Since stress makes your anxiety worse, it stands to reason that reducing your stress may decrease the severity of your anxiety disorder. There are a number of stress management techniques. The one’s shown below are examples of ways to decrease stress through relaxing your body.
- Breathing exercises: There are a thousand breathing techniques. I like the one called diaphragmatic breathing (AKA- “Belly Breathing”). Begin by lying down and placing a book on your abdomen. Breathe in from your nose slowly and deeply, raising the book while keeping your chest flat. Exhale slower than your inhale and as the air drains out your abdomen flattens. If you imagine a balloon in your stomach, it inflates when you breathe in and deflates slowly when you breathe out. Do ten of these in a row throughout your day.
- Imagery: When you imagine something, your brain, to some degree, thinks it is happening and responds accordingly. If you imagine eating your favorite food, your mouth will salivate. If you imagine being under attack, your heart rate will speed up and your muscles will tighten. If you recall the time when you felt most relaxed, your body will likely relax to some degree. Incorporating as many of the five senses as you can in the imagery will increase the effectiveness (e.g. colors of the ocean and sky, sun against skin and feet dipping in the water, birds singing and wind through the trees, the taste a cool glass of lemonade, the salty smell of the ocean…). Take mini vacations throughout your day. Even 1-2 minutes can be quite relaxing.
- Body Scan: Start with your toes and work your way up through every muscle group in your body. Focus on a part and “invite” whatever tension is there to ease up, even a little bit, and accept what tension stays with you. Repeat and allow even more tension to melt away. You can do this in one minute or for much longer depending on time constraints. Let your stress level be a signal to scan your body for tension. The sooner you catch it the easier it will be to release it.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Alternate tensing and releasing each muscle group in your body. This is a fantastic exercise and doing it regularly will enhance the effectiveness of the other exercises. I recommend that you find a recording of this exercises and let it guide you until you have learned it well. iTunes or similar websites might have free PMR recordings for download.
- Autogenic Training: Similar to self-hypnosis, you are focusing on each muscle group and suggesting that they feel relaxed, warm, and/or heavy (e.g. “my feet feel relaxed, my feet feel warm, my feet feel heavy; my calves feel…).
- Meditation: Basically, this involves having a focus of some sort (breathing, candle flame, picture, word, repetitive prayer, thoughts, etc.) and placing your attention on that focus. When your mind inevitably wanders, you accept that as normal and gently shift your attention back to the original focus.
- Massage: Professional massages can be very relaxing in the hands of a capable professional massage therapist. During the massage, try to follow along mentally with the massage so that later on you can recall the massage in imagery and obtain further relaxing benefits.
- Hot bath/whirlpool: Similar to the massage, allow yourself to focus on the warmth and relaxation associated with the water. Later on, recall the experience in your imagination in order to enhance your relaxation.
- Soft Music: Whichever music soothes you, that’s the one to pick. You can combine soft music with breathing, body scan, or others, in order to enhance the benefit.
- Exercise: Whether it is yoga, tennis, or lifting weights, exercise for most of us leads to a wonderful feeling of relaxation and well-being upon completion. Pick something you like to do and build up slowly. If you have health problems, work with your MD or physical therapist to design an optimal program.
Remember, relaxation is a great way to decrease stress and improve your overall baseline level of anxiety, but it should not be used as a way to flee from your anxiety. To get over anxiety disorders, you must learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings. Giving yourself permission to relax into the discomfort is a good thing, but struggling to relax as a way to escape is bound to backfire, just like struggling to sleep when you have insomnia. Face your fear, feel uncomfortable, and if taking a couple of deep breaths helps you to stay with it, that’s icing on the cake.
Eric Goodman, Ph.D.