Life is stressful. In moderate doses, stress, and its “hyper” cousin anxiety, are natural and even welcome. When stress and anxiety are high, and coping resources are insufficient to meet demand, problems can result. Stress and anxiety can significantly interfere with emotional well being, leaving us more vulnerable to disorders, like panic, GAD, phobias, and depression.
Psychiatric medications (tranquilizers), like Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, are widely prescribed to combat the effects of stress and anxiety. These medications help by engaging a part of the nervous system called the “parasympathetic nervous system,” AKA the “Relaxation Response”, which is the body’s antidote to the “fight-flight” response.
It is important to understand that the Relaxation Response can be engaged naturally, by modifying our reactions to stress. We can do this by changing how we think about stressful and anxiety-provoking situations (cognitive flexibility), by learning to step back from stress-triggered reactions, like thoughts, feelings, sensations, impulses (mindfulness), and by learning to relax our minds and bodies.
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) and abdominal breathing (AB) strategies are widely used to treat a variety of stress- and anxiety-related conditions. Together these strategies provide a concentrated dose of the essential benefits available through more time consuming practices like yoga, massage, and spa.
The first step in natural relaxation is to establish proper breathing. Then, muscle awareness and tension release is introduced. Finally, breath and tension release are combined.
The Science of Breath
Breath control is the first key to combating the effects of stress. Abdominal breathing (also called “deep” or “diaphragmatic” breathing) counters the habit of “shallow” or “chest” breathing, common with stress and anxiety. In chest breathing, only the upper portions of the lungs are used, reducing oxygen absorption and inhibiting discharge of carbon dioxide, the body’s exhaust. Abdominal breathing allows you to take full breaths and to exhale completely, using your entire lung capacity to charge your blood with oxygen and exhale waste.
Abdominal breathing is produced by the action of the diaphragm, muscle, a thin sheet located beneath your lungs, just above the base of your rib cage. When inhaling, the diaphragm pulls downward, drawing oxygen deep into the lungs. When exhaling, the diaphragm presses up against the lungs, pushing out carbon dioxide.
You cannot directly observe the movement of the diaphragm, but you can detect its movement by watching your abdomen. When using the diaphragm to inhale, oxygen will fill the lower portions of your lungs, and your abdomen will be gently forced outward. As you exhale and the lungs empty, the abdomen returns to its resting position. When breathing optimally, you will feel your abdomen rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. Thus, the phrase “abdominal breathing.”
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): Releasing Muscle Tension and Inducing Deep Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) consists of a series of isometric exercises developed by the physician Edmund Jacobson in 1929 to help his patients reduce anxiety. The goal of PMR is twofold:
- The act of tensing and releasing a muscle produces neurophysiological changes associated with the relaxation response. By systematically tensing and releasing all the major muscle groups of the body, progressive muscle relaxation captures and deepens this effect.
- The regular practice of PMR enhances body awareness (mindfulness), sensitizing you to the condition of your muscles. When muscle tension is chronic, the brain screens it out of awareness through a process called habituation. We become aware of this tension only after it’s done it’s damage and resulting problems arise. By increasing your awareness of muscle sensations you learn to recognize when and where your muscles are tense, and to release the tension before it builds.
Natural relaxation takes about 20-30 minutes a day to learn. Once your skills have developed, they can be incorporated into your daily life. Through regular practice, these skills will eventually become as familiar and comfortable as the tense reactions they replace!