Anxiety: a feeling of dread, related to fear and panic, yet not as strong. It’s a feeling we can carry with us, whether there is some cause in our environment or not. Sometimes anxiety is generated by a thought or a concern that we have. And the longer we remain fixed on this thought or concern, the longer we carry the bodily feeling of anxiety. Sometimes anxiety arises spontaneously, filling the body with uncomfortable feelings. And the bodily feeling of anxiety itself can set the mind in motion, activate all kinds of thoughts and memories that are congruent with the anxiety, but may have little if anything to do with what is happening right here, right now.
One of the primary effects of anxiety is to cause muscular tension. It can be very subtle tension, such as jaw clenching or teeth grinding. A sore back or neck, fatigue in our torso or limbs, all can be the result of muscles kept tensed throughout much of the day. When the feeling of anxiety permeates our self, the muscular tension that ensues can be exhausting.
One antidote for anxiety is to relieve the muscular tension. Many people find that the process of relaxing the muscles systematically not only brings on a peaceful feeling, but that it actually relieves the anxiety itself. And if you combine the work of muscular relaxation with some simple mental corrections concerning those activated thoughts and memories, then the anxiety can truly be relieved and relinquished. But it takes lots of practice and commitment.
Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR) is a technique pioneered by Edmund Jacobson, an American psychiatrist and physiologist, in the 1920’s. Jacobson’s work, and the work of many of his disciples (especially Joseph Wolpe), laid the groundwork for treatment of anxiety disorders. You can find a good introduction to Jacobson’s work in the Wikipedia article about PMR (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_muscle_relaxation).
I’ve recorded a simple, 15 minute script that will lead you through a PMR session. All you need is a quiet comfortable place where you can listen to this script and practice PMR. It’s really simple; after doing this practice by the recording a few times you won’t need to listen to it, you’ll simply know how to relax your muscles in this manner. You might find cultivating this skill quite helpful. Imagine mindfully noticing the beginning of some anxious feelings during the day, and being able to recognize which muscles are tensing and then, with a very simple and conscious effort, relaxing those muscles and letting go of the anxiety.
Here’s the recording: Progressive Muscular Relaxation
And here are the simple directions to follow before you listen to the recording:
1. Find a time and place that will allow you 20 minutes of relatively undisturbed quiet. Padded earphones may be of assistance in tuning out the world. Some people find it helpful to have recorded music of a relaxing nature in the background.
2. Develop a habit of relaxing in the same place at the same time every day. Make it part of your daily schedule. Relaxation is a skill that requires practice.
3. Get as comfortable as you can, preferably sitting in a recliner with your entire body and head supported, or lying down. Wear loose clothing that will assure a sufficient warmth, or cover yourself with a light blanket. Remove eyeglasses or contact lenses before beginning to relax.
4. Avoid doing the relaxation exercise immediately after eating a full meal or when you are tired, as you may actually fall asleep and not benefit from the relaxation practice. However, relaxation in itself may be used to substitute for a nap as a source of renewed energy, or it can be used to combat insomnia which is associated with anxiety.
5. After you have relaxed to the recorded script several times, you will find you are able to obtain the same deep state of relaxation without actually tensing your muscles at all. If you find yourself becoming impatient with the length and sequence of the tape, you might try starting your relaxation sessions midway through the tape, beginning with the deep breaths. It is also recommended that you occasionally go through the entire relaxation sequence on your own without the tape. Eventually you will be able to achieve the same deep relaxed state merely by imagining your calm scene.
I hope you find this useful; I know I have, especially during those times when there’s a lot of stress in my life.
And I would love to hear back from you about this practice, the good, the bad, and (let’s hope not) the ugly.