Developing A Daily Relaxation Response Practice*
By Michael Isaacs
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Do you wish to break the chains of body-mind tension?
The secret is to set aside key times of your day to experience and practice one or more relaxation response techniques.
The relaxation response is a positive effect on the body and mind from certain modes of relaxation. The term “relaxation response” was originated by Herbert Benson, MD in 1974.1
Major bodily relaxation response changes are deeper breathing, softer muscles, slower pulse rate, lower heart rate, reduced blood pressure, and more efficient oxygen consumption. Mental relaxation effects are more alpha brain waves which slow our thoughts and lead to mental calmness.
The opposite of the relaxation response is the “flight or fight” syndrome evidenced by rapid chest breathing, tightened muscles, rapid pulse rate, and heightened anxiety.
Examples of relaxation techniques are deep breathing, gentle yoga stretching, meditation, affirmation, imagery, a qigong or tai chi movement, prayer, gratitude awareness, and inspiring reading or music.
A PERSONAL JOURNEY
My interest in relaxation response daily breaks started when I was a college student. One summer I worked for a lawyer. My job was to go from one hospital to another to review hospital medical reports of his automobile accident clients. I would scurry from one hospital to another all day. I took no breaks. By the end of the day I was exhausted. My work became boring and tiresome. Down deep I knew that I had to get off this treadmill somehow. I vowed that in the future I would learn to operate at a slower pace with moments of rest during the day.
About the same time of this realization, I picked up a book about yoga. The writer defined yoga as a way to break the chains of human pain and suffering. 2. I thought that yoga might help me get off the treadmill of running from one activity to another.
It was through the practice of yoga that I learned how to relax more, to breathe better, and to go inward to find mental peace and calm.
With the knowledge and experience from yoga, I started to take breaks during the day when feasible to reduce excessive thinking, rapid breathing, and out of control behavior. The resting time might be stretching, deep breathing, visualization, and meditation. Which technique I would use would vary, depending on what I needed at the time. Sometimes it included combinations. The breaks would last from a minute to five minutes. Sometimes they would be done sitting and sometimes standing. They would be done indoors and occasionally outdoors. Much later in my life I added t’ai chi and qigong movements to my toolbox.
TRIGGER THE RESPONSE
Start by practicing and experiencing a modality of your choice for a time period between a minute to five minutes. With practice and repetition, benefits can occur even if done for less than a minute. When you develop the habit of daily practice and feel the positive effects, you may want to do it longer than five minutes and more than once a day.
CHOOSE YOUR TIME
Key times to practice are those moments when one activity or action begins and another ends. These resting spots are in accord with nature as reflected in the pause between the inhale breath and the exhale breath and in between heartbeats.
Here are auspicious transition time spaces for relaxation response techniques:
After waking in the morning and before rising from bed
Before and after eating.
After starting the car ignition and before driving away.
Immediately before work commences.
Right after work ends
Before sleeping at night
Every few hours during the day.
At sunrise or sunset.
In the early morning, before the members of your household arise.
If you are the mother of an infant child, when the baby is napping.
Any moments of your day or night when you can set aside uninterrupted quiet time without interruption on a regular or fairly regular basis.3
SET YOUR GOALS AND INTENTIONS
The more you practice the techniques the more they can be available as calming tools when you need them. For example, when you feel your muscles tensing; when your breathing is rapid and shallow; when you are anxious before public speaking; when your emotions are turbulent; and, when you can’t fall asleep.
Try following these four suggestions: Realize the importance of these practices and make them a priority. Establish the habit of integrating them into your daily life on a regular basis. Overcome the feeling of failure due to the distracting thoughts and feelings that inevitably occur in the process. Push aside the belief that you do not have enough time to add such activities in your busy schedule.
In order to get started, you need to realize the importance of relaxation response inner moments so that they are given priority over other competing interests and activities. It is well documented that high stress over a period of time is bad for body, mind, and spirit.4 Excessive stress drains energy. It weakens the immune system and thereby exposes the body to physical ailments such as high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and degenerative diseases. It can lead to anxiety disorders, depression, lack of concentration, and a build up of anger. We feel out of control, powerless, and helpless when stress dominates our lives. Too much stress can put pressure on families leading to serious emotional problems among partners and with children. There is less time to smell the flowers, to follow your bliss.
It is not easy to introduce a new habit that involves looking inwards in a disciplined way. First you must put your body in the time and place designated. To carve a time for yourself and being there is quite an achievement. It is a truism: one of the most important things in life is showing up! Keeping to a specific time frame will increase your self-esteem as well! 5
For example, as a competitive swimmer in college, going to practice often was the last thing I wanted to do. The swimming season is in the winter. The prospect of walking to the gym in the cold temperature, taking a shower, and then diving in the cold water was not inviting. But I knew that if I simply moved my body to take the necessary steps, walk to the gym, undress, shower, put on my bathing suit, walk into the pool area, sit on a bench, and then stand on the diving platform at the edge of the pool, there was no way to turn back from diving into the waters and starting my practice.
One way to establish the habit of showing up is to follow the “21 day” rule. Experts in the motivational field have advised trainees to stay with a desired new routine daily for approximately 21 days without judging whether you like it or not. This is the average time period for a practice to develop into a habit. After this time frame is completed, the behavior often becomes automatic, like brushing your teeth every day without even thinking.
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*Michael S. Isaacs, MSW, NCPsyA
San Francisco, CA. Published in "Psychospiritual Dialogue" of the
Association of Psychotherapy and Spirituality