Often, if we are feeling very up-tight, it is well nigh impossible to sit down and relax straightaway. I would suggest that you run up and down stairs a few times, dig the garden or go for a walk first. If it is not appropriate to use up your adrenalin physically then you could sit yourself down, close your eyes, and begin to imagine a time when you were active. This could be something like riding a horse, swimming, cycling, running. Imagine yourself back to a time when you were doing this activity, seeing the things around you that you saw. Hearing any sounds, smelling any smells, and feeling the feeling that you had in your body. Maybe feel the wind in your hair and the temperature of the water or air around you. Really be there. Do not worry if you cannot visualise it very well, some people are better at making pictures in their minds than others. Having enjoyed the activity for a little while, when you are ready, find some way in your imagination to gradually move from being active to just enjoying the peace and calmness of the special place you are in. Maybe swim to a beach and relax on the sand, or dismount from your horse in a woodland glade.
How does it work?
We all have different parts of our brain – our conscious mind, if you like, and our unconscious mind. We also seem to have two ways of understanding things – a rational, intellectual way and an emotional way. We can ‘know’ something but that often doesn’t affect our feelings.
A model (not the truth but a way of looking at something to help our understanding) that may help us to understand why that is, talks about the two halves of our brain, our right and left cerebral hemisphere which tend to function fairly independently.
The left half of the brain, which may be seen as responsible for our verbal and language skills, and is the source of our critical, evaluative, logical thought processes, is that part of our mind or consciousness that we are generally most aware of in our day to day activity.
The right side of our brain, which becomes more active as we relax, may be seen as responsible for our visual and creative imagination, our intuitive and instinctive part of ourselves and could be equated to the ‘unconscious’ part of our minds. This is where we process our feelings and emotions.
Relaxation techniques and self-hypnosis
When in our normal waking state, our brain functions predominantly in “left brain” mode. As we begin to relax the activity begins to shift over to “right brain”. The critical, evaluative thought processes (predominantly a left brain or conscious operation) start to lessen and suggestions are more readily accepted.
Spontaneous right brain states
This shift in brain activity occurs quite naturally throughout our day. Whenever we find ourselves gazing out of the window in a daydream; driving on “auto-pilot”, with no conscious recollection of the last few miles; whenever we become totally focused on an activity and start to lose awareness of our surroundings, we are predominantly in a “right brain” state.
This is why doing the visualisation I described earlier (swimming or riding etc) will gradually help you to relax. It facilitates a shift into right brain functioning – the right brain thinks in pictures rather than words.
Doing it deliberately
I want to teach you how to access this state of mind deliberately so that you can use it to help yourself to feel calmer and more relaxed.
There are many different ways to increase your right brain activity and if you wish to explore this in greater detail, I refer you to my book ‘Still in the storm’.
For now we will stay with describing a commonly used relaxation/self hypnotic technique that I have found most people can use easily.
Only use these techniques when it is safe and appropriate to do so, never in the driving seat of a car. Even though driving can induce a trance-like state it is better not to encourage it! Always move over to the passenger seat.
If an emergency occurs whilst you are relaxing you can get up immediately and deal with it, but, as you focus internally, your awareness of what is going on around you becomes less, so that unless important it becomes easy to ignore. In the same way as you can shut sounds out when you get absorbed in a good book, you may still hear sounds around you but they become less intrusive.
Whenever you decide to sit down and use a formal self-hypnotic or relaxation technique there are a few precautions that it is wise to take. Always tell yourself before you start how long you want to relax for, because when you become practised at doing these types of exercises you may get quite deeply relaxed and experience time distortion. You may feel you have only been relaxing for ten minutes and half an hour may have passed. This could be very inconvenient, so tell your unconscious mind how long you want to relax for and trust it to give you notice when that time has elapsed.
If you are overtired, any relaxation technique may send you to sleep and if this is not desirable, then make sure you have turned on an alarm clock before you start.
How much and how often?
Some people find getting into this focused or relaxed state easier than others but, as with any skill, it can improve with practice. I would recommend that if this is unfamiliar to you, that you practise for five or ten minutes, maybe twice a day, for the first three to four weeks.
The time spent in this way is more than made up by your improved effectiveness and concentration as you feel less stressed or anxious. You can start to become the master, rather than the victim, of your emotions.
Trying too hard
Another important thing to mention is the biggest problem people seem to have with using relaxation techniques is that they try too hard! Think for a moment, about how, when suffering from insomnia, the more you try to fall asleep the more it seems to evade you. A better way is to focus your attention on something else (maybe your left big toe) and then it just happens.
Allow yourself just to be, not to have to be doing. You can be relaxed and you don’t have to be relaxed. Just accept how you feel at the time and let it go. Don’t worry if stray thoughts cross your mind whilst you are doing these exercises. Allow the thought to float in, and then out, but instead of following it, bring yourself back to what you were doing.
A Breathing Exercise
Close your eyes, tell yourself how long you are going to relax for and then focus your attention on the rise and fall of your chest, on the flow in and out of your breath. Don’t try and change it in any way, just be aware of your breathing. Follow the flow of air in and out through your nose and notice the slight temperature difference between the air you breathe in, which is slightly cooler than the air you breathe out, because the air you breathe out has been warmed by its journey through your lungs. Just be with your breathing – you don’t have to do anything at all. If a stray thought comes into your head, let it flow out again, you don’t need to follow it, just focus back on the rise and fall of your chest etc. Maybe then imagine a calm, relaxing place and really be there, seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling the place (see below).
