“How to Use Progressive Relaxation Therapy for Stress and Related Illnesses” As many of us know, stress is fast becoming an unavoidable evil that is wreaking havoc with our health. According to The Mayo Health Clinic, “Relaxation isn’t just about peace of mind or enjoying a hobby. Relaxation is a process that decreases the wear and tear on your mind and body from the challenges and hassles of daily life. ” We all, at one time or another, have heard or used the words, “I am so stressed out”, without really stopping to think about what impact the consequences of that statement may be having on our overall health.
I have learned (from personal experience) that our bodies release a hormone called cortisol in relation to stress. If we have prolonged periods of stress due to chronic stress, or endure traumatic stress, our bodies produce too much of this hormone. Prolonged secretion of this hormone can result in significant health problems such as autoimmune conditions, heart conditions, high blood pressure and many other illnesses. In today’s fast-paced society, relaxation is as vital to our health status as is regular exercise and good nutrition.
The Mayo Clinic states that, “Practicing relaxation techniques can reduce stress symptoms by: slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, slowing breathing rate, increasing blood flow to major muscles, reducing muscle tension and chronic pain, improving concentration, reducing anger and frustration, and boosting confidence to handle problems. ” Each of these benefits has an overall cumulative effect on our mind and bodies when practiced on a regular basis. I taught Progressive Relaxation Therapy (P. R. T. ) in 1978 and was pleasantly surprised that in many of the classes I took over the past 5 years (while attaining a BS in Medical Studies), that P. R. T. is still considered a champion stress reliever and one of the easier relaxation techniques for most people to use. Quite often Doctor’s will prescribe medications for anxiety and stress related conditions, but many of those same doctor’s will also emphasize the importance of learning and practicing relaxation therapy.
As mentioned above, good teaching hospitals such as Mayo Clinic, or closer to us, Dartmouth Hitchcock, are jumping on the band wagon and using and prescribing more integrative (alternative) approaches to preventative health care. It is my firm and long held belief that exercise, healthy eating habits, and relaxation techniques such as meditation, P. R. T. , or any other technique that appeals to you, is the prescription for a healthier, happier you! It is also my experience that when we eliminate any one of those good habits from our life, illness is soon to follow.
Life experience (and any good health advocate) tells us that with all of the exercise equipment sitting in our homes gathering dust, and the countless gym memberships expiring un-used, many of us are quite well aware that anything that robs us of more time in our tightly scheduled day, will surely not last long. Progressive Relaxation Technique takes only ten to fifteen minutes per day and can be done almost anytime and anywhere. Our next stumbling block when starting any new routine is the usual learning curve while trying to get it right. There is no real right or wrong way to do P. R. T. , simply practicing the steps daily will improve how you are achieving your desired results. It is also a technique that nearly anyone can do and each day it becomes easier and easier to want to do it. Last, but certainly not least, it does not cost a thing! So when making the decision of whether this technique is right for you remember that in exchange for 10 to 15 free minutes a day of deep, relaxing, mindful breathing, your body and mind will feel better and better and better! Let’s begin: Step one is to find a quiet spot where you can be alone.
Eventually you will find that as you become more skilled (through practice) you will be able to do this almost anywhere! The reason for this is because the very nature of any relaxation or meditation technique is that it will become an automatic physiological and psychological response. Just as automatic as your bodily response when stress normally has your muscles tensing, your breathing rate speeding up, and your stomach tightening—if you practice the techniques daily, within a relatively short amount of time, the response will be the opposite.
Next; find a comfortable chair or lie down on the floor or bed. Get comfy, take your shoes off, loosen your clothing, and relax. Some people find relaxing music played low in the background helps to soothe the jitters about taking time for you. I, for one, love to play relaxing music but it must be very low and slow. Many people choose one of the several relaxation selections of music (Native American and Middle Eastern are great choices) and always use the same CD as it becomes a cue to the automatic response.
Now you can close your eyes and really try to focus on where in your body you feel the most tension. This step begins to allow you to forget about the bills, the kids, the day, your problems, and everybody and everything that normally races through your mind a million miles an hour! As you take this inventory of your body really, really concentrate on the tightness of your head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, upper chest, abdomen, back upper middle and lower, buttocks, pelvis, legs, feet and ankles. Do a visual inventory with your eyes closed starting at your head and working your way down.
Notice your breathing! Breathe deeply in through your nose and long and slow, out through your mouth. Go slowly, focus on your lungs and breath, and when someone or something starts to creep into your thoughts—ask it to leave you alone for a bit. And breathe! This time is for you and your health and well-being is crucial in taking care of all that you do. And again, breathe in deep into your belly and long and slow, out through your mouth. At this time you will begin to start breathing more rhythmically—Breathe in deeply letting your whole belly rise—and long and slow out through your mouth.
Now you will focus on your face and head and tighten all of the muscles that you can and HOLD for 10 to 15 seconds holding, tighter, tighter and tighter. Scrunch up your face feel all of those tiny muscles that have frowned, squinted, and smiled all day. Still breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, deep into your belly and long and slow out through your mouth. And then relax those same muscles for 10 to 15 seconds. Feel your forehead relax, your jaw loosen, your face feeling softer and less tense.
Concentrate on that feeling before moving on—and keep breathing in rhythm. Next your neck, tighten and hold for the same, 10 to 15 seconds. And again, relax. As you move down through your entire muscle groups be very focused and aware of the release of the tension. Be conscious of your breathing and how that the rhythm is slowing down your heart rate and helping to slowly, but surely relax you. You will also notice that you will no longer have a problem focusing on you—your job is concentrating your thoughts on your muscles and breathing.
Try to envision each muscle group as you go along, thank all of those muscles and organs for taking such beautiful care of YOU. You will continue from your neck to your arms, hands, and fingers. Each muscle group is first tightened for 15 seconds and then relaxed. It helps to shake your extremities slightly as you relax them. Wriggle your fingers and toes as you let them go. Next move to your upper chest, tighten, hold and relax. Be sure to breathe. Then move to your abdomen and follow your technique. Now move to your back—all of it, tighten and hold.
Continue on to buttocks, then pelvis; then thighs; next calves; after that the ankles, and finally feet and toes. Lastly, you will tighten and hold every muscle group in unison. Again follow your technique and repeat the whole body in unison really concentrating on how wonderful it feels to let go. As you are finishing allow yourself the gift of staying in this calm state by lying still, continuing with your deep breathing for a minute or two. The process should take about 10 to 15 minutes but do not time yourself. On occasion it may take longer or shorter but that is not the point.
Practicing this until it becomes as habitual and necessary as brushing your teeth and taking a shower in the morning is your goal. The health benefits will make themselves apparent even after the first time, but the long term effects will be more and more prevalent as time goes along. It is the gift that keeps on giving, and you deserve it! Do not let the simplicity of this exercise fool you—it has been around since 1929 and shows no sign of being outdated yet! Please remember that the only wrong way of doing this is to not do it at all!