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Relaxation techniques

In this article, you will learn about anxiety and a number of relaxation techniques you can use when you feel necessary.

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About Anxiety

Everybody experiences anxiety at some time.  It is a natural response, useful in helping us to avoid dangerous situations.  When faced with a threat, the automatic response of fight or flight takes over and our body prepares for action. 

 You may recognise some of the following signs and symptoms of anxiety:

  • Feeling nervous, restless or tense
  • Having a constant feeling of dread
  • Heart beating faster, rapid breathing, shortness of breath
  • Tense muscles
  • Trembling, sweating
  • Digestive problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty in controlling worry
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Chest Pain
  • Dizziness
  • Lack of appetite

Fear is part of our natural survival response, if we are in a survival situation it works incredibly well to keep us safe.  A useful part of the fight or flight response is to focus on the thing by which we feel threatened so we can escape from it.  If we see a ferocious growling dog, for example, we are going to keep watching it in case it tries to attack us.  Once we have walked away from it and the danger has gone, we can relax and go about our business.

A cancer diagnosis can be difficult to cope with and you might feel frightened and worry about what will happen to you.  After treatment, many people worry about whether cancer will come back.  For some people, coming close to death brings about growth and positive life transformations, allowing them to bring meaning to life.  “In my own research with breast cancer survivors, many of them reported positive life transformations that they attributed to being faced with death.  The experience triggers a surge in fear whilst also inviting them to re-evaluate what meaning they were going to place on their finite time” Dr Julie Smith

It makes sense that cancer may increase your overall sense of vulnerability regarding your health and it is natural that you would focus your attention on what you are feeling in your body.  Worrying about any aches or pains (perceived threat) can trigger your fight/flight response.  This leads to more physiological symptoms (see list above) which leads to more worry which may leave you feeling constantly anxious as the vicious cycle keeps going.  If this sounds familiar and you are struggling with anxiety, here are some tips that you can use.  Setting aside a space to practice these techniques is a great investment of your time as the more you practice, the easier it becomes and the quicker you can settle down your anxiety responses.  Be patient with yourself if you find this difficult. With practice, you’ll get better at mastering these relaxation techniques!

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Learning to Relax

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a technique that can be used to help with the physical sensations associated with anxiety, such as muscle tension.  The goal of PMR is to create deep physical relaxation by tensing and relaxing your muscles. You may notice that creating physical relaxation influences mental relaxation.

