Riding a motorcycle at 110 mph down the interstate…too dangerous. Group break dancing in the office…too dated. Doing a Richard Simmons video in your living room…that might leave your family wondering if they should call 911. While these activities might relieve some of your stress, the most important element of a less-stressed life is relaxation.
Relaxation sounds simple enough, doesn't it? A nice dinner out seems relaxing. How about sitting down on the couch to watch your favorite movie? Sounds relaxing to me. The interesting thing about our attempts to relax is that most of us don't know how to do it very well. That night out for dinner usually involves a great deal of effort, including taking a shower, picking out clothes, driving to the restaurant, and paying way too much for dinner. That favorite movie? It probably induces some pretty significant emotion inside of you, and significant emotion is not very consistent with true relaxation.
I established in my last Blog that stress starts with a physiological arousal that is based on our perception that a situation is overwhelming. Some researchers have explored what kind of experiences actually lead to a truly relaxed physical state that counteracts the physiological stress response. Not surprisingly, these researchers have noticed an inconsistency between what we like to do and what is actually relaxing. Dinner, a movie, or even a good night's sleep doesn't effectively combat the physical arousal caused by stress. One of the only activities that actually counteracts the physical effects of stress in the body is called "progressive relaxation." Progressive relaxation is pretty simple, really. Basically, it's a process in which you intentionally and systematically relax every major muscle group in your body. While you are focusing on relaxing your muscles, you breathe deeply and steadily through your diaphragm. Although there are a couple variations of progressive relaxation, this pretty much sums it up. You breathe and relax your muscles.
Researchers have consistently found that this kind of relaxation fights the adrenaline and other stress hormones that wreak havoc for you physiologically. In short, progressive relaxation releases other hormones that fight and win the battle for control of your body. And as I mentioned earlier, progressive relaxation actually relaxes your body more than sleep. In fact, you can sleep for nine or ten hours and still not experience the kind of physical relaxation produced by progressive relaxation. That's how many people live in a chronic state of stress - they wake up just as stressed as they were when they went to bed because they are not intentionally and systematically relaxing their body.
The beautiful part about progressive relaxation is that it actually helps you learn how to "take the edge off" your body's stress reaction in a very short period of time. Some people can even gain a significant measure of relaxation in just sixty seconds using these methods.
Before you get all excited, let me add a measure of perspective here. Progressive relaxation is like riding a bike. At first, it is very difficult to do. You might "fall" occasionally. You might even be convinced that you will never be able to learn how to do it. But just like a little kid who keeps practicing on his bike, once you get it, you've got it forever.
I can't walk you through all the steps of progressive relaxation in this Blog. But I can help you learn how to relax your body through breathing, the most essential components of this skill. First, you need to make sure that you are breathing from your diaphragm, not your chest. Accordingly, you want to breathe from the deepest part of your stomach, rather than taking breaths that are shallow and quick. One little pointer that will help you breathe from your diaphragm is what I call the two-hand technique. Let's practice it now; put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Now take a deep breath in. Which hand moved, the hand on your stomach or the hand on your chest? If the hand on your chest moved (up and down or in and out), that was a shallow breath that will not work well with progressive relaxation. This kind of breathing is actually associated with increased anxiety and stress. Your goal is to take deep breaths that will make the hand on your stomach go in and out while the hand on your chest stays still. I know this seems too simple, but if you can take deep breaths from your diaphragm at a slow pace you should see your stress levels decrease. Sounds crazy, but it will work if you try it!
Now, there is more to progressive relaxation than just breathing from your diaphragm, and it is the whole system that will provide the kind of robust effect measured in the research studies I mentioned above. If you want to relax your body more than sleep, you have to implement progressive relaxation in its totality. I've produced a CD series that will help you do just that. During each CD, I walk you through step-by-step how to combine deep breathing with progressive muscle relaxation in a manner that produces an experience of relaxation that some describe as almost "euphoric." To order the relaxation CDs, or my entire Stress Management System entitled "De-Stress: 21 Days to a Less Stressed Life," click on this link: