For those who can’t relax


For most of us, some form of relaxation is necessary for both psychological and physical health; the body and mind are intimately connected. Worrying, anxiety and panic, and depression can all manifest as headaches, persistent tummy upsets, irritability and exhaustion. All of these problems can be improved by learning to relax on a regular basis. A relaxed person will also usually perform better at work or, for example, in interviews or driving tests. It’s useful to think of relaxation as an essential “medicine” which prevents us from becoming sick and enhances our performance at most tasks.

Relaxation exercises teach us how to relax our body – which for very tense, active or driven individuals requires regular practice at first, at least once a day initially. You can try doing these yourself, but if this is difficult, buy a recording of a therapist talking you through these exercises; there are lots available. External conditions are important for learning this skill; preferably a quiet, comfortable room (well ventilated; adequately, but not brightly, lit). Internal conditions are also important; we also need to be reasonably alert (not so anxious that we can’t concentrate, or so tired that we go to sleep).  Learn to relax while fully awake; later, the exercises may help with sleep. Throughout the exercises, try to breathe slowly and regularly. It may help to focus on the sensation of air coming into your lungs (a cool fresh sensation) and going out again (a warm empty feeling).  Let yourself enjoy these sensations whenever you check your breathing; or imagine a door opening and closing as you do this.

Four methods of relaxing the body:

The general aim is to lie down and relax each part of the body in turn, in a regular sequence that becomes a routine (hands, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, chest, stomach, hips and bottom, thighs, lower legs, feet, toes, neck, head and face.) The four methods are:

Muscle tensing and relaxing, in sequence

This helps to develop awareness of the sensations of tension and relaxation within muscles. (Tension and anxiety cause our muscles to work too hard all day; by learning to switch them off, we learn to switch off tension and anxiety.)

First of all, tense the muscles in the area concerned (for example by clenching your fist for the hand, or pressing the arm against the chair for the arm) and feel what the sensation of tension is like. Concentrate your mind on this part of your body and feel the inside as the muscles tighten. Then, let this part of your body go completely loose and limp, and notice the difference in the feelings inside the muscles as they relax. Feel the tension again, then let go of it again as you go loose and limp. Concentrate on the new sensation of relaxation; let that part of your body become more and more relaxed and let go of all the tension and tightness. Then move on to the next part of the body.

The sensation of heaviness

As your muscles become more relaxed, they stop working. Most of the time, your muscles work continuously to hold your body upright – otherwise you would fall over! So when the muscles relax, each part of your body will not only feel looser, but also heavier, wherever it is resting. Allow this feeling of heaviness to come more and more into your body by imagining that each part of your body is becoming so heavy that it is going to sink right through the chair, couch or bed. Let each part of your body feel heavier and heavier in turn, and as this happens all your muscles will switch off and relax.

Using an image of a wave of relaxation

Imagine a wave of relaxation washing over you and spreading through your limbs as you relax each part of your body in turn.  Imagine this like a wave of warm water slowly washing over and through you, running slowly from the tips of your fingers all the way up through your arms, then down your body to your toes; and then all the way back up to your neck and head. Imagine this gentle wave lapping over you as relaxation washes the tension out of your body.

Keywords – such as ‘warm and empty feelings’

When you are fully relaxed, the feeling is usually experienced as a warm emptiness throughout your limbs – a warm, comfortable sensation, but at the same time (because there is no muscle activity) the muscles feel empty of effort and tension. Aim to get this feeling of warm emptiness spreading through your body; these words (or whatever it feels like to you) can help to ‘capture’ that deeply relaxed feeling.

Stages of learning to relax the body

Some people will find it fairly easy to achieve deep relaxation; others will need to practice regularly and to experiment with all of these methods to find a method that works for them. The first stage is to practice until you can make your body deeply relaxed using whatever methods suit you.

The second stage is to add a feeling of mental relaxation – imagine yourself in your favorite place, enjoying yourself, or let yourself drift into a good memory or a pleasant fantasy, for about ten minutes.  If thoughts interrupt you don’t try to push them away, but return to your fantasy as soon as you can.  Just let things happen; let yourself relax mentally.

The third stage is to apply the skill of relaxation when you need it, when you start to feel under stress. Practice relaxation in various day to day situations – on a bus, at work etc.

Some people find it helpful to use a physical prompt such as touching their index fingers and thumbs together, initially while deeply relaxed and then later as a powerful prompt or association that brings the feeling back. Use whatever helps you to remember and bring the sensation alive again.

NB Afterwards – When you have finished these exercises, don’t get up too quickly as you may make feel dizzy or unsteady on your feet. Waggle your fingers and toes first, then move your arms and legs gently before you begin to get up and move around.

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