Relaxation is a skill and it can be learnt

Lead in (speed 28)

Relaxation.  What is it?  Today I am going to introduce to you what relaxation could be for you and how to harness it for your own benefit.


We tend to take relaxation for granted and just assume that we are relaxed when we are not doing something intently or when our body is in a state of rest lying on the beach in a hammock, for instance. But that needn't be the case. We can view relaxation as a skill that we can learn and then apply to any situation in our lives where we wish.

Definition relaxation

The word 'relax' is a verb, hence it is a doing word that infers taking some action in itself. Relaxation is not just something we are doing when not doing something else. Relaxation is its own specific action. Relaxation is the specific action we can take to relax the muscles in our body, lower our heart rate and calm our nerves.

Being relaxed is not just a posture. We might usually associate lying down or being seated with relaxation but there are many ways of lying down that cause tension in parts of the body and many loungers that are not ergonomically safe. We can be relaxed standing up just as much as we can be lying down or sitting.

Relaxing on the beach

Benefits of relaxation

After we are relaxed we are refreshed and ready for new experiences. Old tensions have been cast off and we are ready to go into the world anew. Whenever you go into a potentially stressful situation you want to be relaxed, whether this is a job interview, waiting in a long queue, or taking an exam. Being relaxed is the desired state of mind. In the job interview your mind will be clear and you will answer questions succinctly. In the long queue you will not get impatient and cause yourself undue stress. In the exam you will read the questions properly and better remember your answers.

We all want to be the cool, calm collected person. We don't really want to be the anxious, fidgety, uncertain person. Do we?

The main event

The title of this presentation is “Relaxation is a skill and it can be learnt” because, yes, relaxation IS a skill and it CAN be learnt. The people that you know who appear relaxed doing things that make you freak out with anxiety do so because of practice. They have learnt, through some process, to relax (or at least appear relaxed) in that situation. The process that we are referring to here is conditioning.


What is conditioning?

Portrait of Pavlov

The Dictionary Definition of conditioning: a simple form of learning involving the formation, strengthening, or weakening of an association between a stimulus and a response. We have known about conditioning for a long time. Have you heard of Pavlov's dog? This was an experiment carried out by a Russian researcher called Pavlov in the early 20th century. Each day he presented the dog with food and observed that it would cause it to salivate, ready to eat. Salivation, as you know, is when your mouth starts to water in anticipation of eating something yummy.  Pavlov then began to sound a bell each time he fed the dog. He did this consistently and repeatedly many times, until one day he sounded the bell, and did not feed the dog. Despite there being no food, the dog still salivated. The stimulus, the bell, resulted in the response, the salivation, even though no food was presented. This is how conditioning works. A stimulus is used to elicit a response, by associating it with another stimulus. Once conditioning is complete, the response becomes involuntary and the dog cannot stop itself from salivating when hearing the bell.

Pavlov dog experiment

The reason I bring up this experiment that was carried out over a hundred years ago is to impress upon you that we have known about conditioning for a long time. Studies in this area led to the foundation of a new school of psychology called behaviourism. One characteristic of behaviourism is that it attempts to study human behaviour using observable phenomena only, which rules out thought, because thought cannot be observed. I cannot observe what you are thinking. In keeping with behaviourist principles, a person observing conditioned behaviour does not need to know what the subject is thinking. Everything that is required to be known can be observed. The bell rings and the observer can see that the dog salivates even though no food is present.  This makes conditioning highly evidential.  We can see, hear, taste or feel the results.  We are not dependent on someone with expertise informing us that it works.

Guitar teacher with pupil

In a more complex manner than Pavlov's experiments, when we learn a musical instrument, such as piano or guitar, or learn a sport, we undergo conditioning. The initial stimulus is usually the instruction given on how to do a task and then we usually repeat the same exercise over and over until we can do it without the instruction. In this case, we use muscle memory to condition our fingers and our body to carry out very particular actions. Once we are fully conditioned, there is no instruction or thought process involved, in fact any thought process actually interferes with the action. We all know what it feels like to be too busy thinking about what we are doing, that we can't actually do it. Only with practice can we eliminate the thinking and condition our body to do the activity unconsciously. Conditioning only occurs after repeated application. Practice makes perfect. I'm sure that your music teacher would agree with that!

