Everyone uses their own techniques to calm down. They range from the ‘count to 10’ technique used at times of maximum irritation, to catching a few calm moments, to taking time out to get away from it all. None of these need to be taught and in fact most are used as a result of trial-and-error, personal circumstances and opportunities. A state of calm may result from taking a deep breath to going for a walk, exercising, having a massage, reading or maybe stroking the cat. Yes, we all know how to relax - or do we?
Although most people know how to wind down, comparatively few people can successfully relax beyond a certain point. Learning to relax properly is a skill. I’ve yet to come across a therapist who hasn’t heard, "I get all the relaxation I need when I (go to bed; drink a beer; watch a movie; etc) but none of these actually equate to the techniques of relaxation or achieve the same effects. Some view relaxation as a thing for hippies, or for people who light candles around their bath and listen to whale noises on the CD player. The reality is quite different as elite athletes, sportsmen and women, in fact anyone who has seriously tried relaxation, will attest. What’s more, the range of available techniques means even the twitchiest of individuals can be accommodated.
The most common relaxation methods include progressive relaxation, autogenic training, deep breathing, meditation, hypnosis, biofeedback, music therapy, aerobic exercise, cognitive approaches and pharmacological methods. Although many others exist I have listed those that, to some degree or another, have been evaluated by research.
Why the emphasis on relaxation? Relaxation is highly effective, both as a preventative measure and a treatment, for psychological and physical conditions. It is recommended as a primary or adjunct therapy for a huge range of problems including anxiety-related disorders, anger management, pain, high blood pressure, cardiac health and depression. As a technique, it is increasingly being recommended as an everyday routine for support of the immune system and to help with a general sense of psychological and emotional well-being.
In clinical contexts the aim of teaching relaxation is to reduce stress and so prevent the emotional and health problems perceived to result from stress. The therapist teaches their client how to recognize, control and modify their physical and mental responses to stressful situations. The most common targets are the reduction of muscular tension, over-breathing, tachycardia and gastrointestinal upsets. To this end relaxation may be used in isolation or in combination with other therapies.
What we know about relaxation approaches is they work differently with different people in different problem situations. Most methods appear to have the desired effects, but some are more acceptable than others, according to preference. In clinical settings a detailed assessment of the individual will also be undertaken to establish levels of motivation, ability to self-regulate, and expectations about what can reasonably be expected.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.