Stress is now a fact of life,so much so, that it has become a generic emotion. Any feeling that evokes discomfort in the body or mind is termed stress. People of all ages are heard talking about how stressed they are and this includes children. Our lifestyle with the access to technological stimuli round the clock aggravates this feeling of being besieged. While we can go on vacations, downsize, watch as many stand up comics, the feeling persists. To deal with the stress that we face on a daily basis, we need to equip ourselves with techniques that can be done anywhere, anytime to help us unwind. The technique of progressive relaxation is used widely by psychologists in therapy. I teach it regularly in my Yoga class as it is derived from yogic practices – combination of Shavasana( relaxation (pose) and pranayama( breathing exercises).
What the technique does:
- Calm the person down by activating the parasympathetic nervous system which regulates the “rest and digest” activities.
- Promotes relaxation by inhibiting bodily functions that create the experience of stress. The sympathetic nervous system energizes the body to action in reaction to the perception of threats faced from the environment – real and imagined. (Fight and flight)
- Progressive relaxation kick starts the parasympathetic nervous system which calms the body and mind of the person by slowing down the heart rate, restricting secretion of adrenaline, constricting the pupils in the eyes and and inhibiting the bronchioles in the lungs which reduces the intake of oxygen to a level that is required by a body that is preparing to rest. Rest does not mean sleeping. It simply means that the body is now in a “wind down” mode as it is now lulled to a feeling of security- the threat having receded.
How it is done:
The person is able to relax by tightening and relaxing each part of the body one by one, in a certain sequence, inhaling with the tightening and exhaling with the release. While it is recommended that this practice be done while lying down on a yoga mat or on your bed, it can be done while sitting in a chair too. For instance, if you are being interviewed and are freaking out in the lobby of the organization, a bed or a mat are not available. A chair serves the purpose as well – relaxation can be induced by resting the head on the wall behind you and allowing the body to go limp.
Step by Step guidance:
Lie down on a mat (or sit comfortably in a chair). Close your eyes and let your hands drop down to the sides. Take a few deep breaths and when you feel sufficiently settled, start the process of tightening and releasing body parts, one by one, beginning with the toes and gradually working your way up the body until you reach the crown of your head and have covered every part of the body. Inhale deeply as you tighten the body part and exhale when you release it. Coordinating the breathing with the body movement is crucial for the experience of relaxation. Try to maintain the natural sequence of your body, starting with the toes and working your way up to the head.
When you have completed the entire sequence, you should reach a state of complete state of relaxation. Lie in this relaxed mode for a few minutes. If you do not feel relaxed after one round, you can start the process again and complete another round. This is an exercise in mindfulness too which is why it is so effective in steering the mind and consequently the body from the path of stress.
Done before bedtime, the practice can aid better sleep patterns. It allows you to drift into sleep. If you are doing this during the day, complete the practice by bring your attention to the breath. Gradually refocus on the sounds around you to bring you back to attentiveness. When you are ready, roll over to any one side and gently sit up. Take a few breaths here before you get on with your activities.
A tip here is to reverse the process if you feel that you simply cannot quiet your thoughts and focus on the process. In that case start the relaxation technique at the head and movn towards your toes.