Stress and Relaxation

Home ] Fight or flight - how stress works ] Physical and emotional effects of stress ] Good or bad stress? ] When stress becomes harmful ] Beliefs that make you stressed ] Test your own stress levels ] Reduce stress with holistic therapy ] Aromatherapy and Lumie bodyclock ] Treat your stress ] [ End your stress with relaxation ] Reduce your stress with self-hypnosis ] Reduce Your Stress With Diet ] Overcome the startle response ]

Relaxation is an effective antidote to stress

Relaxation is a safe, simple and effective technique which increases the activity of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic system is also called the 'rest-digest' system because it lowers the body's level of arousal and therefore counteracts stress and tension, unlike the sympathetic branch which is called the fight or flight system.

Later we'll discuss in detail how you can use relaxation to reduce the effects of stress . But first of all, we'll describe how you can learn to relax whenever you want.

There are several methods of relaxation. We have selected two of the easiest and most successful. If the method you choose doesn't work very well for you, then try the other. Be sure to practice consistently - good results seem to be obtained by relaxing for about 15 or 20 minutes twice a day. Obviously, the times you choose will depend on your daily routine, but it does help to keep them regular. If you have trouble sleeping, you may find that practicing in bed at night not only helps to overcome your insomnia but also makes your sleep more refreshing and revitalizing. (A word of caution here, though: remember that your aim is to develop the ability to relax at will, so dropping off to sleep before you have completed the relaxation procedure will defeat the object of the exercise. If you find that this is happening, you can sit in a chair.)

Most people learn to relax on a bed, a sofa or an armchair. If you use a bed or sofa, you may find it best to lie on your back in a comfortable position with all parts of your body well supported. Have your legs slightly apart with your feet angled outwards and your arms away from the sides of your body. You might like a cushion under your knees and your head. If you use a chair, try sitting comfortably upright with your legs slightly apart and your feet flat on the floor. Your arms can rest on the arms of the chair with your palms downwards and your fingers slightly apart.

You may experience slight discomfort if you try any deep relaxation procedure when you have a full stomach or when you are wearing tight clothing. It's a good idea to wait two hours after a meal, and to take off any tight clothing before you start.

Above all, remember that the most important thing is to be peaceful, calm and comfortable. If any of these suggestions cause you discomfort or are otherwise unsuitable, just adapt them as you wish.

If you have been stressed for a long time, and relief is not in sight, it may be a good idea to check out whether or not a qualified counsellor can help you - North London Counselling offers a qualified and very experienced therapist and counsellor who can assist people with stress related issues.

There's a close link between breathing out and relaxation. Breathing out, or exhalation, is essentially a process of muscular relaxation. You can make use of this relationship in the relaxation procedures below, by relaxing your muscles as you breathe out. But don't overdo it; breathing too quickly or too deeply for too long may cause dizziness.

With either Method A or Method B, start by closing your eyes and relaxing as much as you consciously can. At this stage, random thoughts may come flooding into your mind, but don't be disturbed by this - simply let the thoughts float away, and if your mind wanders, bring it gently back to the matter in hand without feeling upset or irritated.

Method 1 For Deep Relaxation and Stress Relief

This is the simpler of the two methods and works well for lots of people.

You start by transferring your attention over the different parts of your body in turn. As you become aware of each part, you discover whether the muscles are tense or relaxed. If there is tension present, you relax and 'let it go'. Obviously your muscles can safely relax more than they normally would because your body is fully supported, and you needn't spare a thought for essential processes like your heartbeat or breathing, because these are controlled automatically by the brain.

Relaxation like this is not a process of overt conscious effort; rather, it is a process of letting it happen. This might be clearer if you think of the act of tensing and relaxing your arm. Tensing your arm involves effort; relaxing your arm does not - it is a passive process, one that you are now extending to muscles of which you are normally not aware.

You'll find it easier to keep your mind on what you're doing if you pass your attention over your body in a particular sequence. Don't spend too long on each muscle group, though; between 30 seconds and a minute is probably long enough. Remember that whenever you notice any tension you relax and let it go. Each time you do this, let your feelings of relaxation spread and grow stronger.  

Start with your fingers. Let them become relaxed, curved and limp. Then check for tension in your hands. Let them relax also. Feel this relaxation passing up your arms, and your arms resting more heavily on the bed or chair as they do so.

Move on to your neck and shoulders. These areas, like the face and back, attract a great deal of tension in most people. You might be surprised to find how tense you really are. Relax your neck and shoulders so that the tension becomes less and less noticeable. Your head may feel heavier and seem to press into the bed or chair as your neck relaxes. Let all tension go as much as possible - and then let it go even further.

Next, think of your face. Your eyebrows and jaw muscles may be especially tense. Relax them. Let all tension go completely. Allow your tongue to relax loosely, your mouth to hang open slightly, and your face to assume a relaxed, blank expression.  

