By Karen Hastings, Edinburgh
Most of us know that stress is bad for us and that it has all kinds of negative effects on health. In fact, it has been estimated that 80% of modern diseases can be linked to stress and that stress-related complaints account for a significant portion of G.P consultations. More and more people are seeking ways to manage their stress and you may have found that setting time aside to sit down and ‘do nothing’ does not actually lead to you feeling relaxed, as you still have thoughts and worries whirring in your head.
A non-drug method of achieving relaxation, which is widely advocated by healthcare professionals, is relaxation training. The aim of relaxation training is for the individuals to be able to achieve both a relaxed body, with muscles free from tension and also peaceful thoughts, so that the mind too is relaxed.
Relaxation training can work as a preventative measure (to protect the body from stress related damage), as a coping strategy (to be employed in times of stress and thus reduce the effect of stress) and as a treatment for stress related illnesses such as high blood pressure, tension headaches, Irritable Bowel syndrome and much more.
Relaxation training refers to learning formal techniques. These usually take two forms, physical and psychological. The physical techniques work directly on the body and aim to educate the individual to recognise and reduce muscle tension. The techniques differ and may involve stretching, tensing and releasing individual muscle groups, learning to breathe in a way that encourages relaxation, moving body parts out of defensive tense positioning into relaxed positioning, reviewing each muscle group in the body, identifying any tension and then releasing it, practising the posture of a relaxed person. Psychological techniques focus on relaxing the mind. Psychological techniques vary and may involve visualisation, meditation, guided goal directed visualisation, self-awareness, autogenic training and imagery. Since the body and mind are interconnected, techniques which encourage physical relaxation, also work on the mind and techniques which encourage peaceful thoughts, also result in the body being more relaxed.
Once you have learnt such techniques they are a life-long skill and can be applied both formally to achieve a deep state of relaxation and ‘on the spot’ when you need to quickly release tension as you go about your daily life. Relaxation training is taught by various healthcare professionals, such as physiotherapists, occupational therapists, nurses, social workers and sports professionals such as exercise coaches. With a good relaxation book, it is also possible to teach yourself techniques. Like most things worth doing, learning to relax takes commitment and practice and it will only be effective if you practice it regularly and build it into your routine.
For now, why not try the following simple technique, known as peripheral vision. It’s quick and simple to learn and is very effective at activating the part of the nervous system, which is responsible for helping us feel calm.
Get comfortable in a chair and find a spot on the wall, straight in front of you and slightly above eye level. Throughout this process just keep focusing on the spot. Just continue to look at that same point, perhaps in soft focus, after a while begin to broaden out your field of vision, wider and wider until your really paying attention to what you can see out of the corners of your eyes. Keeping your eyes on the spot, extend your awareness all around you, become aware of all the other things in the room that you can see by using your imagination. Perhaps, imagine a tennis ball hovering just behind the back of your head. What else can you see behind your head? You may have noticed that your breathing has slowed down and that the muscles of your face have relaxed.
Keep practising this technique; it may help to play some relaxing music at the same time. You will notice that is impossible to feel tense or worried whilst you are in peripheral vision.
About the Author: Karen is an NHS experienced occupational therapist. She has worked in the NHS with people with acute and chronic mental health problems. Karen is a master NLP practitioner and also practices traditional cognitive behavioural approaches and hypnotherapy in Edinburgh.