Learning to relax is the key to reducing stress. When the human body experiences stress, a reaction commonly referred to as the “fight-or-flight response” occurs (also known as the acute stress response). The various physical sensations caused by stress (such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, tension), prepare the body to react in one of two ways to a perceived environmental threat — to either fight or take flight (run).
Although stress may, at times, feel unavoidable in our busy, everyday lives, learning how to activate our body’s relaxation response can help counteract the potentially-harmful effects of the fight-or-flight response. A state of deep rest and calm, the relaxation response helps your mind and body return to a state of equilibrium. Upon activation, the body’s relaxation response produces:
- Slower and deeper breathing
- A decrease in heart rate
- A drop or stabilization in blood pressure
- Activation of healing properties throughout your body
- Muscle relaxation
- Increases in energy and focus
- Help in combatting illness
A mentally-active learning process, incorporating the fundamental techniques of relaxation into our everyday routine requires commitment and practice.
Methods for achieving relaxation:
- Deep abdominal breathing: A simple, yet effective relaxation technique, deep abdominal breathing focuses on the inhalation and exhalation of full, cleansing breaths. Breathing deeply from one’s abdomen, rather than taking shallow breaths from the chest, allows for greater oxygen intake and subsequent decreased anxiety and tension.
- Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight.
- Place one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your chest.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose, causing the hand on your stomach to rise, while the hand on your chest remains still.
- Exhale through your mouth (or nose) while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should lower, while the hand on your chest remains still.
- Continue to breathe deeply, in through your nose and out through your mouth (or nose), causing your abdomen to rise and lower.
Note: If sitting proves to be difficult or uncomfortable, try lying flat on your back on the floor.
- Meditation: Several forms of meditation exist and provide a variety of relaxation benefits. Examples include:
- Mindfulness meditation: Deliberate focus on the present moment. Participants non-judgementally observe and accept the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that arise.
- Zen meditation: Seated meditation. While keeping one's back completely straight, participants focus on breathing and sitting quietly.
- Transcendental meditation: Participants repeat a mantra – a unique, single word or phrase – given to them by a trained instructor.
- Progressive muscle relaxation: A two-step process involving the systematic tensing and relaxing of various muscles throughout the body. Progressive muscle relaxation enables participants to become familiar with the sensations of tension and relaxation, thereby helping to counteract the early signs of muscle tension caused by stress. Deep abdominal breathing can be combined with progressive muscle relaxation for additional stress relief.
Guided audio instructions:
Note: It is advised that participants with a history of muscle spasms or other serious injuries that may be aggravated by the tensing of muscles consult with their physician prior to practicing progressive muscle relaxation.
- Guided imagery: Also known as mental imagery relaxation. A form of focused relaxation aiming to create harmony between mind and body. Employing one’s own imagination, guided imagery encourages participants to utilize all 5 senses — sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch — with the goal of imagining a peaceful scene, free of anxiety and tension. Guided imagery can be practiced in silence, while listening to calming music or nature sounds, or with the assistance of an audio recording to help lead you through the process.