By Brian Robinson.
We now know that relaxation is the key when it comes to any recovery program. If you are relaxed in body and mind you cannot possibly be anxious. That is pure physics: it is not wishful thinking. But there are two problems. Firstly, when you go over the cliff into anxiety, tension levels automatically rise by at least another 10 – 15 %. What this means in practice, is that just to reduce tension back to the critical level, you have to do quite a bit of work.
Secondly, the anxious person simply cannot relax. It is not possible to move from a highly charged state, to a completely relaxed state overnight. If that was possible, there wouldn’t be a problem. Relaxation then, can only be achieved as a progressive and gradual endeavour, and this means we have to be patient and not expect too much too soon.
Many therapists and sufferers see anxiety as a vicious cycle of fear – worry – low mood – tension – and anxiety. This can be very daunting for the sufferer. How do you break a cycle when you are trapped within it? A better way to view things, is simply to see yourself as a single system that has become tense. And if you put a relaxant into a stressed system, it is bound to relax a little. It also follows, that if you put lots of relaxants into a stressed system, then it will relax a lot. You do not have to break the cycle: the cycle actually breaks itself. That is pure physics.
And with this in mind, there is a very real sense in which everything you do during your day can offer an opportunity to relax. As the day unfolds, you can ask yourself: is what I’m doing reducing tension or producing it?
Physical relaxation is the best and most obvious place to begin the process when it comes to recovery. This is so for several reasons. Firstly, it is entry level stuff. Anyone can do it. Even just moving around a little will help relax the muscles. Secondly, we want to bring a bit of stability to the anxious situation as soon as possible. And the best way to start that process is by doing a simple breathing exercise.
Do not make the mistake of underestimating the power of a good breathing exercise. It will not only relax the body, it will help relax your emotions and it will help to relax the mind. In fact, breathing exercises are now used to treat serious mental illnesses where the sufferer finds it difficult to calm their minds. This is sometimes referred to as ‘bottom up’ therapy.
To do this exercise you have to use your diaphragm. This is known as the breathing muscle and it sits behind your tummy. You breathe in and out through your nose to the count of four. The mouth must stay closed. For example, you breath in 2-3-4 then out 2-3-4. There is no hold in between, and you should aim for around eight to twelve breaths per minute. Focus on your breath and as you breathe out feel the tension flow away. If you find it difficult to breath through your nose, try breathing through pursed lips. If you feel uncomfortable with this then speed things up a bit to begin with.
In essence, recovery is all about opening up lines of communication with the autonomic nervous system. We could even call this endeavour communication therapy. And remember, the system which controls our breathing is the same system which activates fight or flight. When we take over control via our breathing, that sends an immediate signal that we are safe. We should do this exercise for five or ten minutes twice a day, but you will also find it helpful to slow breathe when you feel anxious or panicky.
Many anxious people develop concerns surrounding their throat, breathing and airways. This is quite common. They may begin to feel they are not getting enough air and start to hyperventilate. This tends to make matters worse and brings with it more unpleasant symptoms. The exercise will help regain control over breathing and help with hyperventilation problems.
Most open-mouthed breathing patterns are associated with situations of danger, high oxygen demand; where there is stress; where there is exertion; when we are frightened or caught unawares. Breathing hard, gasping, gulping, panting, choking and even sighing and yawning are all patterns that alert our nervous system and send a distress signal. When we are under real stress, we can breathe literally dozens of times a minute. When we are at rest, we breathe at around twenty five times a minute. Reducing this down further sends the clear message that we are relaxed and safe.
Closed mouth and slow-breathing also changes the breathing gas profile. We end up with a bit more carbon dioxide while at the same time maintaining correct levels of oxygen. Too much oxygen will make matters worse while a bit more carbon dioxide will help tranquillise the nervous system. Carbon dioxide is a natural tranquilliser. It is not a good idea to breathe into a bag or into cupped hands. This will result in far too much carbon dioxide being retained and can be counterproductive.
When we use our diaphragm we pump air into the lungs. When we breathe by expanding our upper chest we drag air in and the breathing gasses could become imbalanced. Our nervous system will be far happier when the diaphragm is in use, pumping air, instead of trying to drag it into our lungs.
To help relax tense muscles we can use a Progressive Muscle Relaxation exercise. This is an exercise where muscles gradually learn how to relax. It is a proven technique and is used to treat other stress-related conditions. In a nutshell, the exercise involves going through each muscle group first tensing then relaxing muscles. For example, you clench your fist hard for a few seconds, then you allow it to relax. You start with the facial muscles and you work down to your feet. This exercise should be done twice a day for ten minutes.
Tension tends to build up in the areas of the body which we move the least. Typically, this would be the neck and shoulders and the abdomen. Bringing these areas into movement will help reduce overall tension.
The key element to the exercise, is that when you relax muscles having first tensed them, they will always relax down further. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘rebound effect’. In anxiety sufferers, the body becomes programmed to high tension levels and this ends up as the norm. This exercise will help the body re-learn correct tension levels. It is perhaps worth noting at this point, that tension has two enemies: movement and heat. Anything that involves heat and movement will automatically reduce muscular tension.
Try not to to confine tension reduction to the relaxation exercises. Try and develop relaxation into everything you do: a hot bath or shower, walking to work, not sitting still for long periods, increasing general activity, all will help with tension reduction. If you can, scan your body for tension throughout the day and relax as necessary.
Relaxation also comes with some fringe benefits: it improves the function of the immune system; lowers blood pressure; allows the body to heal quicker; helps with sleep; the list is endless.
There are lots of other exercises you can do to help relax and these will be covered in later modules. In the next module we will look at cognitive therapy and see how we can start to relax the mind.