Relaxation to manage anxiety

If your body is frequently on ‘high alert’ or you feel anxious in certain situations, you can use relaxation to help turn off the alert.

Relaxation helps the physical symptoms of anxiety by slowing your heart rate, calming down your breathing and lowering your blood pressure. The unpleasant physical sensations will start to reduce as your body is no longer in ‘emergency mode’.

Relaxation also helps relieve your mind of stress and worry. It can divert you away from your anxieties and focus your mind on something else for a while. Being more relaxed can also help you sleep better, and relaxation is known to be linked to improved wellbeing generally.

How to relax

Relaxation is a skill, and like any other skill it needs practice. It might not feel natural at first and you might feel a bit unsure or silly, but try and stick with it and see if you notice any changes.

You can use relaxation when you are feeling nervous, anxious or on edge. However, it can also help to build relaxation into your daily life to improve your general wellbeing and manage anxiety before it takes over. By doing this, over time, both your body and mind will get more used to being relaxed – and less used to being anxious.

Identify what helps you to relax:

  • This will be individual to you – try and take notice of what you find relaxing. For example, some people find that reading, watching TV, or taking a bath helps to relax them.

Physical exercise:

  • Exercise puts the adrenalin in your body to good use! It also tends to focus your mind on the task in hand and diverts you away from your worries. Some people find yoga helpful for both body and mind. Others prefer more aerobic sports, dancing or running. Find something you enjoy.

Relaxation exercises:

There are many types of relaxation exercises to try on for size. Some you may have heard of are:

  • Breathing exercises: a short breathing exercise can help you to feel calm in a short space of time – as well as being a useful, regular relaxation technique. See below for an example.
  • Mindfulness – a type of meditation that focuses on the present, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
  • Visualisation – a type of meditation that involves bringing your mind to a place where you personally feel calm and relaxed – it might be somewhere you have been on holiday, like a beach, or a favourite place of calm, like the park or the garden
  • Progressive muscle relaxation – involves tensing and relaxing muscles to release tension – see an example of this below.

What if I have pain or I am restricted in certain parts of my body?

This is a common question. If a relaxation exercise focuses on an uncomfortable, restricted or painful part of your body, do not feel you have to persevere. Always take advice from your doctor before starting any new exercise if you have concerns. Most exercises are adaptable and you can adjust to something that is right for you. Here are some examples:

  • If you have difficulty breathing in through your nose, breath through your mouth instead
  • Some people feel anxious about breathing exercises at first – and might try a visualisation exercise instead.
  • If you struggle to sit, try standing or lying down in a more comfortable position
  • If you experience discomfort in a part of your body, focus on the other areas and leave that are out.
  • There are no rights or wrongs. It is about finding out what works for you – and remember – it is supposed to be relaxing

Here are some exercises to try out:

Breathing exercise

You can do this breathing exercise, standing, sitting or lying down.

  • Keep an open posture – arms at the side of your body, or resting on the chair arms with palms up
  • If you are laying down, straighten your legs out or bend them with your feet flat on the floor
  • Start by letting your breath flow naturally, breathe deeply but without forcing it – find your rhythm for a minute or so
  • If you can – breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth
  • Breathe in gently for a count of five
  • Breathe out gently for a count of five
  • Continue this for 3 to 5 minutes
  • Tip: If you struggle with five, reduce down to a count of three

 

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) involves tensing and relaxing muscles in sequence.

  • Start off by getting yourself in a comfortable position for relaxation and slow your breathing down to a natural rhythm for a couple of minutes
  • When you are ready, start by tensing each area, following the order listed below
  • Be careful not to tense too much as to cause extreme stress or pain. You need to feel a tension, but do not strain
  • Keep the muscle tense for five seconds
  • Then relax the muscle, and slowly move on to the next one
  • Follow this order:
  1. Hands and forearms – make a fist with each hand
  2. Upper arms – touch your shoulder and tense the area in your bicep
  3. Forehead – raise your eyebrows as high as you can and scrunch up your face
  4. Eyes and cheeks – squeeze your eyes shut
  5. Mouth and jaw – open your mouth as wide as you can
  6. Neck – if sitting or standing, gently tilt your head to look up, slowly bring your head back down, and then forward. If you are lying down, turn your head gently from side to side
  7. Shoulders – bring the shoulders up to your ears, hold and release
  8. Upper back – push your chest out so your shoulder blades feel like they are ‘touching’
  9. Hips and buttocks – squeeze your buttock muscles together
  10. Upper thighs – tighten the muscles in each thigh
  11. Lower leg – very slowly pull your toes towards you to stretch your calf muscle
  12. Feet – curl your toes downwards
  • Finish by breathing in your natural rhythm for a couple of minutes

 

There are many sources of relaxation exercises on the internet, on You Tube, in phone apps and in shops. You may not have much experience of these, but try them out a few times and find what works best for you. You might also consider looking at our sheet on Managing worry and anxiety.

Managing worry and anxiety

Read

About anxiety

Read

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