Welcome to the Mindfulness Series. In this fourth and final chapter we cover details on beneficial exercises and practices that may help decrease levels of stress and increase happiness and well-being. We have detailed a few relaxation and meditation exercises that be may used in stressful situations. At the end of this chapter there is a list of websites you may want to visit.
Here are some guidelines for using relaxation exercises:
1. Try to practice whichever exercise you prefer at least once or twice a day. Expect your ability to relax to improve as you continue practicing, and expect to practice two or three weeks before you become genuinely proficient. Once you learn how to do one of the exercises, you may no longer require the recorded instructions, and you can tailor the exercise to your own liking.
2. Avoid practicing within an hour before or after a meal (either hunger or feeling full may distract you). Also avoid practicing immediately after engaging in vigorous exercise.
3. Sit quietly and in a comfortable position, with your legs uncrossed and your arms resting at your sides. Or, if required lie down on your back, with your arms beside you. This is especially important when you are first learning the exercise.
4. Adopt a calm, accepting attitude towards your practice. Don’t worry about how well you’re doing or about possible interruptions. Instead, know that with repetition your ability to relax will grow.
5. When you are ready, close your eyes, begin listening to the recording, and follow the directions. As you complete the exercise, you can expect your mind to wander a bit—when this happens you can simply re-direct your focus back to the recording.
6. Once you’ve finished, stretch, look around and remain still for another minute or two.
7. As you become skilled with your chosen exercise, try applying it to specific situations that might otherwise be anxiety provoking, such as tests, oral presentations, difficult social situations, job interviews, insomnia, and so forth.
1. Initially, until you become familiar with the exercise, it may be best to have someone read the exercise to you while you close your eyes and sit in a comfortable chair. Alternatively, if you would like to do it alone, you can record the exercise and play it back to yourself.
2. When you tense your muscles, you should hold that tension (as comfortably as you can) for around 5 to 10 seconds. Then, stay in the relaxed state for at least 10 seconds.
3. A very important piece of this exercise is bringing awareness to the feelings of tension and relaxation. Therefore, throughout the exercise, make sure you are paying attention to these feelings and noticing how different your muscles feel when you move from tension to relaxation.
4. Practice regularly. The more you practice, the more it will become a habit, and the quicker you will be able to bring about relaxation when you are tense.
5. Make sure you do at least two cycles of tension-relaxation for each muscle group.
Progressive body relaxation exercise using tension/relaxation
Relaxation exercises can be a very effective way of reducing your stress and anxiety. One relaxation exercise called progressive muscle relaxation focuses on a person alternating between tensing and relaxing different muscle groups throughout the body. In this way, relaxation is viewed like a pendulum. More complete relaxation of your muscles can be obtained by first going to the other extreme (that is, by tensing your muscles). In addition, by tensing your muscles (a common symptom of anxiety) and immediately relaxing them, the symptom of muscle tension may become a signal to relax over time.
Time Required: At least 30 minutes
1. Sit in a comfortable chair and bring your attention to your left hand. Clench your left hand to make a fist. Pay attention to these feelings of tension. Then, let go of your fist, letting your hand rest against your side or the arm of the chair. Be aware of how different your hand feels in a state of relaxation as compared to tension. Then, make a fist with your left hand again, then relax it, continuing to pay attention to how your hand feels in states of tension and relaxation. Repeat this procedure with your right hand.
2. After you have finished tensing and relaxing your hands, bend both hands back at the wrists in order to tense the muscles in the back of your hand and in your forearms. As before, pay attention to what this muscle tension feels like. After you have tensed these muscles, relax them, also paying attention to what this state of relaxation feels like. Repeat.
3. Make a tight fist with both hands, and pull your hands toward your shoulders. This will bring tension to your biceps. Be aware of this tension and then relax, allowing your arms to drop loosely to your sides. Pay attention to how your arms now feel. Repeat.
4. Shrug your shoulders as high as you can. Pay attention to the tension as you do this. Hold it, then relax your shoulders. Let your shoulders drop. Notice how different this state of relaxation feels compared to when your shoulders were tense. Repeat.
