Relaxation Exercises

Muscular relaxation exercises and deep breathing are two common techniques to help people to relax and combat symptoms of anxiety.

Some people relax with sport, exercise, listening to music, watching TV, reading a book, etc. However, some people find it helpful to follow specific relaxation exercises. This leaflet gives a summary of two commonly used routines – muscular relaxing exercises, and deep breathing exercises. These two techniques are particularly useful to combat the two common physical symptoms of anxiety – muscular tension and over-breathing.

Like anything else, you need to practice these at first. But, hopefully, you can then use them in everyday life whenever you feel tense or anxious.

Muscular relaxation

Planned times for regular positive relaxation
Find a quiet warm place where you won’t be disturbed. Choose a time of day when you do not feel pressured to do anything else. Lie down on your back, or sit in a well supported chair if you are not able to lie down. Try to get comfortable and close your eyes. Perhaps lie on a firm bed of some cushions. The routine is to then work on each of your muscle groups. With each group of muscles, firstly tense the muscles as much as you can, then relax them fully. Breathe in when you tense the muscles, and breathe out when you relax.

To start with, concentrate on your breathing for a few minutes. Breathe slowly and calmly. Each time you breathe out say words to yourself such as “peace” or “relax”. Then start the muscle exercises working around the different muscle groups in your body.

  • Hands – clench one hand tightly for a few seconds as you breathe in. You should feel your forearm muscles tense. Then relax as you breathe out. Repeat with the other hand.
  • Arms – bend an elbow and tense all the muscles in the arm for a few seconds as you breathe in. Then relax as you breathe out. Repeat the same with the other arm.
  • Neck – press your head back as hard as is comfortable and roll it slowly from side to side. Then relax.
  • Face – try to frown and lower your eyebrows as hard as you can for a few seconds, then relax. Then raise your eyebrows (as if you were startled) as hard as you can, then relax. Then clench your jaw for a few seconds, then relax.
  • Chest – take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds, then relax and go back to normal breathing.
  • Stomach – tense the stomach muscles as tight as possible, then relax.
  • Buttocks – squeeze the buttocks together as much as possible, then relax.
  • Legs – with your legs flat on the floor, bend your feet and toes towards your face as hard as you can, then relax. Then bend them away from your face for a few seconds, then relax.

Then repeat the whole routine 3-4 times. Each time you relax a group of muscles, note the difference of how they feel when relaxed compared to when they are tense. Some people find it eases their general level of ‘tension’ if they get into a daily routine of doing these exercises.

Everyday life
Obviously you cannot do all the above when ‘out and about’. However, the principle of full tension followed by relaxation of a group of muscles can help to ease anxiety in everyday situations. Therefore, in situations when you feel tension or anxiety rising:

  • try twisting your neck around each way as far as it is comfortable, and then relax, or
  • try fully tensing your shoulder and back muscles for several seconds, and then relax.

Deep breathing exercises

Many people have a tendency to breathe faster than normal when they are anxious. Sometimes this can make you feel a little dizzy, which makes you more anxious and breathe even faster, which can make you more anxious, etc. If you practice ‘deep breathing’ when you are relaxed, you should be able to do this when you feel tense or anxious to help you to relax.

Try the following for 2-3 minutes. Practice this every day until you can do it routinely in any stressful situation.

  1. Breathe slowly and deeply in through your nose, and out through your mouth in a steady rhythm. Try to make your breath out twice as long as your breath in. To do this you may find it helpful to count slowly “one” as you breathe in, and “two, three” as you breathe out.
  2. Mainly use your diaphragm (lower chest muscle) to breathe. Your diaphragm is the big muscle under the lungs. It pulls the lungs downwards which expands the airways to allow air to flow in. When we become anxious we tend to forget to use this muscle and often use the muscles at the top of the chest and our shoulders instead. Each breath is more shallow if you use these upper chest muscles. So, you tend to breathe faster, and feel more breathless and anxious, if you use your upper chest muscles rather than your diaphragm.You can check if you are using your diaphragm by feeling just below your breastbone (sternum) at the top of your abdomen. If you give a little cough, you can feel the diaphragm push out here. If you hold your hand here you should feel it move in and out as you breathe.
  3. Try to relax your shoulders and upper chest muscles when you breathe. With each breath out, try to consciously relax those muscles until you are mainly using your diaphragm to breathe.

Stress Management: Deep Breathing

What is deep breathing?