You might like to read the following into a cassette recorder and then listen to it whilst following the instructions or simply read it through to get the general idea and adopt your own way.
A Progressive Muscular Relaxation Technique:-
Perhaps you would like to make yourself comfortable, place your feet firmly on the floor, and let your hands just rest easily on your lap. If you prefer, you could lie yourself down somewhere comfortable.
I would like you now to take a deep breath in, and as you breathe out just let your body go loose and slack, like a rag doll.
Just let all the tensions drain away with each outgoing breath.
As you breathe out you can let your eyes close and notice just how comfortable your eyelids can feel, resting gently on your eyes. You can begin to spread that comfort into the muscles of your head and face and neck.
Start to become aware of your forehead, very wide and smooth. Become aware of the space within your mouth, of the position of your tongue.
Notice the muscles of your throat relax as you swallow.
You might like to imagine a colour or a warm glow drifting down your body from the top of your head as you begin to relax.
Let that feeling of comfort drift gently down into your neck and shoulders. Let the muscles around your shoulders go loose and slack, let the relaxation drift down your arms right to your fingertips.
Let your arms feel heavy and comfortable. You might notice a tingling feeling or a feeling of warmth in your hands as they relax.
Maybe as you notice the feel of your arms at your side you can almost imagine weaving a cocoon of comfort around yourself, inside and out and I wonder just how you would experience that cocoon of comfort? Maybe it is be a colour or maybe a feeling or both…drifting down, as you feel more and more comfortable.
Let the muscles around your chest relax, let the feeling of comfort spread down into the muscles of your back and stomach, let the muscles of your tummy go loose and slack as that comfort drifts down.
Let any outside noises just recede into the background and contribute to a feeling of safety and comfort.
Enjoy just being, instead of having to be doing.
Let that comfort drift down into your legs, right the way down to your toes. Let the tension drain out of the soles of your feet into the floor.
And maybe your conscious mind can begin to notice how you feel as your unconscious mind helps you to become more and more relaxed and comfortable.
We are all unique individuals and we each experience comfort in different ways. Some people feel very heavy as they sink deeper and deeper into a relaxed state. Others feel light and floaty as they drift more and more into themselves. Still others lose awareness of quite where their arms and legs are. However you experience it – it is perfect for you.
Become aware of your breathing; maybe imagining breathing in a colour and noticing it spread throughout your body as you relax, letting go any tension as you breathe out.
Just enjoy that lovely comfortable feeling, letting go with each outgoing breath to become just as deeply relaxed as you want to be.
A Special Place :-
I would like you, now, to imagine a magic archway, and through that magic archway you can begin to become aware of a very special place, a place where you can feel completely relaxed and happy, safe and calm.
Let your conscious mind wonder what place your unconscious mind will find for you, what place you will see through that magic archway.
It may be a place you have actually visited or it may be a place that your mind creates for you, it may be inside or outside.
But, as you begin to become aware of that place, you can step right through the magic archway and really be there.
Look all around you, notice the colours, whatever you can see.
Smell any smells that might be there.
Hear any sounds that might be in the place you have chosen, and look to see where they are coming from.
Begin to notice the texture of what you are standing or resting on, the temperature of the air around you. Above all feel the peace and calmness of the place you have chosen.
Really experience this special place, because this is your own special place that no-one can take from you, a place where you can go to when you need to relax, to recharge your batteries, a place where any suggestions you give yourself will sink straight into your unconscious mind and begin to exert an influence on how you think and how you feel and how you behave.
As with any skill, as you practise it will become easier to become even more relaxed, even more quickly. And you will never do this for entertainment, but only to help your own self. If anything untoward occurs whilst you are helping yourself in this way you will wake immediately and deal with it as usual but, especially if you have become quite deeply relaxed, it is nicer to come back to the here and now more gradually. So..
Coming back to the here and now:-
Enjoy those feelings of relaxation and calmness and, in a few moments, when you are ready, you can gradually come back to the here and now.
You can count yourself back in your head from 5 to 1, taking all the time you need, so that by the time you reach 1 you are wide awake, eyes open, feeling refreshed and alert, with all your sensations back to normal, but keeping hold of that feeling of calmness within.
Occasionally, if you have been suppressing various sad emotions, you might start to feel upset and shed a tear as you relax. This doesn’t happen often but you can tell yourself that by expressing that feeling you have dealt with whatever it was that caused it. It is a good idea then to relax again and purposefully think of a happy memory and take yourself back there, getting fully in touch with good feelings before returning to the here and now. If you feel that you have a problem that you need some help with, then please go and see a properly qualified therapist or your own doctor.
Remember that practising this skill will mean that you get better and better at it. When you are used to accessing this relaxed state you will probably find that you don’t really need to go through a long routine but with a few breaths, you can slip easily and effortlessly into it.
The body scan
In addition it is very useful to get into the habit of noticing whether you are holding any part of your body too tensely. Every now and again scan your body mentally and as you breathe out, let go any unnecessary tension. You could imagine a colour you associate with calmness, (or if you visualised a colour in your relaxation exercise use that), flowing down through your body as you let go the tension. We all waste a lot of energy holding muscles tense when we don’t need to and often we are unaware of it.
If you would like to download my self hypnosis and guided imagery tracks for your personal use ( note safety points above) please use this link. There is no charge: Dropbox link