By Brian Robinson.
We now know that relaxation is the key to recovery. If you are relaxed in body and mind, you cannot possibly be anxious. That is physics: it is not wishful thinking. But there are two problems with that. The first is, 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 anxiety back to the critical level, you have to do quite a bit of work.
The second problem, is you can’t tell the anxious person to relax. They can’t relax. If they could, 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.
So how do you relax progressively? Well, there is a very real sense in which everything you do can offers an opportunity to relax. As you go through your day, you should be asking yourself: is what I’m doing reducing tension or producing tension?
Many therapists portray anxiety as a vicious cycle of fear – worry – low mood – tension – and anxiety. This can be very daunting for the sufferer. How can you break a cycle when you are trapped within it? A better way to view things, is simply to see yourself as a system that has become tense. And if you put a relaxant into a stressed system, it is bound to relax a little. 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 breaks itself. And that’s just pure physics.
Physical relaxation is the best place to begin a recovery and 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 the process is by doing a 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 up a bit to begin with.
Recovery is all about opening lines of communication with the autonomic nervous system. We could even call it communication therapy. Remember, this is the same system which actually controls our breathing. When we take over that control, 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 do this especially 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.
Why breathe through the nose only?
Most open-mouthed breathing patterns are associated with situations of high oxygen demand; where there is stress; where there is danger; 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. Closed mouth breathing sends a danger-past message.
Why breathe so slowly?
Rapid breathing can also be associated with danger. When we are under 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 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.
Why use the diaphragm?
When we use our diaphragm we pump air into the lungs. When we breathe by expanding our upper chest we drag air into the lungs and the breathing gasses could become imbalanced. Our nervous system will be far happier when the diaphragm is in use.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercise
This is a progressive 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 muscle. 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.
How the exercise works
Firstly, any movement of muscles automatically releases tension. 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 to reduce overall tension.
Secondly, when you relax your muscles having first relaxed 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 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, avoid sitting still for long periods, increasing activity, all will help with tension reduction. If you can, scan your body for tension throughout the day and relax as necessary.
Relaxation 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 later. In the next module we will look at cognitive therapy and see how we can start to relax the mind.