  1. Close your eyes and relax. Take some deep breaths from your belly as you sit quietly.
  2. Produce tension in your lower arms by making fists and pulling up on your wrists so that your wrists nearly touch your shoulders. Focus on the tension (10 seconds). Now release the tension in your lower arms and hands. Let your arms relax with your palms down. Focus your attention on the feeling of relaxation and relax your muscles (50 seconds). Continue to breathe deeply and think the word “relax” with each exhale.
  3. Produce tension in your upper arms by leaning forward, pulling your arms back and into the sides of your body, and trying to touch your elbows behind your back. Focus on the tension (10 seconds). Now release your arms and relax (50 seconds), letting all the tension go. Feel the difference between tension and relaxation. As you sit quietly, say the word “relax.”
  4. Produce tension in your lower legs by flexing your feet up and bringing your toes toward your upper body, trying to touch your toes to your knees. Feel the tension in your feet, ankles, shins, and calves. Focus on the tension (10 seconds). Now release the tension and feel the difference between the tension and the relaxation (50 seconds). As you sit quietly, think of the word “relax” with each exhale from your belly.
  5. Produce tension in your upper legs by bringing your knees together and lifting your legs off the chair. Focus on the tension in your upper legs (10 seconds). Now, release the tension in your legs and feel the difference between the tension and the relaxation. Focus on the feeling of relaxation (50 seconds). Think of the word “relax” as you continue to sit quietly, breathing deeply.
  6. Produce tension in your stomach by pulling your stomach tightly toward your spine. Feel the tension and tightness; focus on that part of your body (10 seconds). Now let your stomach go and relax outward. Feel the comfortable feeling of relaxation (50 seconds), and as you sit quietly, think the word “relax” with each exhale.
  7. Produce tension around your chest by taking a deep breath and holding it. Feel the tension in your chest and back. Hold your breath (10 seconds). Now relax and let the air out slowly (50 seconds) and feel the difference between the tension and the relaxation.   As you sit quietly, continue to breathe deeply and think about the word “relax.”
  8. Produce tension in your shoulders by bringing your shoulders up toward your ears. Focus on the tension in your shoulders and neck (10 seconds). Now drop your shoulders; let them droop and relax. Concentrate on the sensation of relaxation (50 seconds). As you sit quietly, think about the word “relax.”
  9. Produce tension around your neck by tilting your chin down and trying to press the back of your neck against the chair or toward the wall behind you. Focus on the tightness around the back of your neck (10 seconds). Now release the tension and concentrate on the relaxation (50 seconds) and feel the difference between the tension and the relaxation. As you sit quietly, think of the word “relax” with each deep exhale.
  10. Produce tension around your mouth and jaw by clenching your teeth and pushing the corners of your mouth back. Feel the tension in your mouth and jaw (10 seconds). Now release the tension, allowing your mouth to drop open, and concentrate on the difference between the tension and the relaxation (50 seconds). As you sit quietly, think about the word “relax.”
  11. Produce tension around your eyes by tightly squeezing your eyes shut for a few seconds and then releasing the tension in your eyes. Feel the difference between the tension and the relaxation (50 seconds). As you sit quietly, continue to breathe deeply from your belly and think about the word “relax.”
  12. Produce tension across your lower forehead by pulling your eyebrows down toward the centre of your face and frowning. Focus on the tension in your forehead (10 seconds). Now relax your forehead and feel the difference between the tension and the relaxation (50 seconds). Think of the word “relax” with each exhale.
  13. Produce tension in your upper forehead by raising your eyebrows to the top of your head. Focus on the pulling sensation and tension across your forehead (10 seconds). Now relax your eyebrows and focus on the difference between tension and relaxation. As you sit quietly, think about the word “relax.”
  14. You are fully relaxed. Continue to sit quietly with your eyes closed and breathe deeply from your belly. Count to yourself from one to five, making yourself feel more and more relaxed. One, allow all of the tension to leave your body. Two, feel yourself dropping further and further down into relaxation. Three, you’re feeling more and more relaxed. Four, you’re feeling quite relaxed. Five, you’re feeling completely relaxed. As you’re in this relaxed state, focus on all of your muscles being completely comfortable and stress-free. As you sit in this state, breathing deeply, think the word “relax” with each deep exhale (2 minutes).
  15. Now, focus on counting backwards from five and feeling yourself becoming more alert. Five, you’re feeling more alert. Four, you’re feeling yourself coming out of the relaxed state. Three, you’re feeling more awake. Two, you’re opening your eyes. One, you’re sitting up and feeling completely awake and alert.

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Mindful Breathing

Another technique to target mental relaxation is mindfulness, which means paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental manner. By mindfully directing your attention to your breathing, you can create mental relaxation, which is helpful with anxiety. 

Find a comfortable and quiet place where you can sit upright on a chair or on a cushion on the floor. You want to have an alert but relaxed posture. This exercise will last for 5 minutes. Once you are seated, set a timer to alert you when the time is up. Then follow the steps below.  Close your eyes and relax.

  1. Start by inhaling deeply through your mouth for 5 seconds. (Notice how the air feels in your mouth, throat, and lungs as you are inhaling. Let that be the focus of your attention.)
  2. After inhaling, hold your breath for 3 seconds.
  3. Next, gently exhale through your nostrils for 5 seconds, and mentally count the word “one” as you are exhaling (Notice how the air feels in your throat and nostrils as you are releasing your breath.)
  4. Repeat these steps again (inhale, hold, and exhale), and remember to mentally count the next number (“two,” “three,” “four”) as you exhale. Continue doing this until your 5 minutes is up.

