Relaxation Exercises, by Brian Cook

Coping with stress is like walking across a room while carrying a cup of coffee. There are several parts in that process that make the trip across the room successful. The same is true for coping. 

You must be Aware of your situation. While carrying the cup, your pace will matter; any obstacles on the floor will influence how you proceed; a new obstacle may suddenly appear, so you have to be ready for the unexpected; finally, how you set the cup down will determine the success of the trip. 

You may have to Make Adjustments as you proceed. If the liquid tips to one side of the cup, there’s a risk some may spill out. In this case, you will have to adjust your wrist and level the cup to prevent the spillage. You might have to do this balancing act several times over the course of the trip, or even have to stop to let the liquid settle back into place before you take your next step. 

When you get across the room and finally set down the cup, it’s important to evaluate how you did. Reflect on the trip, and decide if there is anything that needs to be “cleaned up.”  If so, it’s best to address it right then. 

Coping is really one big balancing act in your life. Living is represented by carrying the cup or glass across the room; the contents of your life are constantly changing, requiring adjustments on your part. Coping is dealing with those changes – finding the actions that work best for you.

What follows are some of the techniques I use with clients to help them relax and deal better with troublesome situations, especially those that arouse anxiety. Whenever you face one of those situations, first you might want to picture yourself carrying a cup of coffee across a room. Doing so can help you focus on a task at hand, and not on the emotion you are feeling.

One of the most fundamental problems with anxiety and stress is projecting into the future: “I’m going to be so tense next week when I take that driving test, I’ll probably fail.” Have you been guilty of “future thinking”? How does it make you feel? Does such anticipation stir up your emotions and raise your inner tension? Is this how you want to spend the next few days, mired in some sort of dread condition? 

Why not focus your thinking on the present? Doing so will reduce inner tension and help you take charge of your current reality. How about living in the present moment to prepare yourself for the future? The techniques below have been shown to be quite effective in helping this process by helping you relax and block out distracting thoughts. Just remember, you may relate better to some methods better than others. That’s OK.

Deep Breathing. When you’re anxious one of the first things to get your normal breathing rate back. First, empty your lungs – “blow out the birthday candles,” so to speak. Exhale all the air you can. Then take a deep breath in through your nose for about 5 seconds. Repeat 5 to 10 times but don’t focus on the number.

Next, try to gain a rhythm, such as 3 seconds in through the nose and 3 seconds out through the mouth. No need to focus on timing things; just make each phase last a moderate time. With practice several times each day, you will become quite proficient at loosening yourself up in a stressful situation. Deep breathing should accompany all of the remaining relaxation methods.

Using Your Senses. The 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 progression uses your five senses to orient your thinking to the present. First, picture five things you can see around you and describe each using an adjective or two. Ideally find objects that give you a relaxed feeling. For instance: “I see a black chair; I see a table that has a computer monitor on it; the table is on a blue rug; I see a window and bright sunshine outside; near the window is a tree full of green leaves.”

Next, describe four things you can touch, again using an adjective or two. “A part of my chair has a metal frame that is cool to the touch.” Next, describe three things you can hear – “There is a soft hum of the air conditioner.” Then describe two things you can smell – it’s OK to lean over and smell the flowers on the desk. Finally, describe one thing you can taste – take a swig of your water or coffee.  You can do these in any order but typically it works best if you follow this order of the senses as it hard to engage a number of things for each sense. For example. it’s hard to smell 5 things at once.

Serial 7’s. Say the sentence, “I will be a more positive person,” seven times. Then go back and say each word of the sentence seven times: “I, I, I, I, I, I, I, will, will, will, will, will, will, will,” etc. Then go back and say the entire sentence seven more times. You should pace yourself and follow this procedure about one word per second, fast enough so other thoughts can’t come through and distract you. This is a good technique to get your mind off whatever started making you anxious. Once again, combine this method with your breathing exercise. Also, don’t worry about the exact count. The point here is to distract you, redirect your thinking, not make sure you can count to seven!

Detailed Focusing.This distraction technique involves focusing on one thing in great detail. When you start to feel anxious, this technique involves focusing on one thing and imagining every possible detail. Then take each detail, name it, and focus on various characteristics. If you picture a car, for instance, how many details about a car can you name? There’s the engine, door handles, hood, trunk, steering wheel, etc. Any of these parts can also be broken down into parts. This sort of mental effort can go a long way toward getting your mind off of the topic that was making you anxious, and reduce much of your inner tension. If you still feel anxious after you try this once, move on to another object and continue to count the details. As always, pair this process with your breathing exercise.

Personal Activities. There are many things that you find personally satisfying and relaxing. It could be an object, a mental image, an activity – just about anything. It is these small things that can have the most effect in helping you cope with stress and anxiety. Perhaps a music playlist of your favorite songs; going for a short walk; playing with the family pet; stretching to increase your blood flow and oxygen flow. Identify those things and, if possible, activate one of them when you feel stressed. At the very least, think about how you will use one of those things later when appropriate.

To give yourself some reassurance, write on index cards those personal things that bring you tranquility and serenity. Keep the cards handy so you know you will have a quick and easy way to reduce any stress that may be coming, and readily have activities you can do that work to calm you and bring you some peace of mind.

Daily Review. Finally, it’s useful to “check in” – not obsess about! – with yourself throughout the day.  What have you been thinking about? Have your thoughts been realistic, rational, and positive? Have you been excessively focusing on some problem that may not be real, or may not be under your control? The check-in process allows you to evaluate your mental status during a typical day; failing to do so can get you into all sorts of problems and before you know it, you have thought yourself into emotional turmoil. Then, it’s time for deep breathing!

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