Taking Time to Relax

reading in chairs on the beach

In our chaotic and fast-paced world, we are bombarded with a plethora of stimuli on a daily basis. It's amazing how we often operate on "auto pilot" mode, completely unaware of our body's responses to these stressors. Oftentimes, when I meet with clients, their tense body language reveals the stress they're experiencing as they sit down and relay to me the stressors with which they've been coping. As they reveal to me their stressors, I often hear clients convey how they feel as though they can't relax and enjoy life.

When I ask my clients if they've ever tried relaxation exercises to reduce their feelings of tension, I'm frequently greeted by quizzical facial expressions and inquiries as to what relaxation exercises are. After explaining to my clients some of the various forms of relaxation exercises, which include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided visualization exercises, I often suggest that we try some of these exercises in session to see if they're helpful for them.

Following a similar series of techniques outlined in the "Relaxation Basics" article, I often guide my clients through an initial meditation exercise to assist them in relaxing their muscles and releasing the stress and tension in their bodies. First, I ask my clients to allow themselves to relax comfortably in a chair, progressively relaxing the major muscle groups in their body. Next, I ask my clients to bring attention to areas of their body where there is tension, asking them to be mindful of any muscle aches, stiffness, or soreness in their body. Afterwards, I work with my clients to practice a form of deep breathing, known as diaphragmatic breathing, in which they breathe in such a manner that their lungs fill completely with air while their abdomens simultaneously rise and fall with each inhalation and exhalation. Once they're engaged in deep breathing, I ask my clients to allow their minds to drift, allowing their thoughts to float through their minds without judging them. After walking my clients through an initial meditation exercise, I often lead them through a guided visualization exercise in which I read from a script that provides my clients the opportunity to escape into a tranquil, safe setting in which they can allow themselves to daydream and relax.

Research suggests that some of the benefits of guided visualization include a reduction of stress and anxiety, physical pain reduction, enhanced feelings of self-control, lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), improved sleep, and improved quality of life ("Relaxation Basics," n.d.). Because our brains and bodies are often incapable of differentiating between reality and imagination, our bodies respond to guided visualization exercises as though we are actually present in those imagined scenarios (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007). This can result in several additional benefits which include a reduction of blood pressure and breathing rate, an increase in oxygen consumption, and an improved regulation of body temperature ("Relaxation Basics," n.d.).

When leading my clients through guided visualization exercises, I have them envision a safe, peaceful place that is aesthetically pleasing to them, such as a tropical beach or a peaceful forest ("Relaxation Basics," n.d.). Afterwards, I have them utilize their various senses, asking them to envision their peaceful place and notice the unique, pleasant sounds of it. I ask them to imagine the textures of their safe place as well. At the end of the exercise, I ask my clients to gradually return their attention to the present moment in my office while bringing back the feelings of relaxation and serenity they experienced in their safe place.

Clients often describe experiencing a state of deep relaxation they've never known and express amazement that simple exercises, such as these, can produce such results! I remind my clients that it's important to practice these skills daily when they're relaxed so that their bodies will be able to relax more quickly under stressful situations in the future.

To improve their mastery of relaxation exercises, many clients find it helpful and convenient to download apps to their smartphones enabling them to practice these skills. Several meditation apps are available for purchase, such as the Headspace app, or are available at no cost, such as the Insight Timer. Information and reviews about some of these apps can be found in Kristen Fischer's article entitled "Best Meditation Apps of 2018." A plethora of guided visualization exercises of varying lengths can also be found on YouTube at no cost.

Although we may not be able to control many of the stressors in our life, we can take comfort in knowing that regardless of our circumstances, we can take some time and practice these relaxation exercises to achieve a sense of peace, serenity, and relaxation in the midst of our daily stressors. I hope you find these suggestions helpful and are able to reap some of the benefits of meditation!

David Arakelian, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is a Clinical Associate with Family Guidance Centers in our Chesterfield office. He provides individual, family, and marital therapy. He can be reached at 804-743-0960 or can be emailed at contact@familyguidancecenters.com.

Sources:

Fischer, K. (2018, April 20). Best meditation apps of 2018. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/top-meditation-iphone-android-apps

McKay, M., Wood, J. C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal ef ectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Relaxation Basics. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.med.navy.mil/sites/nmcphc/Documents/health-promotion-wellness/psychological-e motional-wellbeing/relaxation-basics-brochure.pdf