Learning how to relax can be an extremely helpful and useful thing to do. Relaxation can help you to better manage a range of problems including stress, tension, anxiety and depression. It can help you to perform better at work and remain calmer in almost any situation. It can help you communicate more effectively and thereby, get on better with other people. Relaxation can also help you get to sleep and fall asleep again if you wake during the night.
So what is relaxation and how do you do it? Well, relaxation means different things to different people. On the one hand, relaxation can involve simply sitting in front of the TV, reading a good book or having a bubble bath. On the other hand, relaxation can be a powerful tool actively utilised to cope with difficult and stressful situations. This type of relaxation involves a distinct physiological state that is the distinct opposite of the way your body feels and reacts under stress and tension. One of the main differences is that the former type of relaxation is essentially a passive activity, while the latter is an active strategy specifically utilised to help you cope.
There are many different forms of applied relaxation techniques and although I don't have the space to discuss them all in great detail, some of the more common types include:
Controlled Breathing – This is one of the more simple strategies, but also one of the most effective. In its most basic forms it simply involves taking a slow deep breath in for 3 seconds through your nose, and then letting that breathe out for 3 seconds through your mouth. At the same time, focus your mind on your breathing and repeat the word "relax" quietly to yourself every time you breathe out. Let your breathing flow smoothly. Imagine the tension flowing out of your body each time you breathe out. Continue this way for about 5 minutes.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) – The main idea of PMR is to breathe nice and slowly as described in the controlled breathing technique, and then also to tense each muscle group in your body, in succession (e.g., head and face, neck and shoulders, arms and hands, abdomen and back, buttocks and thighs, lower legs and feet), as you breathe in and then to let go and relax the muscles as you breathe out. Then give yourself 15-20 seconds to relax, noticing how the muscle group feels when relaxed in contrast to how it feels when tensed, before going on to the next group. Try and stay focused on your muscles as you're working through the exercise.
Visual Imagery – This involves visualizing (or imagining) yourself in a peaceful, pleasant, relaxing scene such as in a rainforest or by a lake. The idea is to free yourself from your stressful thoughts and to focus only on pleasant and relaxing thoughts. Try and picture the scene in enough detail so that it completely absorbs your attention. Involve all of your senses (i.e., imagine not just what you can see, but also what you can feel, hear and smell) so that you can return to this place whenever you want to relax.
Relaxation strategies can be extremely effective and they aren't difficult to learn. The relaxation strategies described above are simply skills, and just like any other skills, the more you practice, the better you'll be at doing it and the more effective it will be for you. The ideal is to gradually build up to between 10 and 20 minutes, once or twice a day, plus about 3-5 minutes for 5 times a day. However, even if you only practice for a few minutes, several times a day, you will gradually master deep relaxation skills and begin to realise the benefits.
When you practice deep relaxation techniques and you experience a feeling of being "centred" as a result, that centredness equates with "mindfulness". Mindfulness means being in control of your mind instead of letting your mind be in control of you. When you are mindful, you can use all the ways of knowing something, such as knowing by observing, knowing by analysing logically and knowing by intuition. The result is having greater access to your own wisdom.
But to achieve this you really need to practise and practise involves more than just learning something new and repeating it. It means making changes to your attitude and lifestyle. You need to be willing to give higher priority to looking after yourself, both physically and mentally. The results, feeling calmer, smarter, more aware and more in control, are well worth it!