Are you consciously aware of your stress response?
Do you know the symptoms of the Fight-Flight-Freeze response?
Do you know how to put the brakes on stress using relaxation?
Responses to Stress
It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.
Do you know what the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response is?
- It’s a split second physiological reaction that our bodies orchestrate to respond to situations we perceive to be stressful
- Much of the stress response is carried out by the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
- The ANS is divided into the:
- Sympathetic Nervous System (Fight-or-flight)
- Parasympathetic Nervous System (Rest-and-digest)
It is a natural physiological response, and so, has its benefits
- From an evolutionary perspective, it would be useful to have your physiology working for you in taking to your heels in the face of a predator
But, nowadays, what if this stress response is happening all the time every time our phone chimes?
Or during “routine” traffic situations?
Or during the hustle and bustle of modern living where the world has now become a global village?
What happens if your stress response is stuck on “On”?
When you perceive that you can relax, your brain will set into motions a response that can help you rest.
The system is also linked to much of the physiology underlying digestion, hence, it is called the “Rest-and-Digest” system.
- Physiologically, this response is seen to propagate from the brain to the rest of the body via the parasympathetic nervous system.
- While this is often seen as a favourable state to be in, people often benefit of stress to improve performance when required, as depicted by the figure below.
When you perceive that you are in danger, your brain will set into motions a response that can help you fight or run away (flight)
- Physiologically, this response is seen to propagate from the brain to the rest of the body via a robust sympathetic nervous system signal.
- While this can be helpful if you actually have to fight or runaway, most of the time in our modern lifestyle, it’s not helpful
- A great deal of effort is spent by people to curb this response from taking over, because, this system is associated with the following signs:
- emotional reactivity
- racing thoughts
- intrusive imagery
- feeling unsafe
- obsessive/cyclical thoughts
- If this response is stuck on “ON” because it’s overstimulated, you may experience:
- exaggerated startle response
- inability to relax
- digestive problems
- emotional flooding
- chronic pain
Have you heard of an Opossum playing dead (“Freeze Response”)?
They are actually not “playing”…it’s the physiologic freeze response.
- Opossums can “play dead” for between a few minutes to 3 hours, depending on the types of predator or danger they are confronted with.
- They are not actually “playing”, they actually go comatose, physiologically.
- In most cases, the predator will play around with the Opossum’s body for a while and leave it (thinking that it’s dead).
- “Playing dead” is regarded is an instinctive defense response from an Opossum.
- While an Opossum is playing dead, its body remains in a limp state, and they start drooling.
- It may sometimes appear that post-death decay has started already in the animal; sometimes they release an odour from their anus that makes predators think that they are decaying.
When you perceive that you are in danger, your brain can also set into motion the freeze response
- Physiologically, this response is seen to propagate from the brain to the rest of the body via an extremely robust parasympathetic nervous system.
- You can imagine that this response may be favourable to someone if they needed to undergo a painful emergency procedure without anesthesia.
- However, for the most part, this is also not a favourable response in modern day living, because, this system is associated with the following signs:
- Relative absence of sensation
- no energy
- feeling “dead”
- reduced physical movement
- “not there”
- “can’t defend oneself”
- disabled cognitive processing
- “can’t think”
- numbing of emotions
- no feelings
- flat affect
- shut down
- can’t say no
- If this response is stuck on “ON” because it’s overstimulated, you may experience:
- flat affect (looking flat)
- chronic fatigue
- dissociation (losing awareness of your environment – time, place, person)
- complex syndromes
- hypotension (low blood pressure)
- poor digestion
Methods to tap into Relaxation
RELAXATION IS A SKILL, NOT SOMETHING THAT HAPPENS TO US WHEN WE’RE NOT STRESSED
There are hundreds of relaxation activities.
- Some activities are relaxing for some, and not for others.
- Sometimes you can be relaxed while doing an activity, and sometimes you’re not while doing the same activity.
How can we conceptualize these in a way that helps us navigate this vast land?
Over the last century, relaxation activities have been conceptualized to be comprised of the following six building blocks/family groups:
1. Stretching exercises
2. Tense-let go exercises
3. Breathing exercises
4. Autogenic training
5. Imagery and positive self-statements
6. Meditation and mindfulness
- An excellent way to relieve tension in the body and relax various muscle groups.