Deep breathing is a helpful technique for dealing with stress, tension, anxiety, and anger. It can be done practically anywhere. It is also called diaphragmatic breathing. It helps in several ways:

  • It helps you to relax. Deep breathing alone can be enough to relax you, without the need for listening to tapes or meditating.
  • It takes your mind off what is bothering you. If you concentrate very hard on your breathing, you will be thinking less about other things. Any time you notice your attention turning to stressful thoughts, simply shift your attention back to your breathing.
  • It helps with the physical symptoms of anxiety. When you become anxious or stressed you are likely to take shallow, rapid breaths or even hyperventilate. This can result in dizziness, blurred vision, a feeling of pins and needles in your skin, and chest pain. Slow deep breathing can help to relieve such symptoms quickly.

How do I do this exercise?

  • Find a quiet place to reduce distraction.
  • You may want to sit in a comfortable chair or lie on the floor with a pillow under the small of your back.
  • Breathe in slowly and deeply, pushing your stomach out as you breathe in.
  • Say the word “relax” silently as you exhale. Picture the stress and tension you are feeling begin to leave as you breathe out.
  • Exhale slowly, letting your stomach come in.

Repeat these deep breaths 10 times. You will notice how much more relaxed you feel after a very few minutes of controlled breathing.

Practice this exercise 5 times a day.

Other relaxation methods you may wish to consider are mental imaging and progressive muscle relaxation.

What are some of the most common causes of stress?

Stress can arise for a variety of reasons. Stress can be brought about by a traumatic accident, death, or emergency situation. Stress can also be a side effect of a serious illness or disease.

There is also stress associated with daily life, the workplace, and family responsibilities. It’s hard to stay calm and relaxed in our hectic lives. As women, we have many roles: spouse, mother, caregiver, friend, and/or worker. With all we have going on in our lives, it seems almost impossible to find ways to de-stress. But it’s important to find those ways. Your health depends on it.

What are some early signs of stress?

Stress can take on many different forms, and can contribute to symptoms of illness. Common symptoms include headache, sleep disorders, difficulty concentrating, short-temper, upset stomach, job dissatisfaction, low morale, depression, and anxiety.

How do women tend to react to stress?

We all deal with stressful things like traffic, arguments with spouses, and job problems. Some researchers think that women handle stress in a unique way: we tend and befriend.

  • Tend : women protect and care for their children
  • Befriend : women seek out and receive social support

During stress, women tend to care for their children and find support from their female friends. Women’s bodies make chemicals that are believed to promote these responses. One of these chemicals is oxytocin (ahk-see-toe-sin), which has a calming effect during stress. This is the same chemical released during childbirth and found at higher levels in breastfeeding mothers, who are believed to be calmer and more social than women who don’t breastfeed. Women also have the hormone estrogen, which boosts the effects of oxytocin. Men, however, have high levels of testosterone during stress, which blocks the calming effects of oxytocin and causes hostility, withdrawal, and anger.

How does stress affect my body and my health?

Everyone has stress. We have short-term stress, like getting lost while driving or missing the bus. Even everyday events, such as planning a meal or making time for errands, can be stressful. This kind of stress can make us feel worried or anxious.

Other times, we face long-term stress, such as racial discrimination, a life-threatening illness, or divorce. These stressful events also affect your health on many levels. Long-term stress is real and can increase your risk for some health problems, like depression.

Both short and long-term stress can have effects on your body. Research is starting to show the serious effects of stress on our bodies. Stress triggers changes in our bodies and makes us more likely to get sick. It can also make problems we already have worse. It can play a part in these problems:

  • trouble sleeping
  • headaches
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • irritability
  • lack of energy
  • lack of concentration
  • eating too much or not at all
  • anger
  • sadness
  • higher risk of asthma and arthritis flare-ups
  • tension
  • stomach cramping
  • stomach bloating
  • skin problems, like hives
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • weight gain or loss
  • heart problems
  • high blood pressure
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • diabetes
  • neck and/or back pain
  • less sexual desire
  • harder to get pregnant

What are some of the most stressful life events?

Any change in our lives can be stressful―even some of the happiest ones like having a baby or taking a new job. Here are some of life’s most stressful events.

  • death of a spouse
  • divorce
  • marital separation
  • spending time in jail
  • death of a close family member
  • personal illness or injury
  • marriage
  • pregnancy
  • retirement

From the Holmes and Rahe Scale of Life Events (1967)

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be a debilitating condition that can occur after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that can trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults such as rape or mugging, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.

