Consult your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.
Much of the time, you may carry tension around with you in your body and may not even realize it. You may tend to pay more attention to the outside world than you do to focusing on how your body is responding to it. The first step in recognizing and reducing stress is body awareness. The following exercises focus your attention on each part of your body, from your head to your toes. They help you release tension and cleanse your mind by allowing you to focus on each muscle group and on your breathing. You may use a CD with nature sounds or soft, relaxing music to help you relax during the following exercises, all three of which can be done together as a set.
Body Scan Exercise
Lie down on a soft rug, mat, or a firm bed or sit in a chair with neck support and get comfortable. Close your eyes. Starting with your toes and then moving up your body, ask yourself, “Where am I tense?” If you find a muscle group anywhere in your body that feels tense, slightly tighten those muscles even more. For example, say to yourself, “I am tensing my neck muscles,” and “I am creating tension in my body.” Then remember what that tension feels like as you go to any other muscle groups that are tense and do the same thing to them. After you have gone to each of your muscle groups, ask yourself which ones are holding the most tension. Is one side of your body more tense than the other? What body parts came into your awareness first? Which parts are you less aware of?
Next, become aware of any discomfort you are feeling anywhere in your body. How would you describe this discomfort? Is it a stabbing or a throbbing, or a burning pain? Now allow your body to take over and do what it wants to do to the muscles. Since most people do not recognize when they are chronically tensed, the first step in relaxation is to become more body aware. (Davis, et al., 1988; Cooper and Miller, 2010)
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercise (PMR)
PMR works on all four of the body’s major muscle groups:
(1) hands, forearms, and biceps
(2) head, face, throat and shoulders, including the forehead, cheeks, nose, eyes, jaws, lips, tongue and neck
(3) chest, stomach, and lower back
(4) thighs, buttocks, calves, and feet.
This exercise allows you to release tension by focusing on specific muscles, one at a time, moving from your head to your toes.
Start by tensing the muscles around your scalp. Hold for 5 to 7 seconds and then release for 20 or 30 seconds. As you are letting go, imagine you are draining your body of all the toxins and stress of your day. You will feel your muscles slowly begin to give way. Stay there until all the scalp muscles are completely relaxed. Do this to all of your muscle groups, from eyelids to temples, to your mouth; then down your neck and shoulders and arms, then down your chest, stomach, and lower back; then down your thighs, buttocks, calves, and feet. Breathe calmly and remember to think about releasing all the stress and toxins when you breathe out. You can improve the success of this exercise by using diaphragmatic breathing. [See Below]. If you find you have a difficult time relaxing a muscle, or if the tension quickly returns there after you have relaxed it, you can go back to that area and focus your breathing and releasing on it. (Davis, et al., 1988; Cooper and Miller, 2010)
Proper breathing is vital in the healing process. When you don’t allow a sufficient amount of air to reach your lungs, your blood is not properly purified or oxygenated. When your blood lacks enough oxygen, waste products are kept in circulation instead of being removed. This slowly poisons your system. Your digestion decreases. Your organs and other body tissues deteriorate. Your chronic pain increases. Breathing exercises, including diaphragmatic breathing, are often effective in reducing anxiety, depression, muscle tension, pain, and fatigue. (Davis, et al., 1988)
Here’s how this exercise is done: Place one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest. Take a normal breath and see which of your hands moves the most. If your hand on your chest moves the most, you are breathing in only shallow breaths, which are not as healing to your body as deeper ones from your abdomen. Try taking a breath from your abdomen. It will feel and appear that you are pushing your stomach out. Now take a deep breath in through your nose slowly for a count of three and then exhale for a count of three. Make sure your exhalation is as long as your inhalation. Be sure to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, especially if you have problems with dry mouth. With each breath you should feel your body relaxing and feeling heavier and warmer. If you do this exercise regularly, you may find that you are feeling less tense and more relaxed. (Otis, 2007)
A Healing Time Each Day
Do you find yourself more relaxed and with less pain than you did before these exercises? You can feel this way anytime you want. By giving yourself this healing time each day, you may find that you notice less pain and have more energy for other things you want to do in your day.
Cooper, Celeste and Miller, Jeffrey. Integrative Therapies for Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Myofascial Pain: The Mind-Body Connection. Rochester, Vermont, Healing Arts, 2010, p. 284-286.
Davis, Martha, et al. The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook. Oakland Ca., New Harbinger, 1988, p. 16, 21-28.
Otis, John. Managing Chronic Pain: A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Approach. New York, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 29-38.