- Studies have shown that relaxation can actually increase our resilience to chronic pain and musculoskeletal issues while also reducing our levels of anxiety, depression, and panic (Ruddock, 2021).
- The focus of this strategy is to relax the muscles by calmly stretching them using low impact exercises and using self-statements to relax these muscles (i.e., passive muscle relaxation scripts or body scans).
Consider laying down or sitting on the floor or on a mat. Close your eyes and slow your breathing. Now think of the muscles in your body that you wish to relax. Once you have these in your mind, begin with one specific muscle and gently tell yourself (in a whisper, or in your head) that, that muscle is beginning to relax. It feels softer, more malleable, and less tense. Allow yourself to stay this way for 5 to 10 minutes if possible.
Bear in mind that this is a process and will deepen with effectiveness as time progresses and it is practiced further.
- Tense-Let Go exercises or Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) strategies are similar to Passive Muscle Relaxation in the sense that they aim to relax the muscles and relieve tension
- The difference is that PMR strategies work by first tensing the muscles that one wants to relax before relaxing them
- This strategy can be focused on relaxing multiple muscle groups throughout the body or a specific muscle group
- This strategy relies heavily on mindful and present focus; Try to be as present as you can be throughout the situation and allow your mind to focus solely on the difference between the tense and relaxed muscle groups.
To do this strategy one must:
- Choose the muscle group(s) that they want to relax.
- Upon choosing this group the individual will then breathe in and at the same time tense the muscle group that they are choosing to focus on for approximately five to ten seconds.
- Once this is done the individual must then release the tension in the muscle group while breathing out at the same time. Do this for all muscle groups being focused on in this session.
- Allow yourself a short period of time about 5 seconds to bring your mind back to normal focus.
- Diaphragmatic breathing helps in regulating our physiological and mental well-being.
- Often when stressed out our breathing becomes rapid, short, and shallow which in turn changes the way our body and mind respond to stressful situations.
Take the time now to consider your breathing regularly.
When you are relaxed?
When you are stressed?
- It is likely that you prefer the breathing when you were most relaxed, usually even more when you are lying down.
- Diaphragmatic breathing can anchor our nervous system in a similar state of relaxation
- One example of a breathing technique that you can use is Belly Breathing or Diaphragmatic breathing which aims at using your full diaphragm rather than taking short and shallow breaths.
To do this:
- Sit, Lie flat, or stand in a comfortable relaxed position.
- Place a hand on your belly under your rib cage and place your other hand over your chest.
- Breathe through your nose and allow your stomach to expand fully, pushing your hand out. Do not move your chest while doing this.
- Release the breath through your mouth slowly. Allow yourself the opportunity to feel your hand on your belly. Push lightly until all the air is released.
- Continue with this task slowly, calmly, and presently for 5-10 reps.
- Stay present, be mindful, and reflect on how you feel after the activity is complete.
- Autogenic relaxation techniques are mindful, purposeful, and intentional thought and word patterns that slowly lull ourselves into a relaxed state.
To begin this Autogenic Relaxation techniques:
- Find a place that you can comfortably begin to relax in. Away from loud noises, external stressors, and remember to wear loose clothing if possible.
- Allow yourself the chance to relax by slowing down your breathing. Letting it become more rhythmic, intentional, and controlled.
- Tell yourself that you are feeling calm and relaxed. Repeat this a few times slowly before moving on.
- Choose an area of your body that you want to work on first. This can be an arm, leg, your head, shoulder etc. Once chosen tell yourself that the body part is becoming heavier, and warmer. Remember to tell yourself that you are feeling calm and relaxed.
- Allow yourself to bring attention to other areas of your body. This could be areas like your heartbeat, head, stomach, Etc. Tell yourself that you are feeling calm and relaxed in these areas and remember to remind yourself that you are feeling relaxed and calm as well.
- Be present and mindful during this activity. Try to be as purposeful and intentional in each statement that you make as this will allow for a more impactful and meaningful use of autogenic relaxation techniques.
- Visualizing scenes in your mind that you view as being peaceful, calming, relaxing and stress free.
- These scenes can be stationary places (like being on the beach hearing the ocean lap against the shore) or a series of different scenes playing out like a movie (like being pampered in a spa).
- The goal of this relaxation technique is to evoke your five senses (Hear, Smell, Taste, Touch, See).
- Our body naturally reacts to the images that we create and we begin to relax and feel calmer, less stressed, and less anxious.
