I don’t know about you, but I was very sceptical about relaxation exercises for a long time. I would always think back to school days when guidance counsellors would take us through guided imagery sequences featuring a calm blue ocean or some such scenic place and tell us how we relaxed we were while the class clown made farting noises, his followers giggled, the teachers reacted and everyone else just rolled their eyes and waited for the session to finish. At other times, attempting to relax has been more stressful than relaxing because the facilitator just wasn’t on the same wavelength as me. I find it annoying when that happens.
It took a long time to realise that relaxation was a skill that required practice. It has taken longer still to discover that there are many different types of relaxation exercises that you can do. Recently while looking for a site for someone, I found one that had a variety of sound tracks for relaxation exercises ( http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/index.html ). I decided that I would sample all of the relaxation exercises on this site to see what I thought of each of them – to give each a chance. Today, I’d like to share with you a little about the exercises that I did and my thoughts on each.
Basic Breathing Exercises
Breathing exercises have been proven to be great for managing anxiety. If you suffer from anxiety and have not already worked on some form of breathing exercises, may I recommend that you start here. It is simple. It is easy to follow. It’s long enough to get a feel for what you’re supposed to be doing without being so long that you feel like you are going to be chained to the computer forever. Furthermore the first three exercises are all breathing exercises that build upon each other. You start with Diaphragmatic Breathing ( http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/diaphragmatic/diaphragm1QT.html), move on to Deep Breathing 1 (http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/deep1/deep11QT.html ) and then Deep Breathing 2 (http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/deep2/deep21QT.html ). You don’t need to be able to do all three, but I would recommend doing the diaphragmatic breathing before any of the other exercises because it does help.
I thought that these were very useful. Each of them was effective, and they were particularly effective when used in series. The educators recommended that for those with anxiety disorders, your levels of anxiety will reduce by doing breathing exercises regularly as maintenance – and I can believe this given the difference that it made in the amount of tension in my body.
For those who do not have anxiety – like me … I did my mood diary scoring after I did relaxation exercises and my scores were significantly higher than they had been on any of the recent days leading up to these times. I have been experimenting recently with http://www.moodscope.com which is a computer based system – so I was not simply giving myself a better score out of 10.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a favourite of mine. It essentially involves tightening a group of muscles, holding them tight and noticing the tightness, then releasing the tension entirely and noticing the absence of muscle tension. You then systematically work through to the next group of muscles and do the same thing.
I will usually start with my toes, progress to the soles of my feet and calves, the upper foot and shins, my thighs, my butt, then my hands, wrists and arms, elbows and biceps then shoulders; then I go back to my trunk and tighten and release my abdomen, then lower back, upper back, chest, shoulders (again), front of neck, back of neck, tilt neck left then right, then I work through my face so my forehead, nose, cheeks, mouth, jaw and tongue (pressed against the roof of my mouth). Then I finish by either breathing exercises for a while or by standing and shaking out my arms and legs and stretching. But that’s me and that takes anything from 10 to 20 mins depending on how many repetitions you do of each muscle group. Sometimes for really tight groups, I’ll repeat the actions a couple of times eg shoulders.
The progressive muscle relaxation sequence on the All About Depression site goes for 8mins40sec and is nice and efficient while still covering what needs to be covered (http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/pmr/pmr1QT.html ). I found it satisfying and was pleased with the result at the end of the session.
I need to be frank here and admit that I am not someone who is a great fan of guided imagery sequences. I find someone else’s descriptions of a place that they think should be relaxing for me to be kind of distracting. I’d much rather be left to breathe or if there needs to be an image, then I’ve done sequences where the person guiding the sequence has left room for the person relaxing to select a place they like and guided by asking questions like “what can you see?”, “What can you smell?”, “Look around you and explore the colours.” I found that kind of guided imagery more engaging.
There are two different sequences on the All About Depression site, one set on a beach and another in a forest clearing. I think that I liked the second best in this case. (http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/beach/beach1QT.html , http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/forest/forest1QT.html )
I came to this exercise expecting it to be grossly annoying and to loathe it. It was actually one of my favourites. I’m not sure whether it was because of the sequencing of the exercise, or the conscious repetition of phrases (I repeated most of them in my head because I found that doing it out loud made it difficult to breathe deeply and evenly), but this exercise really worked for me. I want to go back and learn the phrases and the sequence to use at any time. http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/phrases/phrases1QT.html
Mindfulness Oriented Relaxation Exercises
Mindfulness is about being ‘just in the moment’. In this context, the relaxation exercise is about focusing oneself on relaxing just into the moment. A lot of the rationale for this is that a lot of distress occurs surrounding things that have already happened or have not happened yet and that sometimes the sadness, anxiety, pain or negative feelings are easier to bear in the immediate moment if we are not contemplating past or future at that point in time.
Just this Breath
This exercise focuses upon observing your breathing. Not changing it, simply observing it in the instant that it is happening. It is difficult to get the hang of, but very rewarding and worth the effort. Definitely worth a shot. http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/mindfulness/mm11QT.html
This is one of my favourite relaxation exercises. It starts out with breathing, then gradually asks you to notice things with your other senses, in particular where your body has contact with other surfaces, the feel of your clothes and the sense of the weight of your arms and legs as you’re supported by your chair (in my case) or where ever you are resting. I loved the sensation of my clothes on my skin as I was breathing – I was wearing a particularly soft shirt the day that I did the exercise for review. A definite must in my books (http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/mindfulness/mm21QT.html ) although regulars will know that I’m a fan of mindfulness as a strategy in general.
Mindfulness with Guided Imagery
Remember what I wrote earlier about guided imagery? Well it’s no less true where the imagery is attached to mindfulness strategies. That said – in the first exercise Sending Thoughts Away on Clouds (http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/mindfulness/mm31QT.html ) I found the clouds a great way to dismiss unwanted or intrusive thoughts – the idea being that where a thought that was a distraction from the scene or your breathing came into your consciousness, you were to send it away on a cloud. I could picture this as though just blowing the thought away. Sending Thoughts Away on Leaves (http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/mindfulness/mm41QT.html ) didn’t feel as natural, although it kind of worked. In this guided image I was taken to a clear forest stream to enjoy it.
The final image was quite different in what it did with distracting thoughts. In this the idea was to be Sorting Into Boxes (http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/mindfulness/mm51QT.html ) thoughts that intruded, the boxes being one for thoughts, one for emotions and one for sensations eg aches and itches. This was more bizarre to start with and I found myself distracted by the boxes – but after a while I settled down and just focused on my breathing again and that helped. For a while however, I think I was almost inventing itches and filing the thought ‘this is stupid’ over and over again. Once I went back to breathing and visualisation the boxes became background scenery – a bit like a picnic basket when you’re not actually eating. I can imagine this being helpful though if you were being flooded by intruding thoughts and feelings – you could just label them without processing them and put them to the side by the rules of the exercise without it being an intrusion on what you’re supposed to be doing – which is staying in the moment, just breathing and picturing a scene.
MY TOP 3
My favourite three out of these audio tracks in no particular order would have to be:
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Why not take the time to try a few? What were your favourites?