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Mindful Cloud Visualisation

  1. Close your eyes and relax.
  2. Imagine that you are sitting on a grassy hill overlooking a big open sky. Occasionally, a fluffy cloud emerges from the distance and blows by. Afterwards, it slowly drifts off into the horizon until it’s no longer visible.
  3. Now, take a thought or judgment that’s been bothering you lately. Try to visualize the thought as one of those clouds in the sky. Let the thought flow with the breeze, just as the cloud does. Watch it float off into the distance and merge with the other clouds in the background.
  4. Remember to just let the cloud float away. Try not to follow the cloud or bring it back. Just stay at your spot on the grassy hill, and observe your thought physically move away from you.
  5. Continue this visualization exercise for any other thought or feeling you have. Really try to visualize and feel the physical distance between yourself and the negative thought as it embodies the form of a cloud.
  6. If you notice that you are having trouble being non-judgmental or non-reactive toward a specific thought or “cloud,” be patient with yourself.

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Box Breathing/Four Square Breathing

Box breathing, also known as ‘Four Square Breathing’, is a technique used when taking slow, deep breaths and can help to relieve anxiety.  Before you get started, make sure that you’re seated upright in a comfortable chair with your feet flat on the floor. Try to be in a stress-free, quiet environment where you can focus on your breathing. Keeping your hands relaxed in your lap with your palms facing up, focus on your posture. You should be sitting up straight. This will help you take deep breaths.

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Left Nostril Breathing

This yoga breathing technique can help ease anxiety and insomnia.  It helps calm the nervous system and is helpful in preparing the body for sleep and to sooth restlessness and sleeplessness.  Focus on keeping your breath slow, smooth, and continuous. Focusing on your breath will help you to remember where you are in the cycle. You should be able to breathe easily throughout the practice.

To practice alternate nostril breathing:

  • Sit in a comfortable position.
  • Place left hand on left knee.
  • Lift right hand up toward nose.
  • Exhale completely and then use your right thumb to close your right nostril.
  • Inhale through your left nostril and then close your left nostril with your fingers.
  • Open your right nostril and exhale through this side.
  • Inhale through your right nostril and then close this nostril.
  • Open your left nostril and exhale through your left side.
  • This is one cycle.
  • Continue for up to 5 minutes.
  • Always complete the practice by finishing with an exhale on the left side.

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Shoulder Roll Breath

  1. Take a deep breath in through your nose and relax your face and shoulders.
  2. Inhale deeply for a count of three and lift your shoulders as if you are trying to touch the bottom of your earlobes with the top of your shoulders.
  3. Exhale deeply through your mouth while rolling your shoulders down and back.  Focus on rolling your shoulders as far away from your ears as you can get.  Try to touch your shoulder blades together.
  4. Repeat this method slowly in a fluid motion (imagine rolling your shoulders in a continuous motion while breathing).

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EFT Tapping

The Emotional Freedom Technique (also referred to as tapping) is an alternative treatment for physical pain and emotional distress.  Similar to acupuncture, EFT focuses on the meridian points (or energy hot spots) to restore balance to the body’s energy – it is believed that restoring this energy balance can relieve symptoms an emotion may have caused.  In this case, anxiety causing physical symptoms.

  1. Place your hand across your chest, flat on top of each other. This is the heart-healing position. Take a few nice, slow and deep breaths in and slowly release. Focus on where you feel the anxiety. How is it showing up in your body? Then at each of the following tapping points, simply say “This Feeling” – Take your time at each point and try to relax your breathing.
    • Top of the head – This feeling
    • Forehead – This feeling
    • Eyebrow – This feeling
    • Side of the eye – This feeling
    • Under the eye – This feeling
    • Under the nose – This feeling
    • Under the mouth – This feeling
    • Collarbone – This feeling
    • Side of the thumb – This feeling
    • Index finder – This feeling
    • Middle finger – This feeling
    • Ring finger – This feeling
    • Little finger – This feeling
    • Side of the hand – This feeling
  2. Place your hands back across your chest and take a deep, slow breath and release. Has the feeling eased a bit? Repeat until you feel neutral. Where the anxiety is no longer bothering you or greatly reduced.
  3. Once you have eased the anxious feelings, you can then TAP IN a better feeling, for example saying “calm”:
    • Top of the head – Calm
    • Forehead – I’m in control now
    • Eyebrow – Calm
    • Side of the eye – I’m in control now
    • Under the eye – Calm
    • Under the nose – I’m in control now
    • Under the mouth – Calm
    • Collarbone – I’m in control now

