Originally published in The Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch, 2016.
Picture yourself sitting on the beach, or in a forest if you don’t care for beaches, or at a familiar, nostalgic spot. If you imagine yourself there, what kinds of things do you see? On the beach, can you smell the salt in the air? It in the forest, do you hear the buzzing of bees? In that nostalgic spot, are you wrapped in some cozy blanket, tasting your favorite comfort food?
If you pictured yourself in a favorite spot or a dream spot, you’ve just taken a mental vacation. Learning the skill of stepping away from the present moment and engage your imagination is a relaxation tool that can be very helping in managing stress or anger.
You may or may not have heard of relaxation techniques. Maybe relaxation seems like laziness, like a lack of productivity when there is so much that needs to be done. Research continues to find more and more benefits of relaxation. To sum it up: it’s good, and we need it.
Relaxation slows your heart rate, lowers blood pressure, slows breathing, reduces the need for oxygen, increases blood flow to major muscles, and reduces muscle tension. So physically, it counteracts the fight-or-flight response that triggers anger and stress. Relaxation helps stop the cycle in its early phases, or limit damage in anticipation of stressful or angering triggers.
Those who learn to relax experience, in general, fewer headaches and back pain, fewer emotional responses anger or frustration, have more energy, improved concentration, greater ability to handle problems, and more efficiency in daily activities. Because emotion is physical, it takes energy to experience it. Relaxation allows that system to take a break and refresh.
You can learn relaxation techniques from a professional (complementary and alternative medicine practitioners, doctors, psychotherapists, and life coaches) or learn relaxation techniques on your own. At their core, these techniques are about refocusing your attention to something calming and increasing awareness of your body. The key to developing the skill is practicing regularly.
The mental vacation we started with is a visualization exercise. Other types include focusing on your body and focusing on deep breathing, relaxing muscle tension. The publication Real Simple provides a great guide talking you through the exercise.
Close your eyes and gently bring your lips together. Inhale through your nose. As you exhale (also through your nose), make a humming sound: “Mmmmmm.” Let this hum last as long as it is comfortable. Then inhale and repeat. Don’t try to control it too much. Just breathe in and hum out. If you try to extend the hum longer than is natural, you might tighten up. Play with the tone until you find the place where your “mmmmmm” flows out in a comfortable, lowish pitch, audible but quiet enough that no one except, say, the person right next to you on the bus would hear it. The humming breath has a way of loosening your jaw, mouth, lips, and tongue—areas that tend to tense up when you’re nervous. Once you’ve found your hum, repeat it whenever you start to feel anxious— whether you’re standing, sitting, or walking.
Progressive relaxation trains you to mentally learn how to control muscle tension. Going one-by-one, you alternate tensing and relaxing the various muscle groups twice, tensing for at least five seconds and relaxing for 30. The more you practice, the more aware you become of physical sensations. In time you can learn to choose to relax your muscles without going through each step.
Still other types include yoga, tai chi, music, exercise, meditation, hypnosis and massage. There are different principles behind each so there is no one size fits all recommendation for a whole relaxation regimen. Just like any training, start now and find yourself more prepared for when stressful, irritating or unjust moments strike.