Of all the things and phenomena that may affect your health, nearly nothing is as detrimental as stress. Stress decreases immunity, raises the risk for cardiovascular disease and diminishes your quality of life. For individuals with compromised immune systems, the detrimental effects of stress can be even more severe…yet living with an incurable disease is stressful.
Your physical and emotional health can be improved with a focused relaxation practice.
Why Relaxing Is So Important
Americans are driven to do and accomplish more, so stopping to take a break is often hard…but it’s worth it. Relaxation can immediately and cumulatively improve your health by:
- Decreasing heart rate and lowering your blood pressure
- Increasing oxygen saturation
- Relieving muscle tension
Together, these effects help the body release toxins stored in the tissues and oxidize (break down) hormones and other chemicals that keep your body in a fight-or-flight state. With regular practice, relaxation can help you lose weight, maintain a healthy weight, boost immune function and elevate your mood.
Popular Relaxation Techniques
The relaxation you need for health benefits does not involve watching TV or checking social media. For effective relaxation, you need to create an environment and establish a routine practice of techniques that help you calm your inner mental state.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation involves the systematic tightening (contraction) and relaxing of large muscle groups. The focused, systematic approach trains you to better recognize the different sensations associated with tension and relaxation.
To practice progressive muscle relaxation, lie flat in a dim, quiet space. Flex the muscles in your toes—either curl them tightly or spread them as wide as you can—and hold for five seconds, then release. Take a moment to notice the sensations. Continue the alternating flexing-relaxing actions on large muscle groups from your feet up—calves, quads, hamstrings, buttocks, abdominals, shoulder blades, pectorals, biceps, forearms, neck and face. You may also do the sequence from the top-down. Remember to breathe during both flexing and relaxing actions.
Visualization helps diminish stress by creating a vivid multi-sensory experience of a peaceful mental state. To practice visualization:
- Sit or lie in a dim, quiet space
- Create an image in your mind of a place (physical location) where you feel completely relaxed—it may be the beach, a forest path, sail boat, deep space, etc.
- Imagine the other sensations you experience in this place:
- What do you hear?
- What do you smell?
- What do you feel on your skin?
- What is the taste on your tongue?
Stay in this space for at least five minutes, perhaps progressively longer as you get more practiced at maintaining focused attention.
Deep breathing is one of the simplest relaxation techniques, but in order to get the most from any deep breathing exercise, you must pay attention to the flow and quality of your breath. Your inhalation and exhalation should be through your nose. Your belly should rise toward the end of the inhalation as the diaphragm contracts (the diaphragm is flattening, pressing on the abdominal organs to make more room in the chest cavity for your lungs to expand). Your belly should be the first part to flatten with your exhalation as the diaphragm relaxes, putting pressure on the lungs to expel air.
There are a number of ways to “play” with the practice, such as:
- Inhale deeply for a count of 8, hold for a count of 4, and exhale slowly, with control for a count of 10.
- Inhale deeply to maximum capacity, counting to see how long it takes to fill your lungs. Exhale slowly as if through a straw for twice as long as your inhalation.
At minimum, practice any deep breathing exercise for two minutes. Deep breathing is a “portal” into other meditation practices, so guided meditation apps or CDs may have additional deep breathing exercises and patterns.
For effective stress relief, any relaxation technique needs to be practiced regularly, so make it part of your daily (or every other day) schedule. You may set an alarm to deep breathe for two minutes every hour, carve out a half-hour before bedtime for progressive muscle relaxation, etc.