What are relaxation techniques?
Our fast-paced society often causes people to push their minds and bodies to
the limit, often at the expense of physical and mental well-being. According to
the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard University, between 60 and 90 percent
of all medical office visits in the United States are for stress-related
disorders. Relaxation techniques are helpful tools for coping with stress and
promoting long-term health by slowing down the body and quieting the mind. Such
techniques generally entail: refocusing attention (by, for example, noticing
areas of tension); increasing body awareness; and exercises (such as meditation)
to connect the body and mind together. Used daily, these practices can over time
lead to a healthier perspective on stressful circumstances.
What are the types of relaxation techniques?
There are three major types of relaxation techniques:
- Autogenic training. This technique uses both visual
imagery and body awareness to move a person into a deep state of relaxation. The
person imagines a peaceful place and then focuses on different physical
sensations, moving from the feet to the head. For example, one might focus on
warmth and heaviness in the limbs, easy, natural breathing, or a calm heartbeat.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. This technique involves
slowly tensing and then releasing each muscle group individually, starting with
the muscles in the toes and finishing with those in the head.
- Meditation. The two most popular forms of meditation in
the U.S. include Transcendental Meditation (students repeat a mantra [a
single word or phrase],) and mindfulness meditation (students focus their
attention on their moment-by-moment thoughts and sensations).
How do relaxation techniques work?
When we become stressed, our bodies engage in something called the
"fight or flight response." The fight or flight response refers to changes that
occur in the body when it prepares to either fight or run. These changes include
increased heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breathing, and a 300 to 400
percent increase in the amount of blood being pumped to the muscles. Over time,
these reactions raise cholesterol levels, disturb intestinal activities, and
depress the immune system. In general, they leave us feeling "stressed out."
However, we also possess the opposite of the fight or flight
response—the "relaxation response." This term, first
coined in the mid-1970s by a Harvard cardiologist named Herbert Benson, refers
to changes that occur in the body when it is in a deep state of relaxation.
These changes include decreased blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and
rate of breathing, as well as feelings of being calm and in control. Learning
the relaxation response helps to counter the ill effects of the fight or flight
response and, over time, allow the development of a greater state of alertness.
The relaxation response can be developed through a number of techniques,
including meditation and progressive muscle relaxation. It is now a recommended
treatment for many stress-related disorders.
What are relaxation techniques good for?
Research suggests that meditation can help improve a person's quality of life
and reduce stress hormone levels.
Studies also show that relaxation techniques reduce the perception of pain.
One study found that among patients undergoing colorectal surgery, those who
listened to guided-imagery tapes before, during, and after the operation had
less pain and needed fewer pain medications than those who did not.
Meditation has also been used as part of the treatment for post-traumatic
stress disorder in Vietnam veterans and to break substance abuse patterns in
drug and alcohol abusers. Relaxation techniques can also enhance coping skills
in migraine sufferers and reduce stress as well as improve mood in those with
In general, studies show that with consistent practice, relaxation techniques
can potentially reduce symptoms or improve outcomes in the following
- premenstrual syndrome
- irritable bowel syndrome
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- panic disorders
- chronic tension headaches
- hyperactivity in children, as in attention deficit hyperactivity
It is extremely important that usual medical care and advice by followed for
these conditions as well. Relaxation techniques are meant to complement usual
Is there anything I should watch out for?
Relaxation techniques are considered to be very safe. There have been unusual
cases where people become more, rather than less, anxious when using the
techniques because of a heightened awareness of body sensations. Even more rare
are reports of pain, heart palpitations, muscle twitching, and crying spells
associated with the use of relaxation techniques. When this happens, it is often
related to the process of relaxing and reflecting inward such that emotions
become very poignant.
Experts advise people with schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis
(thought disorders that distort reality) to avoid relaxation techniques.
Can I learn relaxation techniques by myself?
If you want to generally reduce stress and enhance well-being, you can teach
yourself some relaxation techniques. Look for videotapes and audiobooks on
popular techniques such as guided imagery and meditation, and check for
community classes in your area. If you have a specific medical or psychological
disorder or concern, however, it is best to see a healthcare professional, such
as a clinical psychologist or social worker who teaches relaxation techniques as
part of their therapeutic practice. He or she will help you decide what
relaxation method is best for you.
Where can I find a qualified practitioner?
Numerous clinics and hospitals around the country have integrated relaxation
techniques into various healthcare programs. To learn more about relaxation
techniques and to locate healthcare facilities that include them as part of
their practice, contact:
- The Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts
Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Mass. at 508-856-2656 or on the Web at
- The American Holistic Medical Association in McLean, Virginia at
703-556-9245 or on the web at www.holisticmedicine.org
- The American Holistic Health Association in Anaheim, California at
714-779-6152 or on the web at www.ahha.org
- The National Institute for Clinical Applications of Behavioral
Medicine in Mansfield, Connecticut at 800-743-2226 or on the web at
- The Center for Mind Body Medicine in Washington, DC at 202-966-7338 or
on the web at www.cmbm.org.
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