Relaxation techniques include a number of practices such as progressive relaxation, guided imagery, biofeedback, self-hypnosis and deep breathing exercises. The goal is similar in all: to consciously produce the body’s natural relaxation response, characterized by slower breathing, lower blood pressure and a feeling of calm and well-being. Some may use the techniques to release tension, counteract stress, induce sleep, reduce pain and calm emotions. Relaxation techniques are generally safe.[i]
While relaxation techniques may be an effective part of an overall treatment plan for depression, anxiety and some types of pain, they should NOT be used to replace scientifically proven treatments or to postpone seeing a health care provider about a health condition.[ii]
About Relaxation Techniques
Some research suggests that relaxation techniques may help with other conditions, such as ringing in the ears, overactive bladder, digestive disorders and headaches. However, their ability to improve conditions such as high blood pressure and asthma is unclear.
Relaxation is more than a state of mind; it physically changes the way your body functions. When your body is relaxed breathing slows, blood pressure and oxygen consumption decrease and some people report an increased sense of well-being. This is called the “relaxation response.”
The following techniques may be most effective when practiced regularly and combined with good nutrition, regular exercise and system.
- Autogenic training: When using this method, you focus on the physical sensation of your own breathing or heartbeat and picture your body as warm, heavy, and/or relaxed.
- Biofeedback: Biofeedback-assisted relaxation uses electronic devices to teach you how to consciously produce the relaxation response.
- Guided imagery: For this technique, you focus on pleasant images to replace negative or stressful feelings and relax. Guided imagery may be directed by you or a practitioner through storytelling or descriptions designed to suggest mental images, also called visualization.
- Progressive relaxation: Also called Jacobson’s progressive relaxation or progressive muscle relaxation. For this relaxation method, you focus on tightening and releasing muscle groups. Progressive relaxation is often combined with guided imagery and breathing exercises.
- Self-Hypnosis: In self-hypnosis you produce the relaxation response with a phrase or nonverbal cue called a “suggestion”.
- Deep breathing or breathing exercises: To use this method, consciously slow your breathing and focus on taking regular, deep breaths. There has been renewed patient interest in breathing exercises or retraining to reduce hyperventilation, regulate breathing and achieve a better balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood.
Mind and body practices, such as meditation and yoga are also sometimes considered relaxation techniques.
How Relaxation Techniques May Work
When you are under stress, your body releases hormones that produce the “fight-or-flight response.” Heart rate and breathing rate go up and blood vessels narrow, restricting the flow of blood. This response allows energy to flow to parts of your body that need to take action, for example the muscles and the heart. However useful this response may be in the short term, there is evidence that when your body remains in a stress state for a long time, emotional or physical damage can occur. Long-term or chronic stress, lasting months or years, may reduce your body’s ability to fight off illness and lead to or worsen certain health conditions. Chronic stress may play a role in developing high blood pressure, headaches and may worsen conditions, such as asthma.
Are These Techniques Safe?
Relaxation techniques are generally considered safe for healthy people. There have been rare reports that certain relaxation techniques might cause or worsen symptoms in people with epilepsy or certain psychiatric conditions, or with a history or abuse or trauma. People with heart disease should talk to their health care practitioner before doing progressive muscle relaxation.
Ask Dr. Greif if any of these techniques could benefit your health concerns and do NOT use these techniques to replace conventional care or regular check-ups with Dr. Greif.
[i] Benson H, Casey A, Dadoly A, et al., eds. Stress Management: Approaches for preventing and reducing stress. A Harvard Medical School Special Health Report. Boston, MA: Harvard Medical School; 2008.
[iii] Dickinson H, Campbell F, Beyer F, et al. Relaxation therapies for the management of primary hypertension in adults: A Cochrane review. Journal of Human Hypertension. 2008;22(12):809–820.
[iv] Dusek JA, Benson H. Mind-body medicine: a model of the comparative clinical impact of acute stress and relaxation responses. Minnesota Medicine. 2009; 92(5):47–50.