2 Foolproof Ways to Relax

Photo by  Eli DeFaria  on  Unsplash

Photo by Eli DeFaria on Unsplash

Few things in life are more empowering than overcoming your own stress-related difficulties and finding a way to your own personal wellbeing. Unfortunately, few people are really good at self-soothing and even fewer prioritise these skills. There are instead common beliefs in Western society that stress is a necessary part of living and succeeding, proof that we are working hard, or that it is just part of our personality.

I am determined to help share effective stress and anxiety-management strategies with people outside of the therapy room and breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation are psychology 101.

If you have been following my blog posts (Why Do I Feel So Bad? An Introduction to The Fight-or-Flight Response6 Ways to Switch Off The Fight-or-Flight Response) you will be aware that your fight-or-flight response is responsible for the stress-related feelings you experience in your body at multiple times through the day. So here are two foolproof ways to start regaining control over your physical symptoms of stress. And when I say foolproof, I don’t mean that they work in an instant. I mean that with practice these will DEFINITELY give you back your control over the fight-flight response.

1. Breathing exercises

If you have tried these in the past without success please bear with me. Read this, trial the steps again.

I must have taught hundreds of people simple breathing exercises. The troubleshooting I need to do in the following session is always the same. So, please don’t give up. I am also writing another article, “5 reasons your breathing exercises are not working”, so subscribe to my posts to be alerted when I publish it. :)

This exercise is not about getting it right the first time. It is about showing up to the practice again and again when calm, and then surprising yourself with the effectiveness of this breathing exercise when stressed at a later date!

First, learn how to breathe into the right place:

  • Find a comfortable seated position.

  • Put one hand on your chest and the other on your lower ribs (diaphragm).

  • Close your mouth and breathe through your nose.

  • Breathe naturally and notice where your breath is coming into. Are you breathing into your chest (upper hand) or into your diaphragm (lower hand)?

  • Send your next breath down to your diaphragm. Breathing into the bottom of your lungs before you breathe into your chest. You will know you are doing this right as your lower hand will now feel the breath.

  • Keep breathing this way.

  • Turn attention to the place where the breath feels most vivid. It could be the tips of your nostrils, the back of your nose, the throat, the chest or somewhere else.

  • Focus on the sensation of the breath as it comes in and down into the diaphragm and as it goes out.

Now, the breathing exercise itself:

  • Breathe in through your nose for a count of four seconds. Count slowly.

  • Hold your breath for one second.

  • Purse your lips as though you are going to whistle, or are going to gently blow out a candle.

  • Breathe out through your mouth for a count of six seconds. Count slowly.

  • Hold for one second.

  • Repeat for five-ten minutes (if you only manage two, its a start!), twice a day when calm. The longer you practice, the more easily it will come to you in your time of need.

  • Practice this exercise every time you notice anxiety, or your fight-or-flight response has started.

Why do we do it like this?

When the fight-or-flight response is triggered your body is being prepared to run or fight. Breath is being forced into and out of the body at a faster rate to increase oxygen delivery to the muscles. This makes you take short, shallow breaths that only reach your chest.

To trigger the relaxation response we need to breathe slowly and deeply into the whole lungs AND MOST IMPORTANTLY we need to breathe out for longer than we breathe in. I realise it sounds counter intuitive. It can feel like we are not getting enough oxygen when we feel panicky. This isn’t the case. We just aren’t breathing into our lungs properly and our muscles are tense. So, slow, steady, deep inhales and slow, steady, longer exhales.

Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth (with lips pursed) means that we can limit the amount of airflow. In turn, calming the breath.

If breathing in for four and out for six feels too long for you at first, you can change it. For example, you can breathe in for a count of three and out for a count of five. As long as the breaths are slow and the out breath is longer, it’s all good.

For an audio for this exercise click here.

2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

This exercise takes a little longer. It is best done sitting or lying down. I prefer to do this one in bed before I go to sleep as it quickly lowers tension in the body and sends signals to your brain that it is time to relax.

Repeated practice of PMR will also help you learn what relaxed muscles feel like. People usually don’t realise that their fight-or-flight response has switched on. They miss the fact that they are carrying tension in their body until it has escalated into a headache, neck ache or some other body pain. PMR will make you better able to recognise the first moments of muscle tension and stress. This allows you to act quickly before the stress response takes over.

The set up:

  • If you have any physical injuries that cause muscle pain, do not tense that area of the body. Consult your doctor before tensing that specific area in the exercise. Never tense any body part to the point of pain.

  • Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Arms by your sides. In a place with no distractions.

  • Close your eyes.

The exercise itself:

  • Turn your attention to your breath, breathing into the diaphragm slowly through the nose, hold for a second when your lungs are full. Then breathe out slowly through the nose.

  • After five (in and out) breaths, turn your attention to your feet.

  • As you breathe in, tense all the muscles in your feet by pointing and scrunching your toes.

  • Hold and feel the tension for five seconds.

  • Release the tension on an exhale. Visualise the tension leaving your feet, going out of your body into the floor or mattress below. Notice the change in your feet, notice the relaxed feeling in your muscles.

  • Repeat one more time (tense the muscles of your feet for five seconds. Then let go, visualise the release of tension).

  • Turn your attention back to your breath. Take three slow and deep breaths in and out for your diaphragm.

  • Turn your attention to your lower legs (calves and shins) and repeat the above process. Tensing, releasing and visualising the tension leaving your body twice. Noticing the difference in your muscles before and after.

  • Turn your attention back to the breath.

Repeat this sequence moving up your body one section at a time. Order is as follows:

  1. Feet

  2. Lower legs

  3. Upper legs (knees and thighs)

  4. Both legs and feet together

  5. Buttocks and hips (I have never written the word buttocks before and won’t again!)

  6. Chest and stomach

  7. Shoulder blades and back (shoulder blades pull together as you push out your chest)

  8. Shoulders (bring your shoulders up towards your ears)

  9. Hand (make a fist)

  10. Wrists and lower arms

  11. Upper arms

  12. Both arms and hands together

  13. Face (scrunch it all up!)

  14. Whole body (yep, everything)

When you have covered all 14 sections, turn your attention back to the breath and slowly bring your attention back to the room. Notice how you are feeling.

Try doing this once a day for a week and see what difference it makes. the more you do this, the easier and more effective it will be.

For an audio of this exercise click here.

Are you feeling calmer?

As I said, these exercises may not give you life-changing results the first few times they are used. Do these practices in the same way as you brush your teeth, knowing that in the long run they will be good for you. With time you will suddenly discover their powers when you most need them.

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I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get effective psychological advice out of the therapy room and into everyday life. Please share this article if you found it useful, or think it will benefit someone you know.

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Dr Soph