When you do have more time to work on relaxation techniques, you can certainly take your pick of many. Throughout the ages, different cultures all over the world have developed their own relaxation techniques.
Some involve meditation, some breathing, some specific kinds of movement. Some work quickly; others are meant to take time. Some involve more physical effort but relax the mind. Others involve mental effort but relax the body. If you learn about them all, you'll be able to pick the kind of relaxation technique that suits you in any given situation.
I'll tell you about a few of these techniques in the following sections, and you'll find out about more in later sections throughout this book. Many of these techniques aren't designed specifically for relaxation, but relaxation is a side effect (such as with yoga and certain types of meditation).
The body scan is a popular relaxation technique that involves a mental scanning of the entire body in search of tension and the conscious release of that tension. You can do a body scan on your own, or you can have someone direct you by speaking out loud and naming the parts of the body, in order, so that you are cued when to relax what. You can also recite your own body scan cues onto a tape and play it back for yourself.
The body scan is a great way to wind down after work or to calm down before a stressful event. Practiced every day, it can become a way to maintain a tension-free body and a body-aware mind.
Different people do the body scan in different ways. Some people like to tense each area of the body in turn, then fully relax it. Others prefer to visualize the release of tension without actually contracting the muscles first. You can imagine breathing into and out of each body part, exhaling the tension one area at a time. Whichever way you choose is fine. You might try several ways to find out which one you prefer.
Record a Body Scan Tape
If you would like to make your own body scan tape, you can use the following script. Read this passage out loud on a tape (or have someone with a relaxing voice do it for you). Don't forget to pause after mentioning each body part to give yourself time to focus on relaxing and releasing tension. When the script tells you to pause, don't repeat the word pause, but actually pause in your reading for five to ten seconds or more.
Lie down comfortably on your back on a firm surface. Feel your shoulders, middle back, lower back, and hips settling into the floor. Relax your upper arms, lower arms, hands, thighs, calves, and feet. Let your feet fall open, away from each other. Relax your neck and let your head feel heavy against the floor. Breathe deeply. [PAUSE] Become aware of your feet. Are they relaxed? Search for tension in your feet and let it go. Release all tension and strain from your feet. Don't forget to breathe. [PAUSE] Feel your lower legs and calf muscles, from your ankles to your knees. Are your lower legs relaxed? Search for tension in your ankle. Let it go. Search for tension in your calf muscle. Let it go. Search for tension in your shin. Let it go. Search for tension in your knee. Let it go. Release all tension and strain from your foot. Keep breathing. [PAUSE] Now, bring your attention to your upper legs — the muscles on the fronts of your thighs, the muscles on the backs of your thighs, and your hip joints. Search for tension. Let go of the tension in the fronts of your thighs. Let go of the tension in the backs of your thighs. Breathe it away. Let your hips go, relaxing them even further into the floor. Let all the tension out of your hip joints. Breathe deeply. [PAUSE] Feel the muscles of your lower abdomen and your buttocks. Feel how these muscles hold tension, then let that tension go. Let the muscles relax completely, releasing all strain and tightness. Breathe. [PAUSE] Now, bring your attention to the muscles over your stomach. You probably hold these muscles in all day. Let them go. Fully relax and release your abdominal muscles. Breathe deeply, and exhale all the tension. [PAUSE] Feel the muscles that radiate around the sides of your body and extend into your upper back. Feel your shoulder blades, ribs, chest, and upper spine relaxing. Let the tension go. Breathe out the tension. [PAUSE] Bring your attention to your shoulders and neck. Feel all the stress and tension lingering there, making your neck and shoulder muscles tight and tense. Slowly let it all go, taking several long deep breaths. Completely relax your shoulders and your neck. [PAUSE] Feel the muscles in your upper arms — your deltoid muscles at the top, and your biceps and triceps around your upper arms. Search out any hidden pockets of stress and tension in your upper arms and let it go. Relax your upper arms and breathe. [PAUSE] Feel your elbow joints, the muscles of your lower arms, your wrists, your hands, and each one of your fingers. Imagine a radiating circle of warmth moving down each arm and dissolving all tension from your elbows, lower arms, wrists, hands, and each finger and thumb. [PAUSE] Now, feel the muscles in your head, feel your scalp, your facial muscles, your chin, your jaw. Release the tension in your scalp, along your temples, around your ears, in your forehead, around your eyes, your cheeks, your jaw, your mouth, your chin. Let it all go. Relax. Breathe. [PAUSE] Now, imagine a warm radiant circle of light moving slowly up your body, starting around your toes, moving to the crown of your head, then slowly moving back down again. As it moves over you, it scans for any remaining areas of stress or tension and immediately dissolves them. You feel warm, deeply relaxed, and infused with a sense of well-being. [LONG PAUSE] Lie still for a few more minutes savoring the feeling of total relaxation. Then, when you are ready, very slowly roll over to one side and carefully sit up. [PAUSE]
Focusing on your peripheral vision can be deeply relaxing. The Kauna shamans of ancient Hawaii called this technique “hakalau,” which means “to focus in and spread awareness.” To use this technique, sit comfortably and relax. Pick a spot in front of you and relax your eyes, blurring your vision just slightly. Then, without moving your eyes, focus for a few minutes on what you can see in your peripheral vision. Instant relaxation.
