Take a deep breath
Deep, abdominal breathing plays a role in many relaxation techniques. Here’s a simple breathing exercise to help you get started:
1. Sit or lie in a comfortable position, and close your eyes.
2. Place one hand on your belly just below your navel, and notice your breathing.
3. Feel your hand rise slightly with each breath in. Feel it fall with each breath out.
4. Focus on this rising and falling motion for several breaths.
Have you ever been told to count to 10 to calm down? It really works, at least if you combine the counting with deep breathing:
1. Follow the steps above until you get a comfortable breathing rhythm going.
2. Now, say “ten” to yourself as you breathe in. Then breathe out.
3. With the next breath, say “nine” as you breathe in. Then breathe out.
4. Repeat until you reach “zero.”
Meditate on it
Perhaps the best-known means of calling up the relaxation response is by meditation. This practice has its roots in religious rituals, and many people still use it as a path to spiritual enlightenment. However, you don’t need to have any religious or spiritual intentions to reap the benefits of the technique. All forms of meditation have two key components. One is a mental focusing device, such as a repeated word, sound, phrase, or prayer or a repetitive movement. The other is a passive disregard for other thoughts that may come up. If you temporarily lose your focus, don’t worry about it, but simply return your mind to the repeated word or motion. To get started meditating, try following these basic steps:
1. Pick a focus word or phrase. Keep it short enough to easily coordinate with your breathing. Some examples: “peace,” “shalom,” “let go,” “hail, Mary.”
2. Find a quiet place where you aren’t likely to be disturbed.
3. Sit or lie in a comfortable position, and close your eyes.
4. Try to relax your muscles, and start noticing your breathing.
5. Repeat your focus word or phrase to yourself as you breathe out.
6. Passively disregard any distracting thoughts that come up.
7. Continue for 10–20 minutes. Meditate once or twice every day, if possible.
Mind your mindfulness
One popular variation on the meditation theme is mindfulness. In this technique, you’re asked to focus on moment-to-moment awareness without judging or reacting to the things you notice. You can use mindfulness to become more aware of your breathing, much as you might do in traditional meditation. However, you also can use it to become more fully aware of your experiences in everyday life. The goal is to slow down, focus on one thing, and give it your full attention. Here’s a quick exercise in eating mindfully:
1. Have an apple (or your favorite kind of fresh fruit) on hand.
2. Sit in a comfortable position. Relax with some deep, abdominal breathing.
3. Focus on what is happening in the here and now, and let go of other thoughts.
4. Now, focus your attention on the apple. Notice its appearance, feel, and smell.
5. Then, take a bite, and notice the flavor as if you had never tasted an apple before.
6. Note without judging any other thoughts that may come up. Then passively return your mind to focus on the apple.
7. Enjoy the feelings that arise as you savor the experience of eating an apple.
With mindfulness, you focus intently on the actual sensations you’re experiencing. Imagery exercises are similar, except that you focus on imagined sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. This lets you harness the incredible power of imagination to help reduce stress and deepen relaxation. Often, the most potent images are ones you create for yourself. However, there are also a number of books and audiotapes on the market that guide you through the process of conjuring up soothing or healing images. Here is an example of the kind of script you might invent or follow: