We are all having to adapt quickly to a new rhythm of life, new ways of working and a different way of keeping in touch with the people who matter to us.
Because our brain interprets all change initially as a threat, many of us will be experiencing higher levels of stress hormones (Cortisol) and as a result, compromised mental wellbeing.
With restrictions on what we can do and with whom, the regular leisure and social activities that we rely on to maintain positive mental health, are no longer be available to us and whilst zoning out in front of the TV at the end of the day might feel relaxing, the reality is that this has little impact when it comes to combating stress hormones.
What we need to do is intentionally increase our level of our happy hormone, Serotonin, in order to reduce our levels of the stress hormone, Cortisol.
One way of doing that is being very intentional about relaxation.
This means doing something with the sole purpose of cultivating the body’s innate ability to access a state of rest where the brain wave frequency, breathing and heart rate slows down, blood pressure decreases and the body and brain are able to establish balance naturally.
One of the best ways of doing this is by practicing relaxation techniques.
Whilst we might be used to reaching out to other professionals to help us achieve this state of true relaxation, the reality is that this state is a natural state for us and as such, we are all capable of cultivating it ourselves, without external intervention.
Here are some simple relaxation techniques which can all be done at home and by yourself.
RELAXATION TECHNIQUE 1 - Belly Breathing
Belly breathing literally increases the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the cells throughout the body as well as to our muscles and bones. It also release and reduces muscular tension that eventually may cause structural problems and it provides vital energy, enabling us to cope with life’s challenges.
This is arguably the easiest of all relaxation techniques to learn and apply, because it’s based on one of the most natural activities we all engage in all day, every day: breathing.
However, many of us breath from our chest rather than our belly, especially when we are experiencing elevated stress levels, and this can exacerbate stress symptoms, which is why, even though it’s natural for us, sometimes we need to practice it consciously in order to create the depth of breath that will make a positive impact on our stress levels.
- Sit comfortably with your back straight, either on a chair or on the bed, sofa or floor with one hand on your belly and the other on your chest
- Take a deep breath in slowly through your nose and breath the air into your belly. If you are doing this right, your belly will inflate and that hand will rise, but the hand on your chest will hardly move
- Allow the breath to exhale slowly through your mouth. If you are doing this right, your belly will deflate and that hand will drop, but the hand on your chest will hardly move
- Continue to take deep breaths in this way for 3-5 minutes
Belly Breathing forms the basis of many other relaxation techniques,
so it is a good one to master first.
RELAXATION TECHNIQUE 2 - Muscle Tensing
Muscle tensing might seem counter intuitive in the context of relaxation, but tensing our muscles intentionally, provides us with conscious awareness of where we hold tension in our body specifically, when we are experiencing enhanced stress.
This has two benefits: 1) it enables us to identify in the future, when we are experiencing stress
2) it enables us to intentionally release it, and when we release tension from our body, we also release it from our mind.
- Get comfortable: remove your shoes and wear loose clothing
- Do some belly breathing for 3-5 minutes
- Bring your attention to your right foot and notice how it feels initially
- Gently tense the muscles in your right foot by squeezing them and hold for 10 seconds
- Now relax your right foot and allow it to become limp and loose
- Notice the tension fading away
- Do some belly breathing for 1 minute
- Bring your attention to your left foot and repeat the process
- Continue the process through the body, moving up from the feet, to the calves and then the shins, up through the knee and thighs, hips etc., tensing and then relaxing the different muscle groups as you go
Please consult your GP if you have a history of muscle spasms, back problems,
or other injuries that may be aggravated by tensing your muscles
RELAXATION TECHNIQUE 3 - Body Scanning
Similar to muscle tensing, body scanning involves connecting with each part of the body in a sequence. However, rather than tensing the muscles, the idea is to notice what’s already present there in terms of tension and sensations.
This technique has the added benefit of inducing a state of mindfulness as it requires us to focus on what’s happening right now in the present moment – and mindfulness has been shown to still the mind.
- Lie on your back and make sure that your legs are uncrossed and your arms resting comfortably
- Do some belly breathing for 2-3 minutes
- Bring your attention to the toes of your right foot and become aware of what you can feel there: notice any tension or sensations
- Imagine each deep breath you take flowing directly to your toes and remain doing that for
- Bring your focus away from the toes and to the sole of your right foot and again, become aware of what you can feel there: notice any tension or sensations
- Imagine each deep breath you take flowing directly to the sole of your foot and remain doing that for 15 seconds
- Repeat this process, moving your attention to your right ankle, your right calf, shin, knee, thigh, hip, etc.,
- Bring your attention to your left leg and repeat the same sequence
- From there, move your attention to your torso, through your lower back and abdomen, upper back and chest, shoulders and arms (one by one), finishing with the neck, head and face
- Once you’re scanned your entire body, just lie there and enjoy the stillness, noticing how your body feels
- After 5 minutes or so, gently stretch your limbs and sit up
You may find that you drift off and that’s perfectly normal.
Just bring yourself back to the process where you left off.
RELAXATION TECHNIQUE 4 - Visualising
Visualising is a technique that involves intentionally creating an imagined scene in the mind that makes you feel peaceful. For some people that might be imagining walking along a beach, or through a park. For others it might mean sitting by a lake, exploring a favourite spot from childhood, or laying on their balcony.
The power of the imagination cannot be underestimated. Our brain cannot tell the difference between reality and imagination and so when we imagine something vividly, we create the same internal experience as if it’s happening for real.
- Sit or lie somewhere comfortable and close your eyes
- Do some belly breathing for 2-3 minutes
- Allow your mind to drift to your peaceful place. Start by imagining that you are looking at a picture of it and then imagine yourself inside that picture.
- Allow the visual image of it to become clearer in your mind as you breath deeply
- Picture your surrounds: what can you SEE?
- Listen for the sounds around you: what can you HEAR?
- Become aware of the aromas: what can you SMELL?
- Notice any sensations: What can you FEEL?
- Enjoy the feeling if being there, in this peaceful place and allow yourself to relax, let go of all tension, all tightness, all worries and concerns – just let them drift away.
- When you’re ready, open your eyes and gently come back to the present moment
You may find that you lose the image briefly or that you feel a sense of heaviness in your limbs, or that they twitch slightly. All of this is perfectly normal.
Whilst these techniques are relatively simple, mastering them do take some practice.
Set some time aside each day, or every other day to focus on relaxation. If it’s challenging to focus, use the aid of a smartphone app with meditative music to help induce a state of calmness. Don’t expect to get it perfect immediately and recognise that it might take some time for your body and mind to get used to it.
After some practice, relaxing your body and mind will become the norm.