Keep tapping as long as you want to really clear your energy flow helping you to feel better and better. If you can, get up and move around whilst tapping once you get used to the words.

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Bite Size Tips

5,4,3,2,1 Technique

  • Name 5 things you can see
  • Name 4 things you can hear
  • Name 3 things you can feel
  • Name 2 things you can smell
  • Name 1 thing you can taste

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Alphabet Grounding Technique

Run through the alphabet either out loud or in your mind but pick a particular theme.

For example, animals: Ape / Bear / Cat / Dog / Elephant / Flamingo / Gorilla / Horse etc

Other themes could be Fruit, American states, Names of Women/Men.

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Stand up Straight

Stand up, pull your shoulders back, plant your feet evenly and widely apart and open your chest.  Combining this with deep breathing will stop you from hunching over and remind your body it is not in danger right now.

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 4-7-8 Breathing

  • Breathe in for 4 seconds
  • Hold your breath for 7 seconds
  • Exhale slowly for 8 seconds
  • Repeat until you feel calmer

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Standing Breathing

Ideally, practice this short exercise standing up.  Slowly raise your arms in front of you as you breathe in for four (count 1-2-3-4). Pause when your arms are straight up in the air.  Slowly lower your arms back down and breathe out for 6 (count 2-3-4-5-6). Pause, repeat.

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Ice, Ice, Baby

Fill a large bowl with cold water, add ice cubes and dunk your face in the water for 30 seconds.  This technique triggers your mammalian dive reflex.  It tricks your body into thinking you’re swimming so your heart rate slows, and your body becomes calmer.   You can achieve a similar effect by having a cold shower or going swimming.  Other variants of this method include placing your hand or foot in cold water for a minute or so or holding an ice cube.

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Containment, Jin Shin Jyustu Energy Flows

Bringing awareness to the body as a container, a boundary to the world (Peter Levine)

  • Put one hand on your head, and the other over your heart.
  • Sit this way until you feel some sort of body or state shift.
  • Move your hand from your head to your tummy.
  • Sit this way until you feel a state shift.

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Butterfly Hug

  • Cross both arms over your chest and place each hand over your upper arm/shoulder area.
  • Gently begin tapping each hand one at a time on your arms.  Tap for 10 counts
  • Slow and lengthen your breath.
  • Continue tapping your arms until you feel less anxious.

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Exhale (breathe out) longer than you inhale (breathe in).  It will engage your parasympathetic nervous system and slow your heart rate down.

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Colouring can relax your amygdala, inducing the same state as when we practice mindfulness.  This means our anxiety and stress are lowered.  It provides time for your mind to rest as you are focused on the present.

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Making Lists

If you are feeling anxious, a useful strategy to calm anxious thoughts or a racing mind is grounding yourself by creating lists.  Our thinking brain does not work well when we are in an anxious state so making lists helps to switch it back on.

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Positive Self-Talk

“Thank you anxiety for trying to protect me.  However, on this occasion, I am able to identify that there is no real threat and this is simply a false alarm

“It’s difficult to talk yourself out of anxiety but you can learn to breathe your way through it”

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Freeze Water Bottles

Freeze some water bottles and use them for anxiety by:

  • Placing them on your wrists to slow your heart rate when it skyrockets
  • Placing one at the back of your neck to help bring down a hot flush
  • Sipping on the ice-cold water to bring your mind back to the present
  • Place on your chest for 15 minutes.  Remind yourself that all of your high anxiety moments have eventually faded

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