Tip Top Tip #1

Tip: Don’t choose to make tension inside or outside yourself, rather choose to generate calm by training yourself in the life skill of RELAXATION.

There are many techniques with the goal of achieving the state of relaxation. The technique I am going to present has three important qualities: (1) it is effective (it works), (2) it is efficient (it only takes a few minutes, the shorter the better) and (3) it is portable, requiring no equipment. To learn the technique, proceed to LEVEL 1.

LEVEL 1 – The training technique

Sit in an upright chair (preferably with no arm support), with your feet flat on the floor and hands on your thighs, palms down, not touching. Gaze straight ahead off to the distance and then close your eyes. Pretend you have just shut the lights off and the room is dark. Because it is dark, you don’t see anything, but look ahead and you can perceive some color, usually black or grey like you see in the dark, but it could appear to be more light or white, or any other color. The color you see and the texture of it has no significance, it is just something close to nothing to think about. Stare into the center of the color and get as lost as you can in thinking about just the color.

As you watch the color, next, observe your normal, quiet automatic breathing like when you are sleeping. Just feel it. Notice as you breathe normally and quietly like that, that your chest goes in and out, or up and down. Next, notice that as you breathe out, there is a relaxing, dropping feeling there in your chest. You feel that dropping in your chest as you breathe out, because at the top of the breath you let your chest muscles go, and then they drop. That is what physical relaxation in your muscles is: it’s letting your muscles go, and then they drop, and you can feel this happening automatically in your chest, every time you breathe out.

Now, think about your shoulders. They are attached to your chest at the top and they move up and down a little bit as you breathe. As you breathe out now, let your shoulders drop down with your chest – all the way down to the bottom. Then, feel relaxation like that going down the upper parts of your arms, into your elbows, dropping them all the way down to your sides, and further down your arms to the tips of your fingers – all relaxed.

Next, feel the relaxation radiating from your chest down into your stomach and abdomen area as you breathe out. Then down further into your upper legs. When you relax your upper leg muscles, your knees feel like falling apart. Relax them. Then relax down the lower legs, all the way down to your toes – relaxed.

Next relax your back as you breathe out. Drop your shoulder blades all the way down as you breathe out. Relax your forehead, letting your eyebrows drop and try to make them feel a little heavy. Relaxing your face, lips, and jaw so there is a little space between your teeth – everywhere relaxed, quiet, and still.

Now spend about a minute in silence, thinking about just two things: (1) staring at and through the color and getting lost in it, and (2) feeling the dropping in your chest as you breathe out. Then, before you fall asleep, count backwards from ten to one, then open your eyes and be wide awake. That is the end of the exercise. Note how relaxed you feel for future reference in Level 8, when we discuss tracking your improvement.

LEVEL 2 – The training tool template

We learn complex skills by repetition; the more repetitions, the deeper the skill becomes ingrained in your brain for automatic function. Accordingly, I recommend that you train yourself in relaxation by doing the technique briefly, perhaps within 3 to 5 minutes each time, but frequently, five times a day.

Make a chart consisting of 5 vertical lines on a lined page to make 6 columns. Label the column on the left as the current date and the other columns from the left, 1 to 5. Each time you do a relaxation exercise, chart it with an x in the current day and try to do 5 each day.

For many reasons, you will likely find that it is not easy to do five times every day, but the point is, the more you train, the more skilled you become. As I mentioned in the introduction, it may take 40 hours of training to achieve a beginner level of competence in the skill of relaxation. So, to actually make this work, you need to make relaxation training a daily top priority. Priority setting is my #6 top life skill we will discuss later.

You can use the relaxation technique to assist in falling asleep. Lie down in your favorite sleeping position, preferably on your side with your knees comfortably curled up. Go through the relaxation exercise as above, except you are lying down. Make sure your muscles become thoroughly relaxed. Then at the end of the exercise, instead of rousing yourself, keep staring at the color with nothing else in your mind. If you do so for 10, 15, or 20 minutes at the most, you will likely fall asleep. If not, there have likely been other thoughts in your mind, in which case, go back to thinking about the color and the twenty minutes starts again.

Sometimes people can’t fall asleep because they are not tired enough. In that case, the best thing to do is to get out of bed and wait until you are tired enough to fall asleep. Consult your health care professional if you require more help for insomnia.

LEVEL 3 – Try a trial test to see what happens

Besides routine training and charting, whenever anything happens, try to stop and relax. Look for opportunities to experiment with it. You may find the self control required is difficult at first, but do your best and see what happens: does it work better for you to be relaxed than to be tense?

LEVEL 4 – The target goal

The goal is not to just be a reactively tense person who can do a relaxation exercise to calm down at will, but to become a relaxed person. This would mean that whenever anything happens, you relax; when the next thing happens, you relax, until relaxation becomes your automatic reaction to all things that happen, except perhaps in extreme circumstances requiring fight or flight.

