By: Dr. Eiríkur Orn Arnarsson.
THERE ARE NUMEROUS BENEFITS FROM PRACTICING RELAXATION
Calming one´s mind and/or relaxation has been considered normal practice for centuries. In our fast-paced modern times, however, there seems to be limited time for relaxation.
Accounts of relaxation can be found in the oldest manuscripts, and contemplation is known in all societies and religions. Prayer is perhaps the most common form of relaxation.
Relaxation has been shown to lower blood pressure, slow heart rate and breathing, reduce muscle tension and is a way to become more balanced resulting in calmness and well being. One should aim at having the time available to practice relaxation or meditate most days of the week. Relaxation may also benefit those who have are afraid of flying.
It is quite normal for the body to work as a well-lubricated machine that operates smoothly. However when we become aware of the body’s processes, it may be a sign of something going wrong and that it would be a good idea to slow down a bit. Many of us ignore such signs and keep on going. In the long term, such discomfort may escalate and become difficult to control.
It is important to be aware of the body’s signals which may give an indication that stressors in the environment are setting in and that tension starting to build up. This would be the appropriate moment to start relaxing, while it is too late once the stress has become overwhelming.
STRESSORS CAUSE TENSION
By practicing relaxation, the individual becomes more sensitive to mild stressors in the environment. This may seem paradoxical, but anxious people often are unaware of being tense until the tension has become excessive, as they have over time, learned to ignore distraction and focus on their thoughts and/or bodily functions.
Stressed people tend to use chest breathing instead of abdominal breathing. The chest breathing cycle is shallow, fast and irregular. As a result, oxygen in the blood condenses and the blood’s acidity level changes, leading to discomfort and an increase in heart rate, respiratory distress, dizziness and sweating. Anxious people can develop fear and become worried that they are suffering from a dangerous disease rather than being aware that the symptoms may simply reflect a normal response to daily toils.
EMPTYING THE MIND
Relaxation and tension are like the two opposite poles on a magnet repelling each other. A tense person cannot be relaxed at the same time. In the same manner, a relaxed person cannot be tense at the same time.
Relaxation is a natural method to combat tension, a method that has long been known, e.g. the siesta in Southern Europe.
One of the main purposes of practicing relaxation is to calm the mind and gain a control of breathing. It is important to ignore intrusive thoughts when your mind wanders and gently bring your attention back to the moment.
Breathe in through your nose. Let your abdomen expand fully. Then breathe out through your mouth. Notice the sensations of breathing in and out.
A characteristic of most types of relaxation training is to repeat the same word over and over again as you breathe out. It may be useful to resound the word while exhaling. Usually, the word chosen does not have any stressful connotations. The number “one” is an example of such a word although words from another language and which have no special meaning for the person using it are sometimes selected.
CHARACTERISTICS SHARED BY DIFFERENT RELAXATION METHODS
There are many types of relaxation techniques available but there are some similarities:
- Self instructions which are recited to ward off intrusive thoughts, usually a meaningless word.
- Neutral stance to allow the feeling of relaxation to come on its own accord, without effort.
- Adopt a comfortable position while relaxing in order to reduce muscle tension.
- Reduce surrounding distractions and practice relaxing with your eyes closed.
The main types of clinical relaxation which have been empirically evaluated are Progressive Relaxation, Autogenic Training, Relaxation Response and Applied Relaxation.
Meditation is used to relax the body and quiet one´s mind. During meditation the person directs the attention to a particular thought; a bodily function, such as breathing; or a sound, by repeating a neutral word or mantra in one´s mind such as the word “one” or “kirim”, from Sanskrit. These methods of focusing ones attention are intended to quiet the mind.
There are many types of meditation which have been systematically evaluated, e.g. Yoga, Tai Chi and Transcendental Meditation.
RELAXATION IS SUITABLE FOR EVERYONE
People habituate to tension and cease to be able to tell the difference between being tense or relaxed and later become less sensitive to stressors which may lead to tension.
Tension is characterised by the fact that it rises quickly and subsides quickly. On the other hand, some experience continuous tension due to distractions that build up one on top of the other.
One does not necessarily achieve relaxation by reading a newspaper or by watching television. Many find peace of mind by sitting alone in a place of worship where there is peace and quiet.
Everyone should be able to practice relaxation no matter what their belief is.
This is a short version of this article, it can be found in full length in Icelandic at: http://timarit.is/view_page_init.jsp?pageId=5049476
Eiríkur Örn Arnarson, Ph.D., trained in clinical psychology in England. He is a professor of psychology at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Iceland and a specialist in clinical psychology at Landspítali University Hospital.