Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Importance of Relaxation

When I was a child, my mom signed me up for summer classes through an organization known as the Valley Arts Association. They had pottery classes and all sort of programs for kids. I know I took several of these classes, as did my two brothers. My only memories, however, are of the strange pottery faces that my brothers made in their class, and one specific class on relaxation that I took.

As I think back on it, I marvel that they had such a class for little kids. I was very young. I’m not sure what the class actually was, but I know that they taught us a progressive muscle relaxation technique, where you lie on the floor, close your eyes, and work your way through your body tensing and releasing groups of muscles.

I remember loving this exercise. It really worked for me.

Even as a small child I struggled with depression, anxiety and emotional sensitivity. I’ve just always had this ‘dark side’ that required me to engage with it. It’s not a lot of fun, but it’s been my reality from a young age.

That fateful day when they taught me progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) was one of the most important days of my life. I was probably six years old, and to this day, PMR is still a tool that I rely on when I’m feeling stressed, overwhelmed or if I’m having trouble getting to sleep.

I used it throughout my entire childhood. Then, when I went into therapy for my eating disorder at age 19, one of the first things my counselor, Dr. Chuck Bruni, did was to give me a ‘relaxation tape’ that was a guided PMR exercise! I took that as a serious sign that I was in the right place, since I already knew the value of that particular technique in my life.

I still have that PMR tape, burned onto a CD and propagated to my IPOD in this day and age. Although I don’t use the entire tape often, I still will use PMR at times when I know I need to relax and calm down.

This past week, I had a couple of nights where I was emotionally upset and very angry. I was almost sure I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep. I brought out my IPOD with my 20 year old PMR program on it, and went through the process. Within 20 minutes I was relaxed, my mind was calm, and I was ready to sleep. I drifted off both nights without any trouble.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation is super simple, and super powerful. If you’ve never tried it, I encourage you to do so.

Here are some resources that I found that describe the technique well:

Wikipedia's Article on Progressive Muscle Relaxation

About.Com's Article on PMR's Article on PMR

I’m a believer! I hope that you will find Progressive Muscle Relaxation as much of a gift as I have!

Here is a writing by my late counselor/teacher/mentor, Dr. Chuck Bruni, on the importance of relaxation:


Relaxation Training – why it’s important
Learning how to deeply relax and center your body-mind is an important life skill. Knowing how to relax at this level is very important to your physical and emotional health. Relaxing deeply makes the process of growing and changing easier and less stressful.

While you were in the womb, and during the first months of your life, you knew perfectly well how to relax deeply. As you grew up in a less than perfect culture and family, you learned to continuously tighten, flex, and tense various muscle groups in your body. You learned to store a number of emotions and memories in your tissue that are still there today on an unconscious level. This tension, fear, and emotional baggage in your body needs to be released for you to heal physically and emotionally. It is possible for you to learn to let your body again experience its natural state of relaxation. Or, stated more accurately, you need to UNLEARN how to stress and strain your body. You can relearn to give your body permission to go back to the state of affairs it has always known and wanted to reach.

Deep Relaxation

The state of relaxation I am talking about is not the same as the relaxed feeling one experiences while sewing, playing golf, going to a ballgame, or fishing, etc. Sometimes, clients state they do not need to learn how to relax because they have hobbies, sports or arts/crafts activities that help them to unwind. Those types of relaxing activities are important and needed. What I am talking about though is relaxation at a deeper level. Through deep muscle relaxation, the body is allowed to return to its natural equilibrium or "centered" state.

I reccomend Progressive Muscle Relaxation as a technique to learn what must be learned and unlearn what must be unlearned.

Why is Relaxation so Important?
Connecting With Your Energetic-Spiritual Essence
For millions of years, humans all over the earth have realized there is a force in the universe that is larger than themselves. Most people when they really think about it, believe there is an energy, presence, power, or intelligence that has created them and the entire universe. Some would call this phenomenon God, Christ consciousness, or Shiva. Others would say it is the Great Spirit. Still others might call it their "basic nature," Higher Self, Higher Power, Force, Infinite intelligence, God within, or Unified Field. No matter how a person might conceptualize it, most of us sense a deeper force or US within.

Whatever it is called, we each have a place of peace, wisdom, intuition, love, power and oneness inside that can be a great resource in living our life. One key to getting in touch with this state of being is relaxing and centering. You need to let your body and mind become "like a duck on a lake at sunset" to tap into that place. This is a resource that many of us do not ‘tap in’ to very often, yet it is always available to us. Learning to tap in to this resource can greatly enrich our lives and empower us to live more and more fully.

The energy of the universe expresses the qualities of love, joy, peace, wisdom, creativity, power, and unity. Being in touch with this energy is the single most important resource we have for living. When we are able to live through our deep energetic-spiritual essence we experience more love, joy, peace, and power in our life. When we are cut off from it, we develop ways of living that create hurt, pain, fear, anger, and separation in our life.

