We are all inundated with stressful events that affect us on a regular basis. Many of these events are beyond our control such taking care of aging parents, worrying about a sick child or dealing with a demanding boss at work. While you cannot always change the stressful events in your life you can change the way your body responds to stress. Your body has two responses to stress; “Fight or Flight” which activates many different hormones, changes blood flow and activates certain muscles. While this was helpful in our evolutionary past we no longer fight or take flight; we internalize this response. It causes us to grind our teeth, produces headaches, stomachaches and leads to poor sleep. Changing our response to stress can be accomplished by learning the relaxation response. There are many paths to learning this; some can be self-taught while some patients find it more helpful to see a psychologist for training.
The following has been excerpted and published with permission from the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Relaxation techniques include a number of practices such as progressive relaxation, guided imagery, biofeedback, self-hypnosis, and deep breathing exercises. The goal is similar in all: to consciously produce the body’s natural relaxation response, characterized by slower breathing, lower blood pressure, and a feeling of calm and well-being.
Relaxation techniques (also called relaxation response techniques) may be used by some to release tension and to counteract the ill effects of stress. Relaxation techniques are also used to induce sleep, reduce pain, and calm emotions. Key Points
Relaxation techniques may be an effective part of an overall treatment plan for anxiety, depression, and some types of pain. Some research also suggests that these techniques may help with other conditions, such as ringing in the ears and overactive bladder. However, their ability to improve conditions such as high blood pressure and asthma is unclear.
About Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation is more than a state of mind; it physically changes the way your body functions. When your body is relaxed breathing slows, blood pressure and oxygen consumption decrease, and some people report an increased sense of well-being. This is called the “relaxation response.” Being able to produce the relaxation response using relaxation techniques may counteract the effects of long-term stress, which may contribute to or worsen a range of health problems including depression, digestive disorders, headaches, high blood pressure, and insomnia.
Relaxation techniques often combine breathing and focused attention to calm the mind and the body. Most methods require only brief instruction from a book or experienced practitioner before they can be done without assistance. These techniques may be most effective when practiced regularly and combined with good nutrition, regular exercise, and a strong social support system.
The relaxation response techniques include:
• Autogenic training. When using this method, you focus on the physical sensation of your own breathing or heartbeat and picture your body as warm, heavy, and/or relaxed.
• Biofeedback. Biofeedback-assisted relaxation uses electronic devices to teach you how to consciously produce the relaxation response.
• Deep breathing or breathing exercises. To relax using this method, you consciously slow your breathing and focus on taking regular and deep breaths.
• Guided imagery. For this technique, you focus on pleasant images to replace negative or stressful feelings and relax. Guided imagery may be directed by you or a practitioner through storytelling or descriptions designed to suggest mental images (also called visualization).
• Progressive relaxation. (also called Jacobson’s progressive relaxation or progressive muscle relaxation). For this relaxation method, you focus on tightening and relaxing each muscle group. Progressive relaxation is often combined with guided imagery and breathing exercises.
• Self-Hypnosis. In self-hypnosis you produce the relaxation response with a phrase or nonverbal cue (called a “suggestion”).
Mind and body practices, such as meditation and yoga are also sometimes considered relaxation techniques.
How Relaxation Techniques May Work
To understand how consciously producing the relaxation response may affect your health, it is helpful to understand how your body responds to the opposite of relaxation—stress.
When you’re under stress, your body releases hormones that produce the “fight-or-flight response.” Heart rate and breathing rate go up and blood vessels narrow (restricting the flow of blood). This response allows energy to flow to parts of your body that need to take action, for example the muscles and the heart. However useful this response may be in the short term, there is evidence that when your body remains in a stress state for a long time, emotional or physical damage can occur. Long-term or chronic stress (lasting months or years) may reduce your body’s ability to fight off illness and lead to or worsen certain health conditions. Chronic stress may play a role in developing high blood pressure, headaches, and stomach ache. Stress may worsen certain conditions, such as asthma. Stress also has been linked to depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.
In contrast to the stress response, the relaxation response slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and decreases oxygen consumption and levels of stress hormones. Because relaxation is the opposite of stress, the theory is that voluntarily creating the relaxation response through regular use of relaxation techniques could counteract the negative effects of stress.
Status of Research on Relaxation Techniques
In the past 30 years, there has been considerable interest in the relaxation response and how inducing this state may benefit health. Research has focused primarily on illness and conditions in which stress may play a role either as the cause of the condition or as a factor that can make the condition worse.
Currently, research has examined relaxation techniques for:
• Anxiety. Studies have suggested that relaxation may assist in the conventional treatment of phobias or panic disorder. Relaxation techniques have also been used to relieve anxiety for people in stressful situations, such as when undergoing a medical procedure.
• Depression. In 2008, a major review of the evidence that looked at relaxation for depression found that relaxation techniques were more effective than no treatment for depression, but not as effective as cognitive-behavioral therapy.
• Fibromyalgia. Some preliminary studies report that using relaxation or guided imagery techniques may sometimes improve pain and reduce fatigue from fibromyalgia.
• Headache. There is some evidence that biofeedback and other relaxation techniques may help relieve tension or migraine headaches. In some cases, these mind and body techniques were more effective than medications for reducing the frequency, intensity, and severity of headaches.
• Insomnia. There is some evidence that relaxation techniques can help chronic insomnia.
• Irritable bowel syndrome. Some studies have indicated that relaxation techniques may prevent or relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in some participants. One review of the research found some evidence that self-hypnosis may be useful for IBS.
• Ringing in the ears. Use of relaxation exercises may help patients cope with the condition.
• Smoking cessation. Relaxation exercises may help reduce the desire to smoke.
• Temporomandibular disorder (pain and loss of motion in the jaw joints). A review of the literature found that relaxation techniques and biofeedback were more effective than placebo in decreasing pain and increasing jaw function.