Many people with PTSD repeatedly re-experience the ordeal in the form of flashback episodes, memories, nightmares, or frightening thoughts, especially when they are exposed to events or objects that remind them of the trauma.  Anniversaries of the event can also trigger symptoms. People with PTSD also can have emotional numbness, sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety, irritability, or outbursts of anger. Feelings of intense guilt (called survivor guilt) are also common, particularly if others did not survive the traumatic event.

Most people who are exposed to a traumatic, stressful event have some symptoms of PTSD in the days and weeks following the event, but the symptoms generally disappear. But about 8% of men and 20% of women go on to develop PTSD, and roughly 30% of these people develop a chronic, or long-lasting, form that persists throughout their lives.

How can I help handle my stress?

Don’t let stress make you sick. As women, we tend to carry a higher burden of stress than we should. Often we aren’t even aware of our stress levels. Listen to your body, so that you know when stress is affecting your health. Here are ways to help you handle your stress.

  • Relax. It’s important to unwind. Each person has her own way to relax. Some ways include deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and massage therapy. If you can’t do these things, take a few minutes to sit, listen to soothing music, or read a book.
  • Make time for yourself. It’s important to care for yourself. Think of this as an order from your doctor, so you don’t feel guilty! No matter how busy you are, you can try to set aside at least 15 minutes each day in your schedule to do something for yourself, like taking a bubble bath, going for a walk, or calling a friend.
  • Sleep. Sleeping is a great way to help both your body and mind. Your stress could get worse if you don’t get enough sleep. You also can’t fight off sickness as well when you sleep poorly. With enough sleep, you can tackle your problems better and lower your risk for illness. Try to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night.
  • Eat right. Try to fuel up with fruits, vegetables, and proteins. Good sources of protein can be peanut butter, chicken, or tuna salad. Eat whole-grains, such as wheat breads and wheat crackers. Don’t be fooled by the jolt you get from caffeine or sugar. Your energy will wear off.
  • Get moving. Believe it or not, getting physical activity not only helps relieve your tense muscles, but helps your mood too! Your body makes certain chemicals, called endorphins, before and after you work out. They relieve stress and improve your mood.
  • Talk to friends. Talk to your friends to help you work through your stress. Friends are good listeners. Finding someone who will let you talk freely about your problems and feelings without judging you does a world of good. It also helps to hear a different point of view. Friends will remind you that you’re not alone.
  • Get help from a professional if you need it. Talk to a therapist.A therapist can help you work through stress and find better ways to deal with problems. For more serious stress related disorders, like PTSD, therapy can be helpful. There also are medications that can help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety and help promote sleep.
  • Compromise. Sometimes, it’s not always worth the stress to argue. Give in once in awhile.
  • Write down your thoughts. Have you ever typed an email to a friend about your lousy day and felt better afterward? Why not grab a pen and paper and write down what’s going on in your life! Keeping a journal can be a great way to get things off your chest and work through issues. Later, you can go back and read through your journal and see how you’ve made progress!
  • Help others. Helping someone else can help you. Help your neighbor, or volunteer in your community.
  • Get a hobby. Find something you enjoy. Make sure to give yourself time to explore your interests.
  • Set limits. When it comes to things like work and family, figure out what you can really do. There are only so many hours in the day. Set limits with yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to say NO to requests for your time and energy.
  • Plan your time. Think ahead about how you’re going to spend your time. Write a to-do list. Figure out what’s most important to do.
  • Don’t deal with stress in unhealthy ways. This includes drinking too much alcohol, using drugs, smoking, or overeating.

I heard deep breathing could help my stress. How do I do it?

Deep breathing is a good way to relax. Try it a couple of times every day. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Lie down or sit in a chair.
  2. Rest your hands on your stomach.
  3. Slowly count to four and inhale through your nose. Feel your stomach rise. Hold it for a second.
  4. Slowly count to four while you exhale through your mouth. To control how fast you exhale, purse your lips like you’re going to whistle. Your stomach will slowly fall.
  5. Repeat five to 10 times.

Does stress cause ulcers?

Doctors used to think that ulcers were caused by stress and spicy foods. Now, we know that stress doesn’t cause ulcers―it just irritates them. Ulcers are actually caused by a bacterium (germ) called H. pylori. Researchers don’t yet know for sure how people get it. They think people might get it through food or water. It’s treated with a combination of antibiotics and other drugs.