It is necessary for those who would practice relaxation therapy to understand the relationship between mind and muscle tension, and that, though there is nothing essentially difficult in the technique, it demands perseverance and courage. The tense person himself must effect the relief. He has got his muscles into a habit of tension and he himself must learn how to undo that tension.
The relaxation technique is carried out with the person lying flat on his back.
A flat unyielding surface is best. A rug on the bedroom floor will suffice though some may prefer to be on the bed. Any constricting clothes should be loosened and the shoes removed. A pillow should be placed under the head. The legs should rotate slightly outwards from the hips and the knees should be slightly bent. For greater comfort a cushion may be placed under each knee. The arms should lie by the side and with the forearms so arranged that the hands lie with the palms touching the front of the thighs. This will cause a slight flexion at the elbows and wrists while the fingers will be flexed on the line of the thighs. It is desirable that the student of relaxation should be reasonably comfortable and once this position is achieved all wriggling and fidgeting should be deliberately suppressed.
It is first necessary in the relaxation technique for you to be able to recognize muscle tension in the different muscles as opposed to actual muscle contraction. To do this you should first consciously contract the muscle groups of your body in succession, focusing your attention on the sensation which arises. It is best to start with flexion and extension of the elbows and thence proceed to the other joints of the body. In this way you can learn to isolate the sense of contraction in the different muscle groups. This will require practice (as much as a quarter of an hour twice daily) for several days.
With this appreciation of the sensation of active muscle contraction, you should next endeavor to appreciate tension within these muscle groups without actually contracting the muscles. That is stage number two. Muscle groups are tensed without leading to joint movement until there is a clear recognition of the tense sensation in the separate muscles.
The purpose of all this is to ensure that tension is recognizable for only then will it be possible to recognize the objective of relaxation which is the absence of muscle sensation.
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How to Relax
Assuming you have learned to know your muscle tensions you can now proceed to the actual practice of relaxation. The first session is devoted to practicing relaxation of the hands and forearms. Place yourself in the position as described, then induce yourself to feel that your fingers and forearms are " quite limp," that they " feel heavy," that they are going " quite loose." If this mental attitude is persisted with, a stillness will come over the hands and forearms, and the muscles will feel soft. If you are successful, if someone lifts your forearm and lets it go, it will drop back limply by its own weight. Concentrate and persevere with both your hands and forearms until you are certain you have achieved relaxation. It will require much attention to begin with, but most people will be successful within ten to fifteen minutes, which should be the average duration of the session.
You then proceed to the other muscle groups seeking relaxation in exactly the same way. Sessions must be devoted to the upper arm and shoulder girdle, the feet and lower legs, the upper legs (thighs) and hip region. Lastly, should come the relaxation of the neck muscles which may prove a little difficult and the muscles of the face. Effort should also be made to relax the eyes. This is accomplished by a conscious effort to " let the eyes fall back in their sockets."
Coincidentally with the relaxation procedure, it is usual to practice breathing exercises. If at the commencement of your course, you carry out deep breathing and observe it closely, you will most probably notice that it is irregular and a little jerky. You must therefore learn to breathe in a relaxed way. You must try to ensure that the air passes in and out of your lungs in a smooth way at a constant velocity. You will be able to judge that by the sound of the air intake and output. The intensity of inspiration and expiration should be the same. Roughly four seconds should be taken for breathing in and breathing out and there should be no pause between. In this way a smooth rhythm of breathing will arise. It is therefore advised that each session of relaxation should begin and end with these breathing exercises and in addition during the session care should be taken to avoid any tendency to shallow, jerky breathing.
The objective of the relaxation technique is reached when you can produce complete generalized relaxation of all your muscles. Most people will do this by the successive steps which, with practice, follow each other rapidly. In other words, if you try to relax "yourself" nothing will happen, but if you relax hands, arms, shoulders, feet, legs and head muscles, one after the other, complete relaxation will arise. It may take several weeks, carrying out the procedure for about fifteen minutes twice daily, to be really accomplished in relaxation technique, but success will provide you with a most effective weapon against mental tension. Once you are skilled, you should be able to " turn on " relaxation in situations which you know are likely to produce mental tension. Moreover, you should be able to produce a degree of relaxation which is as complete as the circumstances permit. Even when sitting in a chair you should be able to produce a fair degree of relaxation, though to succeed in this, some practice is necessary. Relaxation technique also teaches yon to be economical in the use of your muscles. If you are carrying out some work which only requires one group of muscles, you will know not to involve other unnecessary groups of muscles, thus saving much nervous energy. You will know not to contract muscles other than those essential for the task in hand. Knowledge of relaxation technique can also be put to your service in employments which necessitate awkward and tiring postures.
What can you expect from relaxation therapy?
As has been indicated, this method of treatment is based on the belief that with generalized relaxation of the muscles of the body, no emotion can be experienced, and that the state of relaxation can be achieved by systematic training. Considerable practical experience has amply demonstrated that relaxation can ease most varieties of mental tension and anxiety, provided that the sufferers from tension states conscientiously apply the discipline which has been outlined here. Even in long-standing cases of nerve tension improvement can be reasonably anticipated. But it is important to realize that success implies intelligent and sustained application of will directed towards the development of a special muscular ability. The victim of tension must understand what he is setting out to do and must be prepared to set aside time for this purpose.
Those most likely to benefit from relaxation therapy are the tense, obsessional types, the people who set high standards, who drive themselves hard, who are conscientious, energetic, anxious for success and for the high esteem of their fellow creatures. They are the people described as " living on their nerves," and who are tense in all their human relationships. They often suffer from sleeplessness and headaches. Although valuable at all ages of life, relaxation therapy is often most successful with middle-aged people.
What may you expect when you have mastered the technique? It is reasonable to anticipate that you will be able to generally lower the mental tension of your emotional life and that you will have at hand a weapon to defeat an attack of tension precipitated by external events. You will know how to dissipate an acute fear and to maintain poise and self-control in a difficult situation. If your sleeplessness is a result of tension, you can educate yourself to sound sleep without the aid of narcotics. And if you can incorporate the technique into your daily life, you will gain in self-confidence, mental efficiency and happiness. In relaxation we have a key to nervous control, stability, and peace of mind.