Relaxation strategies are useful ways to cope with difficult situations either when they are occurring or when you are worrying about them coming up in the future. The exercises in this section may assist you to relax by focussing on one or more of 2 different physical domains:
- Muscle tightness/looseness.
Ways of doing this can be through adjusting our breathing and our muscle tension by doing things like holding/releasing breath, clenching/releasing muscle groups, or by using our imaginations to create these responses in our bodies.
What happens, physiologically, is that when our breathing slows down or our muscles become less tight and more relaxed, then our heart rate will usually slow. Many medications aimed at relaxation are simply muscle relaxants – we know that once the muscles become looser and relax then breathing will slow down and thought processes will also slow down. We cannot directly make our heart rate slow down but we can directly make our breathing slow down and make our muscles relax.
There are times when we don’t want to relax – there are reasons for having a flight and fight response because this is what helps keep us safe in situations of danger. What happens in these situations is the our muscles tense and our breathing gets shallower and shorter. These are necessary physiological responses to situations of threat and they help us to activate our bodies to get out of dangerous situations. The problem is that sometimes these responses become a habit even when we are not in danger. They put us on “high alert” even when our brain tells us we are not requiring this response. When this response goes into overdrive – that is, when our breathing becomes too quick and short and our muscles become too tense and our heart rate races – then we can become immobilised or even lose consciousness (what is known as hyperventilation). Some people experience this set of sensations as “panic attacks” – relaxation strategies can prevent panic attacks from developing, especially if we learn to listen to the warning signals – racing thoughts, increasing heart and breathing rates and quickening heart rate.