4 ways to achieve the relaxation response
The relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response. A number of physiological changes occur during the relaxation response. Heartbeat and breathing slow down, the body uses less oxygen, and blood flows more easily through the circulatory system. Blood lactate levels, which some researchers believe are linked with anxiety attacks, decline markedly.
The relaxation response can be elicited by a variety of techniques and exercises, including a two-step technique, deep breathing, visualization, and mindfulness meditation.
Relaxation techniques are easy to learn. Whichever technique you choose, it's a good idea to carve out 10 to 20 minutes, twice a day, to practice it.
1. The two-step technique
Try these two steps anytime you feel stressed in order to regain a sense of calm and peace.
- Step 1. Choose a calming focus. Good examples are your breath, a sound ("om"), a short prayer, or a positive word (such as "relax" or "peace") or phrase ("breathing in calm, breathing out tension"). Repeat this aloud or silently as you inhale or exhale.
- Step 2. Let go and relax. Don't worry about how you're doing. When you notice your mind has wandered, simply take a deep breath or say to yourself "thinking, thinking" and gently return your attention to your focus.
2. Deep breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing is a technique that induces relaxation, slows the heartbeat, and lowers or stabilizes blood pressure. To practice this technique, begin by finding a comfortable, quiet place to sit or lie down. Start by observing your breath. First take a normal breath, followed by a slow, deep breath. The air coming in through your nose should feel as though it moves downward into your lower belly. Let your abdomen expand fully. Then exhale slowly. Alternate normal and deep breaths several times. Put one hand on your abdomen, just below your navel. Feel your hand rise about an inch each time you inhale and fall about an inch each time you exhale. Your chest will rise slightly, too, in concert with your abdomen. Remember to relax your belly so that each inhalation expands it fully.
Try to practice this breathing technique for 15 to 20 minutes every day. You might also try shorter bouts lasting a few minutes when anxiety begins to build to see if this feels calming.
Visualization, or guided imagery, that mentally conjures soothing scenes can also relax and calm you. Find a quiet place to sit and get comfortable. Clear your mind while taking deep, even breaths for several minutes, and then envision images you find relaxing. The images you choose — whether places or experiences — break the chain of everyday thought. Put yourself into the imaginary setting by asking yourself what you might see, hear, smell, and feel. If stressful thoughts intrude, observe them objectively, and then refocus on the image.
4. Mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing attention on what is happening in the present and accepting it without judgment. And that — many physicians and therapists believe — can be a powerful therapeutic tool. Mindfulness is often learned through meditation, a systematic method of regulating your attention by focusing on your breathing, a phrase, or an image.
Scientists have discovered the benefits of using mindfulness meditation techniques to help relieve stress, treat heart disease, and alleviate other conditions such as high blood pressure, chronic pain, sleep problems, and gastrointestinal difficulties. Therapists have turned to mindfulness meditation to treat depression and anxiety disorders, particularly generalized anxiety, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
During mindfulness meditation, you acknowledge distracting thoughts and sensations that may occur. Recognizing and accepting your feelings and thoughts opens the door to examining how they interact. Once you understand that, you can change negative patterns.
Mindfulness offers other benefits, as well. One goal is to enhance your pleasure in simple everyday experiences — soaking in natural beauty or enjoying a deliciously ripe peach, perhaps. By slowing down experiences and learning to focus on the here and now, many people who practice mindfulness find that they are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past.