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Relaxation techniques for anxiety

Why do relaxation techniques work when you feel anxious?

When you feel anxious, you may find that your heart rate increases, your muscles tense and your breathing becomes more rapid.

We understand that these symptoms can be incredibly distressing and all-consuming, stopping you from being able to fully immerse yourself in both day-to-day and important moments in your life.

By using relaxation techniques for anxiety, you can start to manage your physical and psychological symptoms more effectively. These techniques will help to instruct both your body and brain to relax. They will also act as a good distraction, giving you an opportunity to distance yourself from the worried thoughts that caused your anxiety in the first place.

What relaxation techniques are best for anxiety?

We are going to focus on three types of relaxation techniques for anxiety – breathing exercises, muscle relaxation techniques and visualisations.

Preparing for your relaxation exercise

Before you start any relaxation technique, find a cool and quiet space, sit in a chair or lie on the floor, and get comfortable.

Then, gently close your eyes or focus your eyes on a single spot.

Give yourself a few minutes here and if any thoughts come to mind, acknowledge them and let them pass. Don’t let them take up your focus.

Deep breathing exercises

These simple breathing exercises help to slow your heart rate down and reduce your blood pressure, both of which increase when you’re anxious. This will leave you feeling calm and relaxed.

Diaphragmatic belly breathing

Place one hand on your chest and one just above your belly button. Breathe in deeply through your nose and imagine this breath going down through your body so that your belly rises naturally. You should feel the hand on your stomach rise. As you exhale through pursed lips, you should then feel your stomach – and the hand on top – fall naturally

Square or box breathing

Start by exhaling and then inhale slowly and deeply for four seconds, hold that breath for four seconds, exhale slowly and deeply for four seconds and pause there for four seconds. As you go through these steps, imagine tracing the sides of a square

Extended exhale breathing

Gently inhale for four seconds, pause there for one beat, exhale for a longer six or eight seconds, and then pause for another beat. Don’t try to push yourself to exhale for eight seconds if it feels uncomfortable. Stick with six if it feels better - whatever is most natural will be the most relaxing for you

When starting out with a breathing exercise, do it for up to five minutes at a time. If this feels like too much, do it for two to three minutes instead. Overtime, as it becomes easier and you feel more comfortable, you are likely to find that you are able to do it for longer.

Muscle relaxation exercises

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation helps you to relax muscles that are tense as a result of your anxiety.

During a progressive muscle relaxation, you tense and relax certain muscle groups one at a time. When you start, focus on one part of the body, tensing and holding those muscles as tightly as you can for five seconds. Then release those muscles to a count of 30 seconds.

As you do so, you should notice a difference in how that part of the body feels. The tension and stress should dissipate, leaving the area feeling loose and relaxed.

When carrying out progressive muscle relaxation, work through your entire body, from your feet to the top of your head. Areas to focus on include:

  • Curl your right and then your left foot
  • Tighten your right and then your left calf
  • Tense your right and then your left thigh
  • Tighten your buttocks
  • Clench your fingers into a ball, first right and then left
  • Tense your right and then your left bicep
  • Tense your stomach
  • Raise your shoulders towards your ears
  • Tense your neck muscles
  • Open your mouth
  • Purse your lips
  • Shut your eyes tightly
  • Raise your eyebrows

Try doing this exercise for 10 to 20 minutes at a time to give yourself the time to really focus on each part of your body.

Body scan relaxation

A body scan helps you notice where you’re holding onto any stress in your body so that you can remove clusters of tension caused by anxiety.

During a body scan, focus on each small part of your body, from your toes, to the soles of a foot, to your heel, to your ankle. Focus on each area for three to five seconds.

When you concentrate on one part of your body, see if you notice any sensation, whether that is pain, achiness or pressure. Acknowledge the presence of the sensation and any thoughts that accompany it. Then, as you inhale, visualise the breath flowing to that part of your body. And, as you exhale, imagine the uncomfortable sensation leaving with that breath.

Visualisation exercises

When you feel anxious, you may find that you focus on the worst possible scenarios. During these moments, learning to visualise something calm and serene can distract you from these anxious thoughts and instruct your body to relax.

Below are some tips to help you with visualisation:

  • Think about somewhere you’ve gone to where you felt relaxed. It could be a beauty spot on a holiday, your favourite local park or even your garden. The place you choose should have no connection to stress or anxiety. You may want to picture an imaginary location that you’ve never been to before, like an exotic beach or a secluded forest
  • Close your eyes and imagine yourself in this space feeling calm and relaxed
  • Imagine the entire sensory experience – what can you hear, what do you see, what can you smell and what can you touch? When thinking about touch, is there a gentle breeze blowing through your hair, sand between your toes and warmth against your skin? Try to picture every single detail
  • Remain in this scene for five to ten minutes. During this time, breathe deeply and relax your muscles, using the exercises we have already mentioned
  • When you start to feel relaxed, slowly open your eyes

What should I do after a relaxation exercise?

Once you’ve finished a relaxation exercise, give yourself a few minutes to enjoy the moment. When you feel ready, gently open your eyes and slowly stand up.

How often should I do relaxation techniques for anxiety?

At first, do your preferred technique two to three times a day. The more you do it, the more comfortable it will feel.

Overtime, the technique should become second nature, where you are able to use it to relax yourself in moments when anxious thoughts appear.

What should I do if I get anxious during a relaxation exercise?

If you haven’t used relaxation techniques for your anxiety before, it can take a little bit of work for them to feel natural. We understand that at the start, you may feel frustrated about your inability to do them.

Try to do the exercises regularly. For some people, it can take time for the exercises to be effective.

Support and treatment for anxiety

If your anxiety is continuing to have a big impact on your life and is possibly even worsening, regardless of the steps that you are putting in place to try and manage your symptoms, you may need some professional support to help you overcome your anxiety.

Here at Priory Group, we have a specialist team of psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists who are highly experienced in helping people with anxiety disorders. If you would like to find out more about our services, which includes diagnosing anxiety disorders and providing anxiety treatment on a residential, day care and outpatient basis (including online therapy), please feel free to contact our team using the details below.

Blog reviewed by Alison Hardy (Dip. in counselling, PG CBT), Senior Lead Cognitive Behavioural Therapist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford

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