5. Now, bring attention to your face. Wrinkle your forehead. Tense those muscles and hold this state. Notice the feelings of tension. Then, relax those muscles completely, being aware of these feelings of relaxation. Repeat.
6. Close your eyes as tightly as you can. You should feel tension all around your eyes. After holding this state, relax. Recognize differences in how relaxation feels as compared to tension. Repeat. Clench your jaw, biting your teeth together. Hold this tension and then relax. Repeat. To finish relaxing the muscles of your face, press your lips together as tightly as you can. You should feel tension all around your mouth. Examine how this tension feels. Now relax your lips, and in doing so, let go of that tension. Be aware of how this feels. Repeat.
7. Move your awareness down from your face to your neck. Put your head back and press the back of your head against the back of the chair you are sitting in. Feel the tension in your neck and then bring your head back to relax it. Repeat. Now bring your head forward. Push your chin against the top of your chest. Feel the tension in the back of your neck. Hold it, then relax. Notice how different tension and relaxation feel. Repeat.
8. Direct your attention to your upper back. Arch your back, sticking out your chest and stomach. Notice the tension in your back. Recognize what that tension feels like. Then, let go of that tension, bringing about deep relaxation. Allow those muscles to become loose. Be aware of what that relaxation feels like. Repeat. Take a deep breath. Breath in as much as you can. Fill your chest with air until you can feel tension throughout your chest. Hold it and then release. Repeat. Notice your muscles in your chest getting more and more relaxed.
9. Then, tense your stomach muscles. Notice how that tension feels and then relax those muscles, again paying attention to that state of relaxation and how different it feels from tension. Repeat.
10. Now move your awareness to your legs. Lift your legs up and stretch them out. Feel how tense the muscles in your thighs are. Then, let your legs drop, relaxing your thigh muscles. Pay attention to the different sensations of relaxation and tension. Repeat. Tense both of your calf muscles. You can do this by pointing your toes upward. You should feel the pull of your calf muscles as they tense. Notice that feeling. Then, let them relax. Let your feet fall, bringing about relaxation in your calf muscles. Notice that feeling, too. Repeat.
11. You are now done tensing and relaxing all muscles in your body. Scan the different muscles groups covered, and bring attention to any lingering muscle tension. If you find any, bring relaxation to those muscle groups, continuing to notice how different your body feels in a state of relaxation.
One step at a time
Walking meditation when experiencing strong feelings. Often when we walk we do this to get somewhere, it is a means to an end. In a walking meditation the aim is not to reach a goal, but to draw awareness to the walking itself; it is an end in itself. This means walking slowly and with awareness of every step you take. It is a great way to calm down or simply take your mind of things that are bothering you. This walking meditation is adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh (1991), who is a Vietnamese monk working in France. He called the book in which this is explained Peace is Every Step. Making peace through walking can be used when you have strong feelings that are bothering you; whether it is anger or sadness. Walking with awareness, especially in nature will help you to come to terms with those feelings. Recite to yourself whilst walking: Breathing in, I know that anger is here Breathing out, I salute the anger Breathing in, I know that anger is unpleasant Breathing out, I know this feeling too will pass Breathing in, I draw strength from nature Breathing out, I focus on the walking
Note that anger is there, it doesn’t say you are angry, in other words, you don’t interpret your anger, identify with it or otherwise let it dominate you: anger is there, that is all. From this perspective there is a distance between you and the anger and it becomes just another emotion that is sometimes there, and sometimes will not be there.
Nutrition Nourishment hopes you’ve enjoyed the Mindfulness Series and found useful information on managing stress levels and self-care techniques. It’s important to take time out of your day, even 15 mins to recharge and nourish your soul. Whether it’s going for a short walk, making a cup of herbal tea and sitting outside, meeting with a friend or taking a long bath. Self-care will reduce the likelihood of burnout and lead to a happier and more productive life.
If you haven’t already don’t forget to check out the Other Chapters in this series. Links Below.
Chapter One: Burn-out. More than a Stress Response.
Chapter Two: Self Care and Building Resilience against Stress
The Mindfulness Series: Chapter Three. How Meditation and Mindfulness Beat Stress
Tegan, Nutrition Nourishment