To do this technique:
- Find somewhere that you can sit or lie down and practice uninterrupted, comfortably, and calmly.
- Breathe deeply in and out and close your eyes (this will help with visualization).
- When ready, begin to imagine somewhere that you feel calm, collected, and at ease. Use your five senses as much as possible here. Think about what you can see, smell, touch, hear, and taste.
- What do these details do for you? How do you feel when they arise?
- Grant yourself the opportunity to remain in this scene. Being present and mindful of your experience.
- When ready, open your eyes and reflect on how you are feeling.
- Refers to the internal monologue or script that we allow to run in our mind.
- This relaxation strategy is about sculpting and crafting our internal monologue to be more positive, forgiving, and constructive rather than negative and belittling.
- Positive-Self Talk strategies are therefore focused around the power of language.
- By being more forgiving and easier on ourselves, research has shown that individuals are actually better equipped to handle stressful situations and are more readily able to tackle challenging situations as they arise.
- Additionally, research has found that using Positive-Self-Talk Strategies are beneficial in raising optimism and self-esteem in people.
- This subsequently results in higher levels of confidence and improvements in attitude and belief about goals and achievement.
Examples of Positive-Self-Talk Statements are:
“I can do this, I will get better at it”
“This is hard, I have not done this before, I will continue to try and work at it”
“I may not have done this perfectly, but I did my best”
“I am happy with the effort I gave to this task”
- Refers to the ways in which we allow ourselves to remain present in the moment.
- allows oneself to focus on thoughts feelings and emotions without judgement.
- This means that an individual may acknowledge that they are angry, happy, sad, comfortable, relaxed, depressed, Etc. and give themselves the chance to see that emotion, thought, or feeling without contextual factors; do not judge the emotions, thoughts and feelings that you have.
- Allowing yourself the opportunity to redirect your attention to other aspects of your present experience, like those that elicit feelings that are more congenial.
- One patient coined the term “choicefulness” as an appreciated consequence of his mindfulness practice:
- the ability to be in a situation and choose the best option rather than getting sucked in deeper in the painful experience
How do we categorize stress?
There are six ways we can trigger and sustain physiological stress arousal (Smith, 2006, 2007a).
1. Stressed posture and position
- When stressful situations arise our bodies tend to respond in aggressive or defensive stances that remain for long periods of time.
- These stances when held for extended periods of time impact how our body physiologically responds to stress.
- Skeletal muscle tension, joint stress, reduced blood flow and pooling of blood, increased tension, and fatigue and lowered energy levels are common forms of physiological responses.
2. Stressed skeletal muscles
- In threatening situations, the tightening of skeletal muscles occurs (through gripping, clenching, Etc.). This helps to prepare the body to respond to the situation (whether that is a fight or flight response).
- Chronic skeletal tightening and tension responses like these can result in consistent pain and fatigue in a person.
- Think about a time when you faced something stressful. Do you remember clenching your teeth together? Focusing intensely? balling your hands tightly together?
3. Stressed breathing
- When stressed out, breathing is much more likely to occur in short, uneven, rapid, breaths. This encourages use of your rib and shoulder muscles to breathe, rather than using your diaphragm to take deeper, calmer, breaths
4. Stressed body focus
- Thinking about or giving attention to a specific body part or area can evoke neurophysiological changes in the body related to the body part being thought about.
- Someone who is facing a stressful situation may have an increase in heart rate, tension in the limbs, or a churning anxious stomach.
- Providing focus and attention to these somatic reactions can further aggravate them.
5. Stressed emotions
- When stressful situations arise we often prepare to handle them using affect-arousing cognitions.
- This means we often use self-statements, visualizations, and fantasies to evoke different kinds of emotions in us.
- These statements can consist of: “I’m not good enough” “I won’t succeed” or things of the like.
- When stressed these emotions can elicit feelings of anger, anxiety, depression.
6. Stressed attention
- When stressed out our minds constantly devote energy and attention to the situation that we are currently facing so that we can respond in a manner most appropriate to the situation (Fight, Flight, Defend).
- This is further influenced by whether our minds are focused on a specific task, preoccupied with different worries, attempting to complete multiple activities at the same time (multitasking), or when self-stressors are involved (such as focusing on somatic responses, developing and maintaining stressed postures, thinking negative emotions etc.). rather than the stressful encounter that one is facing.
