You may not be aware that when you are stressed, your diaphragm locks and your breaths are more rapid and shallow. You can actually change your body’s physiological stress response by using Calming Breaths. You’ll quickly send a signal to your entire body to relax by loosening your diaphragm and by breathing slowly and deeply. Try taking these steps right now:
- Create a comfortable position (sitting, lying, or standing).
- Deeply inhale through your nose while slowly counting to four.
- As you inhale, pull oxygen into your abdomen, then through your entire chest and upward to your shoulders. Notice that, if you are breathing correctly, your abdomen will rise first, and then your chest. Your shoulders will move back slightly. While you are learning, you can place your hands over your abdomen to use as a visual cue. Your hands should rise as you inhale. If your hands do not rise, try imagining a balloon in your abdomen filling up with air.
- Breathe very deeply to fill your abdomen and chest, and hold your breath for a few seconds.
- Exhale through your mouth to a slow count of four. Notice your chest moving down and your shoulders moving forward as you breathe out all of the air.
- Imagine all the tension from your body being pulled into your lungs and being exhaled with each breath.
- Continue breathing deeply for several minutes.
- Scan your body for any area that may remain tense. Focus on this area and imagine breathing directly in and out of this area.
Now that you have learned to relax yourself using deep breathing, practice it and use it whenever and wherever you feel yourself getting tense.
Feeling tense all over? You can do this quick muscle relaxer at your desk.
- Tense every muscle in your body at the same time. Squint your eyes, wrinkle your forehead, clench your teeth, pull your chin into your chest, hold your breath, push your elbows into your sides, clench your fists, tighten your stomach muscles, counterpose your leg muscles, and clench your toes and feet. Hold it for 7 – 10 seconds. Feel your body tighten up and even “lift” up from the chair.
- Now relax every muscle in your body all at once and breathe deeply. Close your eyes, feel heavy all over, and sink into your chair. Relax your abdomen and let your jaw go slack. Take at least five deep breaths. “Wake up” refreshed!
Sequential Whole-Body Muscle Relaxer
This exercise takes about 15-20 minutes, but it is very effective. You can relax your entire body by focusing on relaxing your muscles one group at a time. You can start at one end of your body (e.g., your feet) and gradually work your way through the muscle groups to the other end of your body (e.g., your head). Try it right now. You can either sit in your chair or lie down (print this list out to refer to as a guide) and relax different parts of your body in the following order:
- Lower legs
- Upper Legs
- Lower Back
- Upper Back
- Lower Arms
- Upper Arms
- Jaw and Tongue
There are two common ways to relax these muscles:
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Tense the muscle (tightly, but not so much that it hurts). Hold it for a few seconds, and notice the tension. Then relax. Let the tension go, allow the muscles to feel heavy and limp, and feel the relaxation move in. Notice the feeling of relaxation. As each muscle group is relaxed, maintain its relaxation while moving on to the next group. As you become more deeply relaxed, you may even have pleasant sensations of warmth and heaviness flowing through your muscles.
- Body Scan: Simply bring your attention to the muscle and relax it while imagining tension draining away. Imagine the muscle as heavy and warm, or use another image that substitutes relaxation for tension. You may want to imagine your breath flowing into the muscle on the in-breath, and then carrying away any tension or discomfort on the out-breath.
Do you remember day dreaming as a child? Time becomes suspended as your imagination takes you to wonderful places. You can take a mental vacation right now, either using the example below or choosing to go wherever you wish. Transport yourself by using all of your senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound. It’s normal for your mind to wander, just allow yourself to passively come back to your imagery. When you are ready to become more alert, try taking a few deep breaths and stretch your muscles.
Guided Imagery Preparation
Take your glasses off and adjust your clothes so that you don’t feel constricted. Choose a position that is comfortable to you. Let your arms rest either in your lap or on the arms of your chair. Put your feet flat on the floor, legs slightly extended. Allow your chair to completely support your body.
Now, relax your arms and upper body. Move your head from side to side, making sure that your neck muscles are free from tension. Relax your legs and lower body. If you have your own guided imagery “story” in mind, you can close your eyes.
You are now prepared to completely experience the next few minutes, when you will use all of your senses so that you can let go of whatever is causing you stress in your life right now.
Think about a circumstance that is creating stress for you. It could be a nagging thought, an event, or an ongoing situation. What negative thoughts and feelings do you have about it? Imagine what it would be like to let go of those thoughts and feelings, to make them totally disappear.
Take it with you to a quiet beach. It is a beautiful summer day. The sky is blue, the clouds are puffy and white, and you find yourself walking on the beach barefoot through the clean, cool sand. The air is crisp and clear with just a hint of a sea breeze that blows gently over your skin and through your hair. You take a deep breath and smell the wonderful ocean air. The sun feels so good as it warms your skin. Every once in a while, a seagull flies overhead, and you hear it crying its call in the distance.
You look out over the deep blue-green sparkling waters. As you sense the expanse of the horizon, a feeling of calm overcomes you. The ocean waves rhythmically swell, rise, and recede. Over and over, you watch the ocean swells moving toward the shore, rising up into a foamy, brilliant white curl, hurling a succession of waves up the beach, where they then crash with a rush of water up the sand. The rush of water calms, slows, and then pauses before it silently retreats back into the ocean.
You walk to where the tide is coming in. You pick up a stick and write some words that describe your negative thoughts in the wet sand. You step back and read what you have written.
Now watch the tide wash up and over your words – water ripples over them, smooths them out, and then recedes and dissolves them away into the deep, powerful sea. All of your negative thoughts and feelings disappear along with those negative words. Enjoy the feeling of calm and peace as you let go of any attitudes and expectations that create stress and allow them to recede into the ocean. Allow the ocean swells, alive with power, to dissolve your stressor – to dilute, churn, and transform it. Feel your relief as you give it over to the deep and powerful sea. Trust that it will be transformed in the ocean, like a once-rough pebble that becomes smooth and shiny. Your negative emotions are washed away and your stressor is transformed, leaving you with a clear mind for productive thinking. For now, just enjoy the feeling of calm and peace. Later if you wish, you can return to this beach, to pick up a shell or a pebble washed back up onto the shore, your symbol of your stressor, transformed.