There are so many different techniques, tools and exercises to help you with reducing stress and promoting awareness and relaxation. I have developed this as a FAQ guide to help you understand what they all are, what each one can help with and how to best incorporate them into your daily life.
Autogenic Training (AT)
What is it? A passive relaxation exercise. Autogenetic training is a technique that teaches your body to respond to your verbal commands. These commands “tell” your body to relax. This relaxation exercise works on the power of suggestion, (i.e. we are more likely to believe something that we say to ourselves). It was initially developed to treat migraine headaches, but also effective for treating anxiety. The goal of AT is to achieve deep relaxation and reduce stress.
How do you do it? Your therapist will work their way through a series of statements. You listen to them and say them to yourself in your own mind and listen to yourself as you say them. If your mind wanders from the exercise, simply notice it, and gently bring your attention back to the instructions. Remember, it is normal and natural for the mind to wander. This technique is most effective if practiced daily. Like any new skill, it takes practice to get the best results.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
What is it? PMR teaches you how to relax your muscles through a two-step process. First, you systematically tense particular muscle groups in your body, such as your neck and shoulders. Next, you release the tension and notice how your muscles feel when you relax them. Muscle relaxation can be particularly helpful in cases where anxiety is especially associated to muscle tension. Sometimes we don’t even notice how our muscles become tense, but perhaps you clench your teeth slightly so your jaw feels tight, or maybe your shoulders become tense. Muscle tension can also be associated with backaches and tension headaches.
How do you do it? When you are ready to begin, tense the muscle group described. Make sure you can feel the tension, but not so much that you feel a great deal of pain. Keep the muscle tensed for approximately 5 seconds. Relax the muscles and keep it relaxed for approximately 10 seconds. It may be helpful to say something like “Relax” as you relax the muscle.
Guided Mindfulness Meditations
What is it? “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” – Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Mindfulness involves a conscious direction of our awareness. Left to itself, the mind wanders through all kinds of thoughts. In mindfulness we’re concerned with noticing what’s going on right now. In mindfulness meditation, we are concerned with what’s arising in the present moment. When thoughts about the past or future take us away from our present moment experience, we try to notice this and just come back to now. By purposefully directing our awareness away from such thoughts and towards the “anchor” (i.e. our breathing) or our present moment experience, we decrease their effect on our lives and we create instead a space of freedom where calmness and contentment can grow. We don’t judge an experience as good or bad, or if we do make those judgments we simply notice them and let go of them. We don’t get upset because we’re experiencing something we don’t want to be experiencing or because we’re not experiencing what we would rather be experiencing. We simply accept whatever arises. Accepting it does not mean liking or approving of it, but simply creating space for it without a struggle. We observe it mindfully. We notice it arising, passing through us, and ceasing to exist. Whether it’s a pleasant experience or a painful experience we treat it the same way.
Mindfulness is an evidence-based treatment with a huge body of research behind it. It is effective in treating a variety of different mental health issues, including stress, anxiety and depression.
How do you do it? Take a posture that is upright but not rigid. Hands rest on the thighs, facing down. There are many basic mindfulness techniques and most get you to focus on an “anchor” (i.e. your breathing). If you attend counselling with Kerry, she will provide you with some of the main mindfulness meditations in session, as well as recordings to practice at home, however the free app “Smiling Mind” is also a useful tool with more meditation practices. Remember, your mind WILL wander during these exercises. The idea is not to empty your mind of thoughts, but to simply notice when your mind has wandered and come back to the anchor. When you notice that you have gotten caught up in thoughts, just gently bring yourself back to your anchor.
Visualisation and Guided Imagery
What is it? Guided imagery is a program of directed thoughts and suggestions that guide your imagination toward a relaxed, focused state. Guided imagery is based on the concept that your body and mind are connected. Using all of your senses, your body seems to respond as though what you are imagining is real. You can achieve a relaxed state when you imagine all the details of a safe, comfortable place, such as a beach or a garden. This relaxed state may aid healing, learning, creativity, and performance. It may help you feel more in control of your emotions and thought processes, which may improve your attitude, health, and sense of wellbeing. Guided imagery has many uses. You can use it to promote relaxation, which can lower blood pressure and reduce other problems related to stress. You can also use it to help reach goals (such as losing weight or quitting smoking), manage pain, and promote healing. Using guided imagery can even help you to prepare for an athletic event or for public speaking.
How do you do it? Find a safe, comfortable place. Sit or lie down. Close your eyes, and be guided by the instructions of your therapist, or use your own imagination to imagine a pleasant environment.
A final note
These relaxation and mindfulness exercises are not intended to treat an acute panic attack in that moment, but rather, to be practiced daily over time to reduce your overall level of stress, which in turn will result in fewer acute episodes of stress. It is recommended that you practice these exercises daily even when you are not feeling stressed. If you only practice when you are stressed or anxious, you will not get the full benefit.
Find a suitable time in your day to schedule in your relaxation or mindfulness practice and commit to it as a daily part of your routine. Setting an alarm or reminder on your phone may be helpful for this. You may find it initially difficult to stick to this routine, but after a while it turns into a habit. As you start to see the benefits of your daily practice, you are likely to want to continue with this.
Good luck and enjoy your relaxation practice!