- When our attention networks are preoccupied with all of these tasks stress is maintained and we remain constantly “on”
Each form of self-stressing suggest a corresponding family of relaxation technique (Smith, 2006, 2007a).
1. Stressed posture and position ⇒ Stretching exercises
2. Stressed skeletal muscles ⇒ Tense-let go exercises (PMR)
3. Stressed breathing ⇒ Breathing exercises
4. Stressed body focus ⇒ Autogenic training
5. Stressed emotions ⇒ Imagery and positive self-statements
6. Stressed attention ⇒ Meditation and Mindfulness
What’s the point of telling you all this?
It serves as a starting point to ground yourself in the face of all the hundreds of relaxation techniques out there.
Examples (Schwartz et al., 2016)
- Hatha yoga is often a mixture of stretching, breathing and meditation.
- Mindfulness, although often presented as a pure approach, is usually a blend of mindfulness and breathing and often a touch of imagery.
- Although these six categories are aligned with a specific self-stressor, each family group does in fact neutralize more than only one specific type of self-stressing.
- Combining these family groups can be beneficial in neutralizing various stressors that may be present in your life.
- One may start out using one exercise to neutralize a certain stressor but also notice that it is beneficial to use that same stress reliever in another situation.
- E.g., Someone experiencing PMR may notice deeper breathing (relaxed breathing), be more mindful of body sensations (mindfulness) and have pleasant visual imagery experiences all as a consequence of doing PMR.
Psychological Relaxation Theory
How can we measure relaxation?
How do we navigate the land of relaxation?
How do we compare two different relaxations experience?
A relaxation experience is a psychological state of mind. Often, relaxation is described with words.
- Language is our operating system: It dictates the boundaries within which we think, feel and act.
- It is synonymous with culture.
What is the Language of the culture of relaxation?
Dr. Jonathon Smith spent much of the last 3 decades studying the neurolinguistics behind relaxation.
- He studied diverse relaxations techniques and attempted to correlate these techniques with “relaxation states” as described using language.
- He started out with about 400 relaxation words and with research and statistical modeling, he was able to identify 19 RELAXATION STATES, or R-STATES (Smith, 2015).
Currently, the R-STATES are grouped into 5 levels as documented below.
- These words are ways in which patients may describe their own situations and are good indicators of where patients are in their relaxation.
- They are useful for comparing relaxation techniques and assessing your progress.
- R-state Disengaged
- (“Feeling distant, far away, detached”)
- R-state Muscles relaxed
- (“Body Comfortable, Breathing Easy”)
- R-state At ease
- (“Peaceful, refreshed”)
- R-state Aware
- (“Focused, Clear”)
- R-state Centered
- (“Absorbed, grounded”)
- R-state Deepening
- (“Sense of ‘going deeper’, ‘things are changing’”)
- R-state Quiet
- (“Still, few thoughts”)
- R-state Accepting
- (“accepting what I can’t have or change, ‘let it be,’ ‘it is what it is’”
- R-state Quick detection of mind wandering
- (“Easy to notice mind wandering or distraction. Catch it early”)
- R-state Easy to let go and refocus
- (“East to let go of mind wandering. Not stuck or caught up in distraction”)
- R-state Curious
- (“Interested. Things seem new.”)
- R-state Savoring
- (“Enjoying each moment”)
- R-state One step at a time
- (“Each moment comes and goes”)
- R-state Happy, Optimistic, Trusting
- R-state Loving, Caring
- R-state Thankful, Grateful
- R-state Awe and Wonder. Mystery.
- R-state Prayerful, Reverent
- R-state Timeless, Boundless, Infinite, At One.
Research has identified several useful patterns (Smith, 1999).
- Patients reporting R-States Disengaged and Muscles Relaxed have accessed a limited range of R-states, a pattern found typically in novice students of relaxation and those who benefit from PMR.
- Anxious and depressed patients, or those under severe stress, consistently report Disengaged as an R-state they seek.
- R-state Loving and Happy is describing a cluster of R-states that are common among those who benefit from vivid visual imagery, suggesting another strategy that might be explored.
- R-state Quiet and Accepting is describing states often reported by practitioners of meditation or mindfulness. If someone experience this R-state while performing a different relaxation family group (e.g., PMR), they may benefit buy augmenting their PMR experience with Mindfulness practice.
The Right Relaxation Regimen for you
Common Questions about Relaxation:
- What does relaxation look like to you?
- What do you consider a good relaxation strategy for yourself?
