Physical Relaxation Techniques

Deep Breathing, PMR, and Centering

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Find calm with these simple techniques.

Imagine that you're having a particularly stressful day, and everything seems to be going wrong.

You have a number of important deadlines due, several members of your team have called in sick, and you've just found out that you have to make a presentation to the board – tomorrow.

When you have to deal with situations like these, your heart may race, your breathing may become fast and shallow, and you could even feel that you can't cope with the task at hand. These feelings are the result of your body going through sudden changes as it prepares to deal with a perceived threat – this is the famous "fight-or-flight" response.

All of us experience this occasionally, and, for some, it can be a regular occurrence. While a small amount of pressure can help you focus and improve your performance, too much short-term stress hinders your ability to work well. This is why it's useful to know some techniques that can help you relax.

You can use these techniques whenever you're feeling stressed or tense. For example, you can use them to relax before a presentation or performance; you can use them to clear your mind, so that you can solve problems creatively; or you can use them to compose yourself before a job interview. Using these techniques regularly can help you to maintain a relaxed and calm state of mind.

In this article, we'll look at deep breathing, progressive muscular relaxation, and centering – three physical techniques that can help you reduce muscle tension and manage the effects of your body's fight-or-flight response. This is particularly important if you need to think clearly and perform well when you're under pressure.

Warning:

Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, even death. While these stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only. You should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if you have any concerns over stress-related illnesses, or if stress is causing you significant or persistent unhappiness.

Deep Breathing

Deep breathing is a simple but effective method of relaxation. It is a core component of yoga and Zen meditation, as well as of the common approach of taking "10 deep breaths" to calm down. It works well in conjunction with other relaxation techniques – such as progressive muscular relaxation, relaxation imagery, and meditation – to reduce stress.

Many people spend much of their time breathing very shallowly, filling only the upper part of their chest with air. This shallow breathing limits the amount of oxygen that your body takes in, and it can also make you feel very anxious in times of stress. By contrast, deep breathing can decrease stress, lower your blood pressure, and slow your heart rate.

Deep breathing – also called diaphragmatic, or belly breathing – takes place when, instead of just breathing with your ribs, you breathe so that your lower belly expands.

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When you breathe in this way, your diaphragm moves downward and pulls your lungs along with it. At the same time, it presses against your internal organs to make room for your expanding lungs. When you breathe out, your diaphragm pushes upward, helping your lungs expel carbon dioxide.

It's easy to start practicing deep breathing techniques. All you need to do is sit comfortably, take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, and focus on what feels like filling your lower belly with air.

Progressive Muscular Relaxation

Progressive muscular relaxation, or PMR, is useful for relaxing your body when your muscles are tense.

The idea behind PMR is that you tense up a group of muscles, so that they're tightly contracted. Hold them in a state of extreme tension for a few seconds, and then relax the muscles normally. Then, consciously relax your muscles even more. This process of moving from intense tension to deep muscular relaxation helps interrupt your body's fight-or-flight response when you're experiencing fear or stress.

Here are a few examples of ways to engage in progressive muscular relaxation. Hold each position for five seconds, and then relax. You might also find it helpful to breathe out slowly as you relax each pose, or even to whisper the word "relax" as you release your muscles.

  • Raise your eyebrows as high as you can.
  • Close your eyes as tightly as possible and keep them shut for five seconds.
  • Open your mouth as wide as possible, as if you're yawning.
  • Hold your arms in front of you and clench your fists as tightly as possible.
  • Pull your shoulder muscles up toward your ears.
  • Bend your arms and tense your biceps as tightly as possible.
  • As you sit, pull your legs together and push your thighs together, tightening the thigh muscles as you push inward.
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles.
  • Curl your toes downwards as much as possible.

What you'll find is that when you tense your muscles first, it's easier, then, to relax these muscles completely. When you try to relax your muscles without tensing them, you'll find that they don't relax as thoroughly.

Centering

Centering was developed from the Japanese martial art of Aikido. (Literally translated, "Aikido" means "the way of unifying life energy.") It's a method that you can use to channel nervous energy, increase your concentration, and remain stable and grounded in a stressful situation; and it combines physical and mental approaches to relaxation.

There are three basic steps that you can follow to become centered:

  1. Be aware of your breathing.

    Focus on your breathing. Breathe deeply and slowly, using your abdomen.

  2. Find your center.

    This is your physical center of gravity, which is usually just below your waist. Focusing on your center grounds you, and reminds you that you have balance and control when you start to feel stressed. Once you've found your center, focus your mind on it, and breathe deeply at least five times.

  3. Release your negative energy.

    Visualize all of your negative energy collecting in your center, and then moving up towards your eyes. Then, picture yourself thrusting all of this negative energy away from you, leaving youself feeling calm and quiet.

It can take some practice to learn how to use centering, so it's a good idea to become familiar with it before you need to use it. You can find out more about it in our article on the technique.

Increasing the Effectiveness of These Techniques

As we looked at with centering, above, you can relax even more intensely by using mental techniques alongside physical ones.

In particular, you can use imagery to lower stress by imagining a peaceful, relaxing place – this works particularly well with deep breathing. You can also use physical techniques in conjunction with affirmations ; these are positive thoughts that can help you change your thinking and attitude, and become more positive.

Lastly, regular exercise will also help you reduce your stress levels. Try to fit exercise into your day during your lunch break, after work, or even while you're at work.

For example, don't sit too long at your desk; get up and stretch, or go for a quick walk. Move around when you're on your lunch break, stand when you're on the phone, or visit a colleague in person, instead of using instant messaging or email. Any movement that you can work into your day will help to keep your energy up and your stress levels down.

Key Points

Deep breathing, progressive muscular relaxation, and centering are three useful techniques that you can use to relax your body and manage stress.

These techniques are particularly helpful for handling nerves prior to an important presentation or performance, and for helping you concentrate. However, you'll likely achieve the most relaxed state by using physical and mental techniques together.

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Comments (17)
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi nkay,
    Welcome to the Club and glad to hear that you found the article insightful and practical.

    I hope you take time to explore more of our resources here to help in your personal and professional life. The Forums are another great resource where members ask questions and offer their thoughts and ideas. We learn so much from each other and hope to see you over there. Come on over to the Career Cafe and introduce yourself, we'd love to get to know you.

    Midgie
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago nkay wrote
    Really insightful and they are so practical as Jans1607 said. i'm looking forward to using the techniques.
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi jans1607,

    You are most welcome. We appreciate hearing that our resources are practical. The three physical relaxation techniques explained in this article are effective tools you can implement to manage stress. I have successfully used deep breathing and PMR and they worked for me. If you want to calm the mind, consider trying meditation. The combination of mental and physical relaxation is a powerful anxiety and stress reducer.

    Michele
    Mind Tools Team
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