Transfer your attention to your chest, abdomen and back. These are parts of your body where you may find it very helpful to use the association of breathing out and relaxation. Thus, each time you breathe out, you feel yourself relaxing. And when you have finished each exhalation, you can let your body continue relaxing.

Relax your buttocks and thighs, and then your calves and ankles. Your feet and legs, like other parts of your body will feel heavier as the muscles relax more and more.

When you have relaxed each part of your body in turn, transfer your attention to your body as a whole. Let any remaining tension go. Then relax even more.

Once you have spent some time on this, you may find that some tension has returned to various parts of your body. If so, simply relax your mind and body once again. Repeat this sequence several times if necessary. Although your first attempts at relaxation may leave you with the feeling that you have achieved nothing, keep going! You will probably be surprised at how little practice is required to become expert at the whole procedure.

Method 2 For Deep Relaxation and Stress Relief

If you have a fairly constant level of stress and muscular tension, you may not be able to feel the difference between tension and relaxation, in which case you could adopt this slightly different procedure when learning how to relax. The preparatory steps and the order in which you relax the muscles of your body is similar to that used in Method A, but this procedure involves  deliberately tensing your muscles before you relax them: you tense up each group of muscles before letting them flop completely. You'll soon be able to distinguish between feelings of tension and the more pleasant feelings of relaxation.

Below, we describe one sequence of muscular tension and relaxation suitable for this method. The procedure is the same for each muscle group: tense the muscles, hold for about five seconds, then relax. It may be easier if you relax as you breathe out. Another useful idea is to mentally repeat the phrase "This tension is all going away" as you tense and relax each muscle group. Mentally repeat the phrase "This tension is all..." as you tense your muscles, and "going away" as you relax them.

Spend some time - 30 seconds to a minute - simply paying attention to the feelings of relaxation which you induce in each muscle group. This will develop your ability to distinguish between tension and relaxation and so help you to identify even slight muscular tension.

Here is the system of muscle tension and relaxation. Take your time and repeat each step as often as you think necessary.

Clench your fists. Squeeze. Pause . . . and relax.

Press your arms hard down on to the bed or chair. Pause . . . and relax.

Try to touch your shoulders with your wrists. Feel the tension. Pause . . . and relax.

Shrug your shoulders as high as possible. Pause . . . and relax.

Press your neck and head down into the bed or back into the chair. Build up the tension. Pause ... relax.

Screw up your face: purse your lips; clench your jaw; press your tongue against the roof of your mouth; frown; screw your eyelids shut. Pause . . . and relax.

You may not feel very comfortable with all the muscles of your face under tension at the same time. If so, tense up the different areas of your face in sequence rather than simultaneously.

The muscles of the chest, abdomen and back are often particularly tense in individuals under stress, and it may therefore take slightly longer for you to learn how to relax them completely. When you push your stomach out, you tense up your abdomen; when you squeeze your buttocks together, you tense not only those muscles but also those in your back. Repeat this alternation of tension - relaxation several times in both areas, ensuring that you relax when you breathe out.  

Finally, tense your legs and feet. You can do this by pressing the heels of your feet down into the bed or floor, and by stretching both legs straight out while flexing your toes back towards your shins.  

As your ability to relax increases, you can gradually drop the tension part of the technique, and simply pass your attention over your body, letting the muscles relax as you do so. When you have learnt to relax all the separate areas of your body, you should then be able to achieve overall physical relaxation quickly and easily.


Relaxation is a skill, and it takes time to learn how to do it. One of the reasons for this is that distracting thoughts tend to enter your mind while you practice, although these fall away as your ability continues to develop. Remember that relaxing is not like other physical activities. It is a 'happening' rather than a 'doing'. Conscious thoughts such as: "Am I doing this right?" or "I should be preparing dinner!" are going to increase your arousal and counteract relaxation. You need to resolve that you won't worry about the time you spend relaxing, that you can take the phone off-line and not answer the door, and put up a sign saying you don't want to be disturbed!

Some of the effects of physical relaxation may be unfamiliar to you. For example, your muscles may feel warm or cold, may tingle or vibrate, or may give small jerks or twitches. These are signs that you are succeeding! (If you feel too cold just use a blanket.) More importantly, however, when your whole body is relaxed, you tend to feel either as if you are floating or as if you are sinking down and down, deeper and deeper, into the bed or chair.

When physically relaxed, some people like to remain calm with random thoughts drifting through their minds, while others find that visualizing some particular mental image such as a beach or a countryside scene helps them to remain relaxed. If you do this, try to feel as though you are actually a part of the scene, and not just a detached observer. Yet another possibility is simply to repeat the word "relax" each time you breathe out: this is often helpful in the early stages of the procedure.

After you have completed a session of relaxation, don't suddenly resume your normal activity. Stretch each part of your body to accustom your muscles to physical activity once again, and get up slowly.

Some common questions.

Will this help me feel less stressed?

Yes. The relaxation switches off the arousal of your nervous system and helps your body and mind slow down.

When and how should I use the relaxation technique?