As you work on this essential life skill of relaxation, you realize that hurry is on the tense side of the relaxation scale; so if you are in a hurry for no good reason, you want to deliberately slow your self down, or at least, hurry slowly. Similarly, worry and perfectionism are on the tense side and need to be toned down in order for you to become a relaxed person. Fortunately, these shifts from tension to relaxation can be made with resulting benefit in how you feel and function, and there should be no harm. You will like it and so will others. Relaxed people are comfortable to be with.

LEVEL 5 – Typical cases in point

Almost all my patients are tense and suffer with anxiety in various forms and degrees. Many are worriers, hurriers, and perfectionists. Others suffer with anxiety from fears, phobias, post-traumatic stress, conflict engaging in unnecessary trouble, stress, anxiety associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and so on. Relaxation training can be extremely helpful for everyone and for managing all forms of anxiety.

Anxiety is classified into different categories, but for our purposes, it is easier to think of them all as adrenalin reactions. Proceed to Level 6 to learn what is helpful to know about the adrenalin story.

LEVEL 6 – The theory

By nature, human beings do not appear to be a relaxed species. You may find yourself tense even when you should be relaxed and enjoying yourself. Rather, relaxation is a skill that requires training to acquire and is very valuable in coping with modern life in society.

For our purposes here, let me tell you my simplified version of the story of adrenalin physiology which I think is a useful way you can think about it to help you develop the life skill of  relaxation. Adrenalin is a hormone secreted by the adrenal gland whose automatic function is to help you to deal with life threatening danger. It is a primitive survival strategy encoded in the human genome that evolved for survival in primitive circumstances.

Right from birth, when people sense they are safe and secure, their adrenalin is inactive and on standby. However, whenever you sense the threat of danger, real or otherwise, your adrenalin “button” automatically goes on, causing an adrenalin surge. This alarms you of the danger with the feeling of anxiety, (so that you don’t relax and go to sleep), and it pumps you up for either fight or flight to deal with the danger. In some people, instead of being physiologically pumped up for fight or flight, they are pumped out and feel faint and weak. This is likely another primitive reaction to danger such as in opossums that involuntarily “play dead” when threatened by predators that prefer to kill their prey. In any event, notice that both adrenalin reactions of pump up or pump down are largely obsolete, distressing, and cause dysfunction in civilized circumstances that do not threaten survival.

 If the adrenalin reaction is acute and the sense of danger goes away, the adrenalin settles down automatically, much like dust settles after it is stirred up by a gust of wind. Subsequently, physiological calm is restored and the adrenalin button goes off and resets. However, in the aftermath, the adrenalin button sometimes seems to have become more sensitive to reacting to the next perception of danger. If so, fear in the form of anticipation anxiety and overreactions can become established, setting the stage for the adrenalin reaction to become increasingly sensitized to less intense danger stimuli, resulting in more frequent and intense anxiety reactions. Irritability, fears, and avoidance behaviors can result.

Worse still, if the sense of danger becomes chronic and remains for long enough, it is as though the adrenalin button can get stuck on. When that happens it is a big problem because then the adrenalin does not automatically settle down by itself, even after the perception of immediate danger goes away. The flow of adrenalin becomes chronic and then has to be pushed down by interventions such as relaxation training, desensitization, and/or medication. It appears that anxiety can become chronic in any stage of life even as early as in the circumstance of an insecure attachment from birth.

When these anxiety mechanisms become established, anxious people not only have the exaggerated automatic adrenalin reaction stuck on, but when they get more anxious, they seem to push the adrenalin button in further, which ramps up the anxiety even more. An important step to managing and reversing this vicious cycle is to learn to keep your finger off your adrenalin button, even when you are anxious and then to learn how to push the adrenalin back down. Training in the life skill of relaxation can be a major tool in the process of learning to tolerate your anxiety as you work on reducing it. It can also go a long way to preventing the adrenalin button from staying stuck on.

LEVEL 7 – Try more tests and trials

Try to stop and relax as a response to everything that happens and stay calm, cool, and collected. “Keep your head, don’t lose it.”

LEVEL 8 – Tracking improvement

As time goes along, it is good to look at your progress in acquiring the life skill of relaxation. Periodically estimate your percent improvement in the skill of relaxation from the beginning of your training and aim for continuous improvement, even when under pressure or during stress.

LEVEL 9 – Take off

Use this life skill to launch yourself away from the problems it can help you solve or resolve and to go on to a better way of living in which you can feel good and function well. Make an extensive list of the specific problems and issues this life skill empowers you to rise above and leave behind. Visualize yourself doing so.

LEVEL 10 – Texts for this topic

If you would like to delve deeper into the whole subject of relaxation and stress management for life, I can recommend reading Calm, Cool, and Collected.

Please Note: Books are not available at this time.