In the last stress busting article, we discussed the power of diaphragmatic breathing to reduce immediate symptoms of stress. Today, we are going to explore another technique that complements deep breathing to reduce stress symptoms: Deep Muscle Relaxation
You can’t be tense and relaxed at the same time
It’s true. When it comes to stress, your body is either in a state or relaxation or a state of tension. You switch back and forth between these states throughout your day. Stress is typically related to tension. So, it makes sense that anything that induces relaxation will reduce tension and thus reduce stress. Slow, deep breathing works because simulates the breathing of a relaxed state. Similarly, inducing your muscles to release tension and relax will simulate and ultimately BECOME a state of relaxation.
The problem with tension
There are a number of problems with having chronically tense muscles. Tense muscles use more energy and fatigue our body quicker than relaxed muscles. Chronically tense muscles get damaged easier. Tense muscles tend to lose some of their elasticity and thus can inhibit your range of motion and your ability to move quickly and easily. Tense muscles also tend to ache more. This then becomes a suck on your mental energy as you have to manage the creaks, groans, aches and pains of tense muscles. This isn’t to say that tension is bad. Tension is necessary. Without it we would fall to the ground like so much quivering jelly, unable to move. The trick is to have just enough, but not too much tension.
When we carry tension in our body for a long period of time, we tend to become blind and unaware of this tension. The feeling of tensions and achiness becomes normal. This is the real problem. We train out body and brain to accept excess tension and then let it inhibit out daily activities. Over time this builds up and can gradually erode our quality of life.
It is important to do things that allow you to get your muscles to relax (and let you re-learn what relaxed, tension-free muscles feel like). By making a practice of these exercises, you can learn to stay relaxed throughout more of your day. Your heightened sense of relaxation will also let you activate tension when you need it much more quickly (because your muscles won’t be tired all the time from maintaining a chronic state of tension). Top athletes are masters of utilizing the power of relaxation and tension and can thus demonstrate incredible feats of speed and power as a result. For the rest of us, I’m just suggesting master relaxation and tension to give us more control over our stress for a happier, healthier life…if this also give a faster 100 meter dash, all the better. J
Techniques to induce relaxation and retrain our sense of tension
Without a doubt, one of the best treats you can get for yourself is a good massage. Getting someone who knows what they are doing to knead your muscles is a fantastic way to induce deep muscle relaxation. Now, I know that this can get pricey. An alternative is to get a book on massage (such as Massage for Dummies) and convince a significant other to read it and then practice on you. You could reciprocate. Also, for parents, learning basic massage techniques can give you another tool to help relax reactive children.
2. Progressive Relaxation Training
This tried and true technique is generally a part of any good stress/anxiety management protocol. Here, you sit or lay in a quiet, comfortable place. You then tense each muscle group in your body and then let it totally relax. Doing this mindfully and in conjunction with deep breathing can help you learn to distinguish between muscles under tensions and muscles in relaxation. Purposefully making muscles tense and relaxed highlights the differences between the two states. Also, tensing the muscles helps wear them out so they are more prone to be relaxed. Doing this on a regular basis will allow you to learn to quickly get your muscles to relax with but a thought. Parents can teach this to children by having them practice being like uncooked spaghetti then being cooked spaghetti. This fun game can help teach them how to induced muscle relaxation on command.
3. Sauna/hot shower/hot bath
Long exposure to hot water can also induce deep muscle relaxation. Taking a long hot shower or bath is great way to sooth and relax sore muscles. If you have access to a sauna or hot tub, all the better.
4. Self-massage/foam roller
Weight lifters have known about the benefits of this for a long time. They use this technique to recover from strenuous weight training sessions and to speed recovery. They get foam rollers and then roll their body over the rollers to relax and massage their muscles. If you google the terms “myofascia release” and “foam rolling” you can find all sorts of videos demonstrating this. You can use anything from long foam rollers to tennis balls to accomplish this form of self-massage. It should be noted that this can be uncomfortable at first and may take some getting used to.
5. Neuro-feedback training
Also called “biofeedback.” This method will involve the help of someone trained in neuro-feedback. Special sensors are connected to your head and body that then send information about your brainwave patterns and muscle activation to a computer. This information is displayed graphically. You can use the graphic display as a means of feedback as you practice relaxation. As you successfully relax your body and mid, you will be able to see your progress on the computer monitor. This can be very effective in learning how to induce a deep, relaxed state. However, it can also be costly.
The methods listed above are not in any particular order (other than that’s the order I thought of them). Any or all of them might be effective to help you learn to induce deep muscle relaxation. The list is also not all-inclusive. There are probably many more methods that could be used to learn to relax. Please share other relaxation methods with me in the comments section below.
At the end of the day, it is important to pick a method or two and practice it. The more frequently you can practice, the better. Eventually, you will be able to sense when your muscles are getting tense and induce them to relax with a thought. This, combined with deep breathing will allow you to combat the effects of stress inducing situations much more effectively.
I hope this information proves useful. Breathe….You got this.
Copyright 2013 by Erik Young, M.Ed., LPC