Relaxing before your night's sleep reduces your level of arousal and so helps you to obtain refreshing and revitalizing sleep. The full relaxation technique can also be helpful if you wake during the night or in the morning with feelings of anxiety and tension. During the night, it is important not to worry about the fact that you are awake - doing so makes you even less likely to sleep! Simply go through the whole relaxation process until you reach a state of mental calm and physical relaxation, during which you will at some point fall asleep once more.

If you want to relax in the morning, do it when you're awake enough not to fall asleep again.

There's a great benefit from a regular schedule of deep relaxation. This is because one or two sessions of relaxation each day reduce your level of arousal, thereby making you much calmer and reversing all the effects of stress - the nasty things we've already described. Another useful thing about this relaxation technique is the way in which it gives you the means to quickly relax during the day. Read on to find out how!

Rapid Relaxation For Stress Relief

When you can relax deeply and quickly (or even before!), why not use a form of rapid relaxation as a matter of routine during your everyday life? This application of relaxation (it's described below) is suitable for odd moments during the day and need take no more than a minute or two, but it's still very effective in lowering your level of arousal. Moreover, you can use it anytime, anyplace, anywhere, and no-one will know what you are doing (a fact which is sometimes important). By using a quick relaxation technique several times a day, you can avoid the physical and psychological effects of stress in every day life.

Of course, you may also wish to use this quick way of relaxing before and during situations which you find especially stressful. Examples might be: before or during a meeting, examination or interview; while waiting for an appointment; before standing to deliver a speech; while speaking to people; and so on.

There are also benefits to be gained from using the technique after any stressful event such as a meeting, a car journey, a shopping trip, an interview, and so on. It can be especially useful to do this after your day's work but before driving home. That way, you won't tend to use your car as an outlet for your aggression and annoyance.

So how does the technique work? First of all, sit in a chair with your back straight, your arms positioned on the arms of the chair (or, if it doesn't have arms, hanging by the side of your body or resting on your lap), your feet flat on the floor and your head comfortably balanced. The aim is to relax as much as possible while sitting in this position. At least to start with, it may be necessary for you to tense all the muscles of your body before you relax. (Since this is a rapid relaxation technique, it is better to tense all the muscles of your body at once rather than in sequence.) But if you have mastered the skill of deep relaxation, you'll soon find that you can relax just by thinking about it. One way of helping yourself to do this is to repeat silently the word "relax" each time you breathe out. This should allow you to relax at will. And even if you are standing up, you should be able to relax much of your body.

The technique is pretty good, because even if you don't relax completely, you'll still lower your level of emotional arousal and feel calmer and be able to think more clearly. However, we cannot emphasize sufficiently that to derive the maximum benefit from it, you must maintain your ability to relax at a high level of efficiency, and this will only happen if you remember to use the technique as many times as possible each day. You could do this while travelling on a train, bus or car, or while waiting to be served in a shop, or while speaking to people on the phone, and so on.

You may also find it extremely helpful to spend slightly longer relaxing at lunch-time, especially if your daily routine is highly stressed. For example, businessmen can lock their office doors and refresh themselves by relaxing for 10 or 15 minutes with their eyes closed. If you happen to lack privacy, it may be possible to do this in your car or in the wash rooms.

Rapid relaxation is suited to your daily routine - where stresses arise - and can be used among other people in your daytime environment with no disruption.  

When you've been using relaxation techniques for some time, you'll probably notice certain distinct changes in your life. First of all, you'll probably experience periods of calmness, relaxation. Then you might notice improved interactions with other people, and greater self-confidence. You'll be less inclined to fly off the handle. These periods of relaxation and lessened stress will gradually spread throughout your day. Perhaps, at first, the moments of greatest stress in your life may not appear much different, but soon you'll notice how much calmer you are even when you're in very challenging situations. But don't expect sudden and dramatic changes. It's all a gradual process, not an event. So, for example, if your tension headaches occur once a week instead of three times, that's a major improvement. So too, if they do not last as long or if they are not as severe.

Relaxation or Self-hypnosis?

Where some more fundamental problem underlies the emotional and physical symptoms of stress, relaxation is a way of relieving symptoms, and self-hypnosis is a way of tackling the underlying problem. This is why we have discussed methods of self-hypnosis elsewhere. Self-hypnosis can be used to help overcome anxiety, depression and personality problems such as a lack of confidence. One of the most obvious points in favor of self-hypnosis is its flexibility: it can be used for stress relief as well as curing specific problems like anxiety, low self-esteem and a lack of confidence.

We'll look at what you can do to control stress with self-hypnosis on the next page of the website.

Home ] Fight or flight - how stress works ] Physical and emotional effects of stress ] Good or bad stress? ] When stress becomes harmful ] Beliefs that make you stressed ] Test your own stress levels ] Reduce stress with holistic therapy ] Aromatherapy and Lumie bodyclock ] Treat your stress ] [ End your stress with relaxation ] Reduce your stress with self-hypnosis ] Reduce Your Stress With Diet ] Overcome the startle response ]