Got Stress? Dr. Wilson Says Relax
When you say relax people tend to think of leisurely activities, like watching TV or reading a magazine. However, physiological relaxation is a set of specific internal changes that occur when your mind and body are calm. It is not the same as sleep, rest or having fun. Physiological relaxation is the one internal state that can protect your body from the harmful effects of too much stress. Below are six different relaxation techniques. I encourage you to read through each and start with the one that sounds best.
This is the most natural kind of breathing, although it may feel unfamiliar initially. If you have ever watched a baby breathing you have seen belly-breathing; the belly, rather than the chest, expands and contracts. This allows the air to reach the lower part of your lungs, where there is a rich blood supply. This triggers the relaxation response within a few minutes.
To begin, take 10 minutes when you will not be interrupted. Either lie or sit on a comfortable surface that fully supports your body. Place your hands palms down on your abdomen, just below your navel. Close your eyes and pay attention to your breathing without trying to change it; listen to the sound of it, feel it moving in and out of your nose and throat, and notice how far down into your body it seems to go. Then imagine that you have a balloon inside your lower belly, under where your hands are. As you inhale, try to inflate that balloon; as you exhale, let the balloon deflate.
Do not expand your chest as you inhale, just your belly. It is best to breathe through your nose for this exercise but if for some reason you cannot, then it is okay to breathe through your mouth. Continue inflating and deflating the balloon for at least 5 minutes. Bellybreathing may feel awkward or forced the first few times you try it but soon it will feel quite natural.
2) Slowing Down Your Breath
This is a very simple method that you can use even when you are in the midst of doing something else. Whenever you notice you are feeling tense and uptight, check and see how you are breathing. Most people under stress either alternate holding their breath with taking barely perceptible short breaths, or take rapid shallow breaths. After you become aware of your own breathing, consciously relax your belly and slow down your breathing. It works best if you focus on slowing down your exhalation rather than your inhalation. With each exhalation you can say to yourself, “slow down.” That is all there is to it–simple but surprisingly effective!
3) Counting Your Exhalations
This is a variation on slowing down your breath that should be done when you can set aside 10 minutes of time to focus. Get comfortable in a relatively quiet place and begin bellybreathing. This time, count slowly from 5 down to 1 with each exhalation. Your mind will probably wander many times, but that’s okay. Calmly bring it back to counting from 5 to 1 during each exhalation. Do this for at least 5 minutes. When you can keep your attention on your breathing for 5 minutes, you can move on to deeper meditation methods.
4) Repeating a Mantra or Affirmation
The mantra, a specially chosen sound/phrase used in meditation, is an Eastern tradition that has become popular in the West. It seems that the repetition of particular kinds of sounds, words or phrases is a very effective way to clear your mind and trigger the relaxation response when practiced daily.
First you need to choose a word, phrase or sound that is calming to you. Some examples that other people have chosen are, “relax,” “peace,” “I am still,” and “I open my heart.” Take 15-20 minutes in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. Sit or lie down with your back straight and close your eyes. Focus your attention either between your eyebrows (mind center) or in the middle of your chest (heart center). Allow your breathing to slow down and deepen.
When you feel settled, begin repeating your word/phrase/sound out loud or silently. You can repeat it on each inhalation and on each exhalation. Your mind will wander many times, but each time it does gently bring it back to your phrase. You may find yourself frequently falling asleep at first, but keep coming back to the exercise. Do this for at least 15 minutes once or twice a day and you will be amazed at the change in how you feel.
5) Progressive Relaxation
This is a particularly good exercise if you have a lot of stress-related aches and pains or if you have difficulty relaxing. With practice it trains your body to release tension and relax more easily. This exercise takes about 10-20 minutes and is best done lying down. Some people use it to help themselves fall asleep. Take a few slow breaths to get settled and then, starting with your toes, first tighten the muscles in your toes as tight as you can, hold for about 10 seconds and then relax your toes. Next tighten up the muscles in your feet, hold for 10 seconds, and then relax.
Repeat this procedure all the way up until every part of your body has been tensed and then relaxed: calves, knees, thighs, buttocks, hips, abdomen, back, chest, hands, arms, shoulders, upper back, neck, face, and scalp. After you have completed this, imagine a wave of relaxation rolling up your body each time you inhale, and imagine this wave washing all tension out of your body each time you exhale. Do this for a few minutes and then just rest, breathing slowly. You will find that the relaxation you experience with this exercise will get deeper with practice.
Spending some time by a quiet pond, or other still place, allows your cares and burdens to slide down off your shoulders and slip away. It is amazing how refreshing a few minutes beside a pond can be. If you have not had that experience, maybe you have had one of your own–a place you can go that is so peaceful, comforting and renewing, and is hard to leave.
Take time for relaxation every day. When bring feelings of quiet peacefulness into your consciousness, you are doing more than feeling good. You are helping establish balance in your nervous system. Calling forth those images and feelings, even briefly, helps offset the stress building up inside. If you are able to do this at a specific time each day, your body will soon learn that it’s relaxation time, and will begin to bring forth the image and the feelings without any conscious effort on your part.
About the Author:
With a researcher’s grasp of science and a clinician’s understanding of its human impact, Dr. Wilson has helped many physicians understand the physiology behind and treatment of various health conditions. He is acknowledged as an expert on alternative medicine, especially in the area of stress and adrenal function. Dr. Wilson is a respected and sought after lecturer and consultant in the medical and alternative healthcare communities in the United States and abroad. His popular book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome has been received enthusiastically by physicians and the public alike, and has sold over 400,000 copies. Dr. Wilson resides in sunny Tucson, Arizona.