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Mindful Relaxation Refreshes Mind and Body Wherever and Whenever You Are

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Mindful relaxation brings you back to the current moment, without judgment and without stress, much as visualization does. The SMaRT strategies for mindful relaxation are usually categorized as imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and focused breathing. Unlike other forms of relaxation, it does not require any special equipment, clothing, or environment, or cooperation by another person; once you learn how mindful relaxation, you can practice it on your own anywhere.

TIP: Disconnect from technology—turn off and leave your phone, computer, and other devices behind—when you engage in relaxation techniques. While this article includes references to videos to help you get started, interruptions and distractions from technology will negate your efforts.

Imagery Relaxation

Imagery relaxation is a more passive technique than visualization. Visualization helps you make a positive change in your life; you see yourself manipulating or changing a situation. With imagery relaxation, you imagine a peaceful or healing object or scene without altering it. You do not appear in the scene or have any role in it. You rest your mind and body by focusing on a single object.

Andrea felt anxious in the doctor’s office. While waiting for her appointment to start, she would close her eyes and imagine her cat curled up in his favorite chair. The image always relaxed her.

Guided imagery is a subset of imagery relaxation. You listen to a voice—someone reading a script either in person or on audio or video—as it describes the relaxing scene or object and leads you into a state of relaxation.

Imagery relaxation works because, as many studies have found, images elicit a more powerful emotional response than words in the same areas of the brain triggered by memories. Someone might tell you, or you might tell yourself that there’s no reason to be anxious and you might read or talk about soothing topics, but you are more likely to relax if you mentally see a calming image.

Indeed, imagery is so linked with emotions that researchers have explored several different ways of intervening with negative mental images that provoke stress, anxiety, or fear. Those techniques include:

  • Competition to the imagery (e.g., overloading the brain with an equally strong positive image)
  • Retraining to focus on a more positive image (e.g., the cat in the chair)
  • Questioning the imagery (e.g., did that really happen the way I remember) 
  • Two practices that emphasize visualization: purposely evoking the negative imagery to practice self-regulation and transforming the imagery.

TIP: Focusing your imagery on the things you are grateful for provides strong competition for negative thoughts.


Progressive Muscle Relaxation

When you are tense, the tension is carried throughout your body—but you may not be aware of that until you try to relax. You may treat your resulting aches and pains with over the counter or prescribed medications without ever addressing the real source of the problem, your mental stress.

When you are under stress, your body immediately tenses to protect itself from injury or pain. As the stress passes, the body relaxes. But if you are constantly stressed, the body has no chance to enter the relaxation phase. If you experience a physical injury or other sources of chronic pain, stress, and bodily tension aggravates the original cause. If you practice progressive muscle relationship, you intercept your stress response to pain—you break the cycle.

To practice progressive muscle relaxation:

  • Make yourself comfortable: loosen clothes, take off shoes, sit in a comfortable chair, or lie down.
  • Breathe slowly (see focused breathing below).
  • Focus on your right foot; tense it for a count of 10, then slowly release the tension over 10 to 20 seconds.
  • Repeat with the left foot.
  • Slowly work up the body from right to left side, tensing individual muscles one at a time.

You may find it useful to follow a script or listen to a video.

Edmund Jacobson invented a slightly different version of muscle relaxation. However, the method and results are the same: different muscles in the body are tensed and relaxed in turn until the entire body is relaxed.

Focused Breathing

Focused breathing goes by several names, including controlled breathing and mindful breathing, and embraces many techniques. For example:

  • Belly breathing or the 4,7,8 method focuses on the breath. With your hand on your belly, breath in for a slow count of 4 so that your belly, not your chest, expands. Hold your breath for a count of 7. Breath out for a count of 8. Pay attention to the flow of air through your lungs, mouth, and nose. Repeat.
  • Mantra or image breathing engages your mind as well as your breath. In mantra breathing, you repeat a word or phrase to yourself as you breathe (e.g., breathe in on the syllable “so” and breathe out on the syllable “hum”). In image breathing, you visualize inside of a neutral object (say a square) as you breathe in and the other side as you breathe out.
  • Nostril breathing is a yoga practice. First, you close off your right nostril with your thumb and breathe in; then close off your left nostril with your fingers and breathe out. Breath in through the right nostril, close it, and breathe out of the open left. Continue to alternate for about 5 minutes. End by exhaling on the left side.
  • Lamaze Method breathing was developed to help women cope with the pain of childbirth. This method begins with deep breathing, followed by short breaths as the woman exhales a “hee, hee, hee” sound. 

These focused breathing techniques will help you relax and break the cycle of stressful thoughts and tension if practiced regularly. Among other physiological changes, controlled focused breathing encourages production of gamma-aminobutyric acid, which reduces anxiety; it slows the heartbeat and interferes with the release of the stress hormone cortisol. 

Moreover, in one study, controlled focused breathing significantly reduced the presence of chemicals in saliva that indicate inflammation. In another study, mindful focused breathing was shown to be better at intervening with repetitive thoughts and negative reactions than either progressive muscle relaxation or loving-kindness meditation.

You may find it helpful to listen to a video that demonstrates mindful breathing.

TIP: Despite conventional wisdom, breathing into a paper bag to stop an anxiety attack has mixed results at best and can be harmful. Always stop breathing into a paper bag after 12 normal breaths.


Other Relaxation Techniques

Exercise is an excellent relaxation technique, particularly yoga, tai chi, and qigong, practices that incorporate slow movement and focused breathing. They also focus the attention away from stress and negative thinking to concentrate on the flow of movements.

Counting is a way to distract the brain and relax. You may have been told to count to 10 before speaking, especially in anger. Some people count their steps as they walk. When you are waiting for an appointment, your stress levels may rise: try closing your eyes and counting slowly until your anxiety and tension relax.

Some people relax by reading, listening to music, repeating a prayer, or singing. Pick the technique that resonates with you and calms your stress, anxiety, worry, and anger. In every case, repetition and dedication increase the benefit.

TIP: If none of these relaxation techniques help you, despite your best efforts, or if they make your symptoms worse, you may have generalized anxiety disorder or an undiagnosed physical problem. Please consult your primary physician.

Key Takeaways

Relaxation does not require a 5-week vacation in exotic locations—and stress, worry, anger, and other negative emotions and thoughts are likely to follow you wherever you go. For true relaxation of mind and body, try imagery relaxation, progressive muscle relaxation, and focused breathing. They are proven to reduce pain and inflammation, stop the cycle of negative thinking, and improve both your health and sense of well-being. 

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