques by myself?
If you want to reduce stress and enhance wellbeing, you can teach yourself some relaxation techniques. Look for videotapes and audiobooks on popular techniques, such as guided imagery and meditation, and check for community classes in your area. However, if you have a specific medical or psychological disorder or concern, it is best to see a health care professional, such as a clinical psychologist, social worker, or guided imagery therapist who teaches relaxation techniques as part of their therapeutic practice. Your health care professional will help you decide what relaxation method is best for you.
Where can I find a qualified practitioner?
Numerous clinics and hospitals around the country have integrated relaxation techniques into various health care programs. The following resources can help you learn more about relaxation techniques and locate health care facilities that include them as part of their practice:
- Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine — aihm.org
- American Holistic Health Association — www.ahha.org
- National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine — www.nicabm.com
- The Center for Mind-Body Medicine — www.cmbm.org