I was recently placed in a unique situation. I was camping with friends, out of state in the middle of nowhere, and was asked to take a look at someone who was having a panic attack. As an EMT, I have dealt with panic attacks before, so I started talking to the person in a soothing way, working to calm him down and find out a little bit of background to how this started. As it turned out, he had taken a pill that he described as “similar to speed”, and he said he felt like his heart was pounding way too fast. I checked his pulse and it was definitely racing, although not dangerously fast. So I began to work with him to help him relax, and in doing so I was able to employ some of the relaxation methods that I have been practicing on my own.
I began with Deep Breathing, which is an excellent way to achieve several relaxation goals. The act of breathing is unique in that it is one function of the body that is both voluntary and involuntary. We breathe without thinking about it, but when we focus on it we can control the rate and depth of our breathing very easily. And since the rate and depth of your breathing have enormous impact on other bodily processes, such as your heart rate, controlling your breathing is an important key technique in learning to relax. Additionally, breathing holds another key to relaxation in that, as we focus our attention on controlling our breathing, we can simultaneously divert our attention from other distractions. This is an important fundamental in relaxation since part of the learned skill of relaxation techniques is learning to clear your mind. This allows you to focus more intently on one train of thought, as in meditation, or to rid your mind of stress by acknowledging and then shutting out distracting and stressful thoughts.
The next relaxation technique that I led this young man through was Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This relaxation technique, as the name suggests, is performed by progressively relaxing each set of muscles in the body, often starting with one’s feet, and then slowly working your way up to the top of the head. Muscles can be relaxed in two different ways, either by tensing and then relaxing the muscles or simply by focusing one’s attention on each muscle set and allowing those muscles to relax. Like deep breathing, this relaxation exercise serves a dual purpose as well. As you focus on relaxing your muscles, you again clear your mind of distracting thoughts and begin to enter a more focused and meditative state of mind.
A third relaxation technique which can be quite powerful when employed properly is Visualization where relaxing imagery or even a story line can be described or imagined to help with the process of relaxation. During this particular experience where I was helping this young man to relax over an extended period of time, he asked me to describe some imagery because he felt it would help distract him from the physiological symptoms that he was experiencing. This method actually worked very well for him. Visualization has other uses as well, for instance many professional athletes use visualization to improve certain techniques for their sport.
In discussing the situation with this young man, I am of course focusing on guided relaxation in which someone is aided in achieving a more relaxed state by another person or a recording etc. There is also what is called Autogenic Relaxation, which is self-guided relaxation, employing generally the same techniques of deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization.
So how do you start practicing relaxation?
Here are some resources, descriptions, and explanations to get you started.
As I’ve stated before, everyone will have different approaches to relaxation that work best for them. I suggest familiarizing yourself with several techniques in order to discover what works best for you.
When I began practicing relaxation techniques, I started with guided relaxation audio files and a set of headphones, and I still use these frequently.
My relaxation “tool kit” usually includes: decent headphones, a sleep mask, and my iPhone or music player.
There are a number of very good relaxation apps available for iDevices, Android devices, etc. While the apps are nice because they often allow you to customize several aspects of the relaxation experience, comparable mp3 downloads and CDs are available from most of the same sources.
I will list my favorites below:
- Relax with Andrew Johnson – Guided Relaxation – This is an excellent guided relaxation audio recording, which includes progressive muscle relaxation and visualization. The respective iPhone app was what got me hooked on relaxation techniques.
- Pranayama (Mobile Apps) (Album) – Deep Breathing – These programs and audio tracks provide cadences for deep breathing exercises, from basic patterns (inhale:exhale) to more advanced patterns (inhale:hold:exhale:hold). The concept is simple, but the breathing patterns take practice, and the rewards are incredible. While it is possible to practice deep breathing without such cadences, the timing is what makes you develop and improve your breathing techniques. It would be very difficult to get the same benefits and development without these or similar programs. (*Note that they can very well be replaced by a yoga or exercise partner. The important thing is that you are training yourself to breathe to a cadence, not just to meet your body’s bodies demands, this is how you will improve the rate, depth, and control of your breaths.)
- NatureSpace – Nature Sounds – I use these during autogenic relaxation, meditation, and even for naps. There are MANY sources for nature sounds online, on CDs, mobile apps, etc. NatureSpace is currently my favorite simply due to the incredible audio quality of their high definition recordings! Some of their tracks are looped and some are not. More information is available on their website. I also suggest checking out their tracks on iTunes where you can hear samples.
Some closing notes:
I highly recommend getting familiar with at least one good guided relaxation program before moving on to methods of autogenic relaxation. You will find that this guided relaxation method will help you develop some of the techniques that we discussed above so that you will know what you’re doing when you begin to try autogenic relaxation.
Some things to try:
- Start by listening to a guided relaxation audio recording once a day for at least a week. This will familiarize you with the process of relaxation and get your body used to relaxing. You will find that the process becomes more effective for you the more you practice.
- Next, try some deep breathing exercises using a cadence track like the ones I mentioned above. Find a cadence or a progression of slowing cadences that feel comfortable for you, and start practicing.
- Finally, when you feel comfortable with your guided relaxation program and your deep breathing, try some autogenic relaxation by putting on something like a NatureSpace track or finding somewhere that is quiet and using the techniques that you’ve practiced. *Note that it may help to precede this with 5-10 minutes of deep breathing.
Enjoy the power of relaxation! Comment to let me know how it’s going. If you have questions, ask!