How can we apply this to relaxation?

The methods of self-relaxation are widely known and usually involve closing the eyes while focusing on breathing and relaxing each part of the body one by one starting with the head and ending with the feet or vice versa. Do an internet search on 'relaxation exercises' and you will find a vast number of different kinds of exercises based on the same principle of breathing and muscle relaxation. Many yoga classes include a relaxation exercise at the beginning or end. I have a follow up presentation where I cover this in more depth.

Relaxation exercises have been used for many millennia, in different settings, such as religious observance, to help people overcome personal problems, or to improve performance. Usually they are done while lying down, usually on the back in a quiet room and with a facilitator taking you through the steps. However, we can do exercises sitting down and standing up as well and we can ditch the facilitator and learn how to do the exercises ourselves. I will cover this in more detail in the other presentations. Please look for a link in the description below. Let's go back to the examples that we used before: the job interview, the queue and the exam.

For the job interview and exam you can practice relaxation because you are usually asked to wait, usually sitting down prior to the interview or exam. During that time you can shut your eyes and quietly do self-relaxation. Then you can walk into the interview or start the exam refreshed.

While waiting in a long queue, rather than get impatient, you can do relaxation exercises standing up. Shutting your eyes may cause you to lose your place so you do them with eyes open. Same principle, focus on breathing and allow muscles to relax.

Each time you apply self-relaxation to a stressful situation your level of stress should diminish and your confidence and mastery of the situation should increase. The more you practice relaxation while waiting for a job interview the more relaxed you will be at each job interview. The more you practice relaxation prior to taking an exam, the more relaxed you will be in each exam. The more you practice relaxation while waiting in a queue, the more relaxed you will be each time waiting in a queue. In each of these situations you condition yourself to relax in response to the situation.

Piano teacher with pupil

Here is another example. You have probably heard of the famous golfer Tiger Woods. It is widely known that his father frequently attempted to distract him during practice golf swings while he was a child, in order to help the budding golfer condition himself to focus, irrespective of distractions. For instance he would intentionally drop the golf bag, or jingle coins and make noise during Tiger's backswing. Tiger would then have to execute an accurate delivery with the sound of this distraction echoing in his mind. After several years of strenuous conditioning, Tiger no longer saw or heard these distractions and it helped to cement his relentless concentration and winning power.

By practising relaxation in stressful situations we can condition ourselves to be cool, calm and collected in these situations and succeed where we previously might have failed.

Personal example

In my own experience I identified the benefits of relaxation early on and saw it as the foundation for improving myself. Once I had learned the basic technique I would practice it anywhere, including job interviews, waiting in queues, socialising, performing on stage, dealing with unruly children, and many other situations.  I also used it to deal with the intense pain and stress that occurs on a regular basis to anyone who has a deep seated emotional disorder. I will go into this in more detail in later presentations. Having mastered the skill of relaxation I can now regularly do many things that previously caused huge stress, such as perform on stage, and I maintain that relaxation is fundamental to overcoming ingrained emotional discomfort and disorder.


To recap, the ability to remain calm, cool and collected in a wide variety of situations can be achieved by practising relaxation in those situations until you condition yourself to be relaxed. Through practice you can become more relaxed at job interviews, when sitting exams, waiting in a long queue or any number of other situations that potentially cause you stress.

Challenge to audience

The key to overcoming many of our worst kinds of psychological discomfort and disorder may have a quite simple basis: We should all be learning how to relax better and in more kinds of situations. We should be teaching ourselves how to relax and promoting relaxation as a skill.

Relaxation IS a skill and it can be learnt.

References and further reading

Relaxation is used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

An internet search on 'relaxation exercises' will return multiple examples of relaxation exercises.