Breathe Away the Stress Response
One of the easiest relaxation tips is as simple as breathing in and out. In fact, it is breathing in and out. Many people are in the habit of shallow breathing, or chest breathing. While this allows quicker respiration and is handy for emergencies, shallow breathing doesn't plumb the depths of the lungs the way deep breathing does.
A few slow, purposeful, truly deep breaths can stop a stress attack in its tracks. Deep breathing also helps to expel more air from your lungs, which is important for efficient lung functioning.
When told to breathe deeply, people tend to gulp in a huge amount of air with a dramatic uprising of the chest. Actually, deep breathing happens much deeper, and it is the stomach and abdomen that should rise and fall, not the chest — and especially not the shoulders.
Also, in deep breathing, the
Breathing from deep in your torso is hard to do if you aren't used to doing it. You used to do it as an infant, but as an adult in a high-stress world, you may have forgotten how. The easiest way to retrain yourself to breathe deeply is to begin by lying down. Lie comfortably on your back and put one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest. Then, do the following:
Begin by breathing normally. Be conscious of your breathing, but don't try to manipulate it. Which hand is moving more, the hand on your chest or the hand on your abdomen?
Now, try to exhale every last bit of breath slowly, making a “sss” sound. When you think you've exhaled every bit of breathe, give your lungs one more push and let out a final “sss” of air. As you exhale, feel the hand on your abdomen sinking in, lower and lower, as the breath empties out of the body.
After this deep exhalation, you'll naturally take in a deep breath, but don't try to suck in air. Just let your body take it in on its own. Don't try to suck air into your chest. Just let your body refill. As it refills, try to keep your chest and shoulders still. Be conscious of how the hand on your abdomen rises up again as breath enters the body.
Exhale again, slowly, as fully as possible, feeling the hand on your abdomen sinking in.
Repeat for ten deep breaths.
Once you've mastered the feeling of deep breathing, you can try it sitting up. Again, focus on the exhalation. A good calming breathing exercise is to measure your breathing by silent counting, making the exhalation twice as long as the inhalation. Try this exercise when you are feeling tense (before you say or do something you'll later regret!):
Slowly breathe in through your nose to a slow count of five, filling your torso, from the bottom up, with air. Keep your shoulders and chest still. Instead, feel your body expanding from the abdomen and lower back.
Slowly breathe out through your mouth, lips pursed, making an airy, whispering “whhhhhh” sound, to a slow count of ten. Keep your shoulders and chest still. Feel your body deflating from the abdomen and lower back.
Repeat several times, or until you feel calm.
You'll read more about breathing as a meditation in Chapter 8. In the meantime, let your breath work for you, as the ultimate no-frills, any-time, any-place relaxation tool.
For instant relaxation, imagery can work for you. Imagery is simple and fun. Feeling stressed? Feeling anxious? Feeling hopeless? Go on vacation. No, don't leave your desk and head to the airport. Stay at your desk, close your eyes, relax, breathe, and use your imagination to visualize the place you would most like to be.
You remember your imagination, don't you? It was that thing that, as a child, allowed you to fly like a bird, stomp like an elephant, bark like a dog, save the world from disaster, go on safari, jump from an airplane with your parachute, and visit a land made entirely out of candy, all in one day. Remember that? Wasn't that fun?
Your imagination is still in your head, even if it's grown a little rusty from disuse. Time to take it out, brush it off, and use it in the service of stress management! You might not decide to imagine that you are a superhero (then again, you might, and why not?). But why not imagine wandering down a secluded beach at sunset, the balmy tropical winds rippling the turquoise sea?
Maybe you would prefer cuddling in front of the fire with a special someone (even if you haven't met him or her yet) in a cozy cabin in the woods? Maybe images of the Far East, the rain forest, or hiking a glacier in Alaska invoke a sense of peace in you. Maybe you're partial to the desert … or a really fancy dessert! (Nothing wrong with visualizing a land made entirely out of candy!)
Let yourself daydream a little. Consider it personal time. Time to recharge. It's fun, and it's perfectly legal. It's also an excellent way to manage the stress that comes your way. After all, that's what vacations are for!