An important first step in reconnecting with your energetic-spiritual essence is relearning how to operate in a more relaxed state. When you are relaxed and trying to concentrate or make a decision, it is as if you were doing so in a quiet library. When you are not relaxed, and attempt to concentrate or make a decision, it is as if you were doing so in Grand Central Station! Which one sounds like it would produce a better end result? It is much easier and much less stressful to come from a place of quiet, calm and peace. That is because when we are quiet and at peace, we can ‘tap in’ to our inner wisdom… our connection to the source of infinite wisdom and intelligence. The first step to learning to cultivate that quiet mind state is to learn to relax the body mind.

Decreasing/Eliminating Stress Damage to your Body/Mind
All animals, including humans, have an instinctual protective reaction built into their DNA and nervous system called the “flight or fight” response. This autonomic nervous system response physically prepares an animal to flee from danger or fight to the death. When in this response, the heart rate increases, and blood leaves the stomach to enter the extremities. More oxygen goes to the brain, and the glands pump a number of secretions into the blood stream. The animal attains its maximum performance level mentally and physically.

In humans the flight or fight response developed millions of years ago to help protect us against saber-toothed tigers, wooly mammoths, and other life-death situations. It was to be used occasionally when we were in physical danger. Because of the development of written language and the rational logical mind, humans for the first time began to develop psychological fears. They started to experience the flight or fight response when they felt psychologically threatened, rather than just physically threatened. The vast majority of Americans are in a modified flight-fight response twenty-four hours a day! They are always on edge or tense in some part of their body. This creates a state that is commonly called “chronic stress”.

Living in this manner is extremely destructive to the human body-mind. Chronic stress leads to increased metabolic rate, heart rate and circulation, which taxes the heart. It causes an increase in blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, stomach acid, and blood sugar. Immune system function is compromised by stress, making us more vulnerable to sickness and disease. Chronic stress is also a major contributor to depression, sleep problems, and anxiety. It greatly increases free radical production that leads to the destruction of body cells and speeds the development of cancer. Many medical researchers think that chronic stress is one of the primary causes of disease and illness in modern humans.

Increased Self Awareness (Inwardly and Outwardly)
Relearning how to deeply relax is one of the best ways to become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and inner consciousness. It also helps you become more aware of what others are thinking and feeling. As you slow down the chatter and static in your body-mind, the signals from within and without are amplified and made clearer. An analogy might be drawn between reading a difficult book in a quiet library versus Times Square during rush hour. Greater awareness is one of the cornerstones of personal growth and change.

When we were growing up we had to shut down parts of our awareness in order to cope with the stresses of childhood and adolescence. The greater the amount of stress in our family, the greater the amount of dissociation, denial, or numbness we had to create to survive emotionally. It is safe now to become fully awake and aware again.

Decreasing/Eliminating Negative Word Chatter
Often people find they are bothered by negative ruminations going through their mind. They cannot get to sleep at night, or do well in certain situations because the voice in their head is constantly going over negative material.

The body and mind are one and the same process. One way to help quiet the mind is to relax your body thoroughly. While relaxed, repeat in your head statements such as "I am quiet and relaxed, my body and mind are calm, relaxed and quiet".

Recharging or Re-Creating your Mind/Body
Relaxation is a true form of recreation for your body and mind. Studies have shown that 10-15 minutes of deep muscle relaxation during the day can have the benefit of up to two hours of nighttime sleep. Rather than having a cup of coffee and some sugary pastry as an energy pick me up, use a 10-minute relaxation break to recharge your batteries and create a sense of peace. This type of break restores your strength and vitality by allowing your body-mind to shift into its rebuilding-healing mode.

Enhancing communication and listening skills
One of the biggest problems in communication is the inability of people to listen to each other. Most individuals, due to anxiety, self-consciousness, or anger cannot hear what another person is saying. Instead, they focus on their inner chatter and what they want to say to the other person. If an individual can learn to mellow out and relax with people, their ability to listen and talk with others will greatly improve.

Decreasing/Eliminating Fear, Anger and Anxiety
A person can't be relaxed and fearful, relaxed and angry or relaxed and anxious! Relaxation is an incompatible feeling state with those three feelings. If you want to reduce the amount of fear, anger or anxiety in your life, learn to relax in situations that bring up those feelings.

Deep muscle relaxation is one of the primary techniques used in overcoming phobias, shyness, anxiety or anger in interpersonal situations. Also, in order to learn how to be assertive in effective ways, it is necessary to know how to fully relax yourself.

Enhancing Problem Solving Skills
Most of us grew up watching our parents and older siblings become upset each time there were life or family stresses. When things did not turn out the way they wanted, family members tried to problem solve through being scared, angry, frustrated, critical, or depressed. Being in such a state closes down left hemisphere functioning, reducing intellectual ability. It shorts circuits right hemisphere functioning, which reduces our intuitive gut intelligence. It also causes a tightening of body muscles, which reduces flexibility and the capacity to move to protect ourselves. Lastly, it causes us to get stuck emotionally.

An upset person is in their worst problem-solving stance! Yet most of us were trained at a young age to get upset when we encounter life problems. You have to retrain yourself to become centered and peaceful in the face of stress or conflict. Once you are totally peaceful, then you can come up with powerful creative solutions to solve the issue at hand. You will relearn how to be proactive rather than reactive when under stress.


Relaxation is an extremely powerful body-mind skill it is important to re-learn. Knowing how to relax deeply produces incredibly important benefits physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.

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