Re-post from February 2012…
I have a lot of trouble relaxing sometimes. It’s much easier to say “relax” than to actually do it! I’ve practiced a variety of techniques since I was a teenager, because beginning in childhood I had extreme anxiety and trouble falling asleep. I’m not sure how I learned about ways to relax, but I think I read it in a self-help book.
Some of the relaxation techniques that I have used focus directly on the muscles that are tense. I prefer to lie on my back but you could sit in a comfortable chair. I start with my feet. I tense the muscles of my feet as tightly as I can and hold for 3-5 seconds, then relax, imagining all the tension flowing out. I repeat this for my feet, then move to my ankles and calves. I try to feel the heaviness of each area as I move up. For example, when I finish my legs, I tell myself that my legs are as heavy as concrete. I continue with my arms, torso, neck and head. When I’m finished, I search through my body for any remaining tension, and if I find any I repeat the tense-release procedure.This is also called progressive relaxation.
Sometimes I imagine all my muscles becoming as heavy as lead and being pulled downward by gravity. Other times I use conscious breathing, one of the simplest methods. I often do it lying down before I fall asleep because it helps me clear my mind of worry and racing thoughts. I have practiced it enough that, except in the most worrisome times, all I need to do is to slow down and even out my breathing rhythm. I pay attention to my breath and in a few seconds my muscles begin to relax. I drop my jaw a bit (I carry a lot of anxiety in my jaw) to release the tension there and take some breaths through my mouth. Sometimes I have to call my attention back to my breath several times, but if I persist (and don’t get frustrated with myself!) I usually achieve my goal.
When I first learned controlled breathing, it was a bit scary because I had a fear of suffocating and I didn’t like to think about my breathing at all (this was a long, long time ago). However, I persisted because I had bad insomnia, and over time I got better at it. I also had trouble, as most people do, with intrusive thoughts. I tried to actively push them away but that didn’t work because it still took my concentration away from my breath. I had to learn to let them go as if they were leaving anyway. I also find it helpful to use a mantra when I have severely intrusive thoughts, because when I think the mantra I’m automatically thinking other things less. A mantra can be a word or a phrase or a longer prayer.
Here’s how to get started with conscious breathing: First, make sure you are in a position (lying or sitting) where you can comfortably allow your chest and abdomen to expand as you breathe. Begin by noticing your breathing – not controlling it, just noticing. Awareness by itself may slow it down. Other thoughts will come to mind; let them float away. Gently draw your attention back to your breath. The goal is to maintain passive concentration. Next, try to breathe in through your nose for a count of 5, then out through your mouth for a count of 5. Don’t force it, just let it happen. Feel the air flowing into your nostrils then past your tongue. Let the breath travel to every part of your body, gathering negativity and stress, which you can then breathe out to be rid of it. The next inhalation will bring in peace and relaxation. Continue this practice for 20-30 minutes, or as long as you comfortably can. Don’t be discouraged if you are bombarded with unwanted thoughts! With practice, you will be able to let them automatically slide out as soon as they enter. At the end of the meditation you will feel calmer, relaxed, and refreshed (and possibly asleep!).