Stress is part of life; it happens to everyone as we cope with daily events, interact with people and meet with different demands. Excessive stress affects everyone differently. Some become anxious or depressed, while others become angry or withdrawn.
Until recently benzodiazepines were seen as first line in the management of stress and anxiety. With the necessary recognition of its potentially addictive pharmacological qualifies, relaxation techniques have been explored as potential alternatives.
This article looks at various relaxation techniques which are simple and effective at reducing levels of tension and stress.
Relaxation techniques are but part of a comprehensive stress management programme. Simple strategies such as effective time planning, having an avenue to ventilate and share one's problems, mobilising and building a support system, proper diet and nutrition, as well as setting realistic goals for oneself also go a long way in decreasing the daily stresses of everyday living.
Relaxation techniques can result in physiological processes. The relaxed state is a hypometabolic state consisting of lowered blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and galvanic skin response. For this reason, it is important for patients who are on medication or under medical care to consult their general practitioner before beginning relaxation training. In particular, those with hypertension, epilepsy or coronary heart disease should seek medical opinion before starting.
It has been postulated that when a person is under mental stress, he or she tenses the muscles. By tensing the muscles, he or she experiences physical discomfort which tends to make mental stress even worse. Developed by Edward Jacobson in 1929, Progressive Relaxation is a technique used to break this tense-mind, tensemuscle cycle, and thereby relieve physical tension'.
The technique involves die successive tensing and relaxing of voluntary muscles in an orderly sequence until the entire body is in a state of total relaxation. We soon learn to identify and contrast the sensations of tension with that of letting go. This technique relaxes the mind by first relaxing .
Mastering the process
I . To try the technique yourself, sit on a comfortable armchair or lie on your bed.
2. Close your eyes and begin with deep breathing exercise. Let all the tension flow out of your body.
3. As you begin to relax, focus your attention on your right hand and arm. Clench your fist, squeeze very hard, hold the tension for a few seconds.
4. Now release the tension from your right hand and arm. Let the tension flow out of your arm slowly. Your arm feels very relaxed and heavy now.
5. Repeat the whole sequence, using your left hand.
6. Next try to shrug your shoulders as hard as you can, bringing them up and in. Relax and repeat.
7. Now press your head back, feel the tension in the neck muscles. Slowly release the tension and repeat the procedure.
8. Move on to the facial muscles. Think about tensing your forehead and jaw. Squeeze your eyes tightly together and slightly bite down. Relax and repeat.
9. Straighten your legs, point your toes towards your face. Relax and repeat. Your entire body should feel more at peace.
10. Take a slow, deep breath again. Enjoy the wonderful feeling of relaxation.
11. To conclude the exercise, slowly count to ten. Stretch your arms and legs, open your eyes before you get up. You will feel very fresh and relaxed.
Progressive relaxation has been proven effective and does not require any special equipment. Benefits can be felt in several weeks of three daily sessions of just five minutes each(2). It has also been found to be useful in treating a wide variety of disorders including generalized anxiety, tension headaches, migraine, insomnia, neck and back pain. Its effects improve with practice(3,4,5).