- When if ever do you feel it is best to switch your relaxation strategy?
- Do certain relaxation techniques help when different moods are present?
- What happens when you start to feel bored of doing the same relaxation techniques?
- Is there a “right” relaxation regimen?
- Do you have to do all your relaxation strategies at the same time like a fitness workout?
- Do you want to take the benefits of your relaxation regimen to other aspects of your life like work?
What is your goal in honing your power of relaxation?
- For most of us, learning to regulate our arousal level will help us be more effective versions of ourselves at work, at home, socially, sleep quality, and even in exercise.
- As the flexibility to regulate your stress and relaxation level improves and filters to all these domains in life, you may experience the joy and freedom of reaching new experiential horizons.
There is no one-size fits all approach to relaxation.
- There may not even be one approach for a specific time in your life.
- Experience has shown that it is not a useful exercise to pigeon patients into relaxation types, e.g., PMR-types, etc.
- Different approaches to relax have different effects and work differently for different people.
So how do you get started?
The best way to discover your relaxation fingerprint is by exploring a variety of relaxation techniques in a systematic fashion.
Start off with simpler techniques and allow your experiences to guide your next step.
Experience the “Pure versions” of the 6 universal family groups of relaxation before you mix and match.
You can access these by visiting our YouTube channel and clicking on the Guided Relaxations Techniques Playlist
Discover your relaxation portfolio
Use the Relaxation Worksheet to learn how to best develop the skill of relaxation, and leverage your ability to apply it to all aspects of your life in a way that is good for you.
1. Navigating the plethora of relaxation techniques out there
Once you have experienced the six universal family groups of self-relaxation, you will be able to navigate the vast land of relaxation techniques by breaking them down into combinations of these six universal family groups of self-relaxation (i.e., Stretching exercises, Tense-let go exercises, Breathing exercises, Autogenic Training, Imagery and positive self-statements, Meditation & Mindfulness).
2. Fostering Awareness of the Stress Triggers
Greater awareness of the Stress Triggers (i.e., stressed posture and position, skeletal muscles, breathing, body focus, emotion and attention) will help you neutralize the physiological stress using whatever techniques you have discovered as beneficial to you.
3. Fostering Awareness of R-states
To identify the language of different R-states will help you identify correlations between your emotional states and congenial relaxation experiences.
4. Identifying your preferred relaxation techniques
Use the Relaxation Worksheet to learn how to best develop this skill, and leverage your ability to apply it to all aspects of your life in a way that is good for you.
5. Develop a repertoire or relaxation script that incorporates a variety of relaxation techniques
- Take your time, and reflect on what you input in the Relaxation Worksheet.
- Mix it up to reach the R-state experiences your are looking to experience.
- Learn to tap into those R-states in other aspects of your life.
Smith, J. (2016). Relaxation Today (pp. 189-195). In Schwartz, M. S., & Andrasik, F. (Eds.). Biofeedback: A practitioner’s guide (4th ed.). Guilford Press.
Smith, J. C. (2015). Mindfulness reinvented and the m-tracker method. Charleston, SC: Createspace.
Smith, J. C. (2006). Relaxation, meditation and mindfulness: A guide for health professionals. New York: Springer
Smith, J. C. (2007a). The psychology of relaxation. In P.M. Leher, R. L. Woolfolk & W.E. Sime (Eds.) Principles and practice of stress management (3rd ed., pp. 38-52). New York: Guilford Press.
Healthwise Staff. (December 16, 2019). Stress management: Breathing exercises for relaxation. HealthLinkBC. https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/uz2255
Healthwise Staff. (August, 31, 2020). Stress Management: Doing Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Healthwise. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uz2225
HelpGuide. (N/A). Benefits of mindfulness: Practices for improving emotional and physical well-being. https://www.helpguide.org/harvard/benefits-of-mindfulness.htm
Lindberg, S. (November 22, 2019). What to know about autogenic training. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/autogenic-training#how-to-do-it
Mead, E. (February 18, 2021). What is positive self-talk? (incl. examples). PositivePsychology. https://positivepsychology.com/positive-self-talk/
Nunez, K. (September 10, 2020). The benefits of guided imagery and how to do it. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/guided-imagery#how-to-do-it
Ruddock, V. (2021). Passive Muscle Relaxation. Love to Know. https://stress.lovetoknow.com/Passive_Muscle_Relaxation