Today I am going to go into relaxation in more depth and will describe a major feature of our nervous system which we can harness when we try different types of relaxation exercises.
In the previous presentation about Relaxation we learnt about conditioning and covered how relaxation is a skill that you can learn. This presentation provides more detail in how you might be able to develop that skill by understanding underlying mechanisms and by learning further techniques for self-conditioned relaxation.
The human nervous system is roughly divided into two parts: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. Generally, these two work in opposition, so that when one part is triggered, the other part is dormant. The Sympathetic system is associated with faster heart rate, dryness of the mouth, secretion of adrenaline and readiness for action. The Parasympathetic system is associated with slower heart rate, saliva in the mouth, and a more relaxed state. The Sympathetic system is activated when we are angry or fearful and the Parasympathetic when we are hungry, or sexually stimulated.
Have you ever wondered why you have so much energy when you are angry or fearful? This is because the Sympathetic system ensures you have plentiful energy available When triggered, internal processes such as digestion, are switched off, and you are readied to deal with potential threats from outside. This is an autonomous reaction; one which you have limited means to diminish once started.
Have you wondered why we often eat food on a date? Eating and sexual attraction go hand in hand; they both trigger the same part of the nervous system. When the Parasympathetic System is activated, energy production diminishes, internal metabolism increases, and we have a general feeling of well being, helped along by a number of different hormones. This response is also autonomous, and often we have little control, sometimes with embarrassing consequences.
Have you ever wondered why your heart beat is not precisely regular? Heartbeat speeds up and slows down. The reason why this happens is because when you breathe in you stimulate the Sympathetic Nervous System, which increases nervous activity and thus makes the heart beat faster. When you breathe out you stimulate the opposite side of the System, the Parasympathetic Nervous System which slows down nervous activity, and therefore your heartbeat.
You can harness this knowledge when you practise relaxation by breathing out for longer than you breathe in; two to three times longer if you can. For relaxation, breathing out is more important than breathing in. While you breathe out you should feel your body relaxing and letting go. Let's try that now. Close your eyes and sit back or lie down and focus on your breathing. Breathe in 1 2 3, now breathe out 1 2 3 4 5 6. Do that repeatedly and over time you should get more and more relaxed. This breathing exercise is fundamental to learning how to relax naturally and you should practise this always.
Different types of relaxation exercises
While all relaxation exercises are similar there are a number of different focuses.
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Visual imagery
We have just covered the Breathing exercise
Progressive Muscle relaxation involves stretching and releasing each part of the body as you do your progressive scan from head to toe, or vice versa. Each release is done in coordination with breathing, so that you tense the muscle while breathing in 1 2 3 and then relax while breathing out 1 2 3 4 5 6. By stretching and releasing each part of the body you get to understand which muscles, if any, are tense and which aren't. It gives you greater awareness of the state of tension-relaxation in your body. When relaxation is working well each part of the body should return to a relaxed state. If not, then work is required.
Visual Imagery is sometimes used to help a person relax. This method is usually facilitator led, meaning that someone else describes the imagery which you use to float off with. Alternatively there are many soundtracks and other aids available for this, including both imagery and music.
Meditation is the basis for techniques such as mindfulness and involves focusing on thoughts and inner sensations.
The methods I advocate are breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. I choose these because the focus is on what is going on in your body rather than your mind. Both visual imagery and mindfulness focus on the mind.
Take a break
Now lets look at relaxation in different postures.
Relaxation lying down
The easiest place to start with relaxation exercises is lying down. This is how it is mostly done in current practice. Find a quiet spot on the floor and lay down on a yoga mat or similar. You should be on a relatively hard surface rather than a soft surface like a mattress. This is so that you can actively apply the relaxation and not rely on the immediate environment to do it for you. Also it is good to feel the weight of your body in contact with the floor as if you are being pinned down by gravity and held against your will as you glide off into a relaxed state. I personally use this method to rid myself of hiccups which I often get. It seems to be the only thing that reliably works. Lying on my back I am able to get my diaphragm to dissolve its spasms and release me from its torment.
There are very few situations in the outside world where you have the opportunity to do relaxation exercises while lying down, so reserve this for training yourself in the principles of relaxation while at home. It is also good for handling some emotional situations, which I cover in a later presentation.
Relaxation sitting down
It is relatively easy to do relaxation exercises while seated. You'll need a straight backed chair, or just use a stool. Posture is important. Relaxation exercises are futile without good posture. I have a separate presentation that covers posture if this is not something you are good at. You'll find a link in the description below. Once you have the posture, close your eyes and do relaxation exercises while hands are placed somewhere neutral, say on your lap or by your sides. There are many opportunities in the outside world to practise relaxation while sitting down. I have spoken about sitting exams and waiting for job interviews but there are plenty of other situations and you don't know what they are until you find yourself in them. As previously emphasised, the more you practise relaxing in these situations, the better you will be at it until, if you persist, you will gain mastery, not only of the relaxation itself but the situation that you use it in. You will become conditioned to relax and pass that exam, get that job or whatever else it is that you are doing.
Doing relaxation exercises while standing also involves good posture. While maintaining a good posture, go through the exercise with hands by the sides and allow yourself to melt into the floor. Feel the ground push up through the soles of your feet. Breathe out for two to three times longer than you breathe in, nice long slow breaths.
Doing relaxation exercises standing up in the outside world is not so easy. You may not be able to shut your eyes, but it is still worth doing. Once you are familiar with a technique that works for you then it should be relatively effective and there could be lots of situations where you can use it to your benefit. When you finally reach the end of the customer service queue that you waited in for half an hour, rather than be snappy at the attendant, you might find the presence of mind to find something to joke about and help relieve the potential stress everyone is experiencing in relation to the long queue.
Conditioning relaxation with background noise
A further extension of relaxation exercises that you do at home includes adding some background distraction. Your household may already have some distractions built in such as noisy children, or loud traffic. If not then it is easy enough to get some sounds from a suitable online repository such as freesound.org and play them back while you practise relaxation. In my presentation about relaxation I spoke about how Tiger Woods trained to become a champion golfer: His father regularly distracted him during golf swings while he was learning, conditioning him to ignore external noise and remain relaxed and focused. You can apply this same principle yourself and learn how to ignore distractions while you condition yourself to relax.
Try relaxing with background noise while lying down first, then seated and then standing up. Try different background noises. Start with noises that you find least stressful and then work your way towards noises that are more triggering for you. Conditioning yourself to relax in the presence of distractions will not happen overnight. It takes a long time and much practise, but the results are worth it.
I used to experience a lot of anxiety, especially in social situations, which would cloud my thoughts, and make interpersonal relationships very hard, if not impossible. Afterwards my muscles would often twitch. I was adamant to tackle this problem. Over many years I used breathing relaxation exercises to reduce the anxiety while at the same time making an effort to always participate in conversations, no matter how hard it was for me. Now, many years later, I feel no social anxiety and enjoy social interactions.
You have it within your capacity to better control your heart rate and your nervous system if you apply yourself to learn how to do it. In addition you can prepare yourself better for the outside world by doing self -conditioning relaxation exercises in the safety of your home.
Challenge to audience
My challenge to you is that the greatest technology available to you is what you can find within yourself to manage your sense of well being and help control your life. We all too often look for solutions outside of ourselves, when in actuality the greatest solution can be found within yourself. Do research what I have proposed in this presentation and practise for yourself.