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Stress Reduction: Five Practical Techniques

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By Bruce Campbell


Relaxation can be a profound antidote to stress, a way to reduce muscle tension and anxiety, and an aid to pain control.


This article gives step-by-step instructions for five relaxation procedures, but less formal approaches can help, too. Being attentive to your breathing, exercising, taking a bath or a dip in a hot tub, getting a massage or just lying down in a quiet place -- all can help you relax.


You will find below a variety of approaches to relaxation. Because everyone is different, some techniques work well for one person and other techniques work better for another.

We suggest you try several techniques to see what works for you. Also, you may find that a particular technique works for a while, then becomes ineffective. If that happens, try something else.


1) Focus on Your Breath

If you feel under tension or stress, your breathing can become shallow or you may hold your breath. If you find that happening, breathing in a deep, relaxed way can reduce your tension and help you relax. Here's one way to do that, by focusing on your breath. You can use it alone as a stress reduction technique or in combination with other practices, such as those you will read about below.


Sit or lie down in a quiet place where you won't be disturbed for a few minutes. Focus your attention on your breathing. Take in a long, slow breath through your nose, hold it one or two seconds, then breathe out through your mouth. The idea is to concentrate your attention on your breathing, keeping it slow and easy.

If you discover that your mind has wandered and your are thinking about something else, just return your attention to your breath. As you breathe in a slow and easy way, you should feel your body relax and a sense of calmness replace anxiety. If you feel dizzy, stop the technique and breathe normally.


2) The Body Scan

The body scan is a technique helps you relax your whole body. It is associated with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. He recommends that you do it lying down, but any comfortable position is OK.

You begin by spending a few minutes focusing on your breath, visualizing it going deeply into your body and then out again.


After several minutes, direct your attention to the toes of one foot, becoming aware of any sensations you feel there. You do not try to relax your toes, but rather just concentrate your attention on that part of your body. Paradoxically, that is often sufficient to bring about relaxation. If you find your mind has wandered, bring your attention back to your breathing and to the bottom of your foot.

After 20 seconds or so, move your attention to the bottom of the foot. Again, don't try to relax it, just become aware of any sensations that might be present. Then move on to the top of the foot, the ankle and the calf. When your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath and to the part of your body you are focusing on.


Gradually work through your whole body, moving up one leg to the hip, then doing the other leg starting with the toes. Then move on to the stomach, chest and back, followed by the hands, arms and shoulders. Lastly, focus on the neck, jaw, mouth, eyes, scalp. The technique has two keys: 1) focus your attention on one body part at a time without consciously trying to relax it; and 2) return your attention to the body when your mind wanders.


3) Progressive Relaxation

Another way to relax the body, called progressive relaxation, is the mirror image of the body scan. In this technique, you first tense and then relax all the major muscle groups in your body, from your feet and calves up to your face and head.


Like the body scan, you begin by lying down or getting in another comfortable position. Then spend some time doing focused breathing, drawing air in through your nose down into the abdomen and exhaling through the mouth. As you breathe out, imagine that your muscle are heavy and your body sinking into the surface below you.


Next, become aware of your feet and calves. Pull your toes toward your face, then relax and release the tension. Do the same for the thighs and buttocks, abdomen and chest, hands and arms, and finally the muscles of the face and head: tighten the muscles and then relax them. Now take a deep breathe and feel any remaining tension flow out as you breathe out.


Note: Do not use this technique if tensing your muscles will lead to a flare. Try another approach.


4) The Relaxation Response

A technique for creating a state of deep rest is the relaxation response, a tool developed by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard. This approach involves keeping your attention on a point of focus, usually a word that you repeat silently to yourself. As you focus on your mental device, you will experience distracting thoughts, images or feelings.

When you find that you have become distracted, simply return to your point of focus. Do this whenever you discover that your attention has drifted away from your point of focus.

You have successfully elicited the relaxation response if you find yourself in a pleasant state like the feeling you might have lying on the beach on a warm summer day or the sense of detached relaxation you feel just before falling asleep.


Follow these steps to elicit the relaxation response.


1. Get comfortable. Go to a quiet place where you won't be disturbed, assume a comfortable posture and close your eyes. (Sitting is generally preferable, but not required.)


2. Relax your body. Beginning at your feet and moving gradually up to your head, relax the muscles in your body. You might include in your scan of the body your feet, ankles, calves, thighs, stomach, chest, back, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, jaw, mouth, eyes, scalp.


3. Become aware of your breathing. Spend a short time following your breath. Feel it come in through your nose and go out through your mouth.


4. Concentrate on your point of focus. Your focus can be a word or sound (like "relax" or "One"), a prayer, a symbol or a feeling. On each out-breath, say your chosen word or focus on your chosen symbol or feeling.


5. Continue for ten to 20 minutes. If you find yourself distracted from your point of focus, return your attention to your breathing and your focus word or phrase. When you finish, sit quietly for a few minutes.


5) Guided Imagery

The approach called guided imagery uses our ability to create scenes in our mind as a way to distract us from worry and help us relax. This approach usually has three steps.


1. Focus on your breathing. Become comfortable in a quiet place and close your eyes. Watch your breath as in comes into and goes out of your body. Continue to focus on your breathing for a few minutes and feel your tension release.


2. Visualize a relaxing scene. Imagine a scene in which you can become immersed. It might be sitting on the beach on a warm summer day, walking through a pine forest or remembering a place that gives your warm, pleasant feelings. The specific scene is not as important as how the scene you choose makes you feel.

Involve as many of your senses as you can. The more you use, the more relaxing the scene will be. If you are at the beach, see and hear the waves crashing one after another on the sand, feel the warmth of the sun on your face and the wind against your skin, smell the ocean. If you are in a forest, smell the pine needles, hear the birds call and the water babble in the stream, see the soft light coming down through the branches of the trees.

The idea is to picture a scene in such detail that you feel comfortable, safe and relaxed so that your frustrations and worries fall away, replaced by a serenity and calm.


3. Come back to the present time and place. After ten to 15 minutes, gradually shift your attention back to your body and the present place. When you feel comfortable, open your eyes.


Final Thoughts

It usually takes a while (at least several weeks of regular practice) to develop skill in using a technique, so allow some time before expecting results. To be fair, you should practice four or five times a week, setting aside for each session ten to 20 minutes when you won't be disturbed.

There are many relaxation and meditation tapes, CDs and downloads available today. Some have step-by-step instructions to lead you through a relaxation procedure, while others have music or relaxing sounds from nature.

You may want to use such products or record your own from the techniques described above. Finally, if relaxation makes you anxious or seems unpleasant, try other stress reduction techniques.