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Teaching Yourself to Relax

You can quickly relax your mind and body anytime, anywhere by putting in place a relaxation response habit.

Getting Started

Find a quiet, comfortable place where you feel safe and you won’t be disturbed. Tell people you don’t want to be disturbed, put out a DO NOT DISTURB sign, shut off your cell phone.

Get comfortable in a chair that supports your back, neck and arms, sitting in an upright position with both feet on the floor and arms at your side and hands in your lap. Cover yourself with a blanket, loosen belts, etc.

This exercise can be done sitting up or lying down. When you lie down, however, as you relax you might fall asleep. Falling asleep might be what you need, but to get the most benefit from this exercise it is helpful to remain awake. A recliner works nicely.

Breathing that is Relaxing

Close your eyes and begin breathing slowly and evenly. Begin by just focusing on your breathing. Most of us take little short breaths and never fill our lungs. This shallow breathing does not relax us.  Breathe deeply, filling your lungs with air. Notice your stomach area expand as the lungs fill with air. Practice breathing deeply like this until it feels comfortable.  Breathe in slowly through the nose, hold for just a second and then slowly let it out.   

As you sit with your eyes closed, breathing in and out, notice how much calmer and relaxed you begin to feel simply by breathing effectively. Practice this for awhile until your breathing becomes even more relaxing.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

The next phase of this exercise is to progressively relax the different parts of your body. I like to start from the head and work my way down.

Tighten the muscles around the eyes and forehead. Feel the tension. Then take a deep calming breath and as you let the air out, relax all the muscles that you have tensed. Next tense the jaw and cheek muscles, take a breath and then release both tension and air.

Continue relaxing the different muscle groups, continuing with your neck, shoulders, back, arms and fingers, stomach area, hips, legs and feet. Follow the same sequence of “tense, breathe and relax”.

Now choose one of the following phrases to say to your self as you follow this sequence. As you breathe out say, Letting go” or “I am relaxing more and more” or “I am relaxing deeper and deeper” or “All my tension is melting away”. Alternate them as you systematically relax your body.

By pairing the tensing of muscles and relaxing breathing along with words that tell your brain you are letting go of tension and stress, you are associating the words or phrases with the actions of the relaxation process.

After you have relaxed your entire body, take a moment and focus inward, relaxing your internal organs as well.

Enjoy this relaxed state for a few minutes. Then open your eyes.  But before you resume your activities, take a moment to allow your body to energize again before getting up. Stretch your arms and move in your chair.

When you have done this exercise every day for a few weeks you will be able to relax the tension in your body anytime anywhere by simply taking some slow even breaths, focus on the areas of the body where the tension is and telling yourself “letting go”. When I do this, I can immediately feel the tension drain away. Using my teaching Relaxation CD allows you to just listen and follow. 

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Only 15 Minutes A Day

Fifteen Minutes can do wonders

We can learn to quickly relax our bodies and reduce tension or high levels of stress by practicing a simple  relaxation exercise once a day. 

Learning how to systematically reduce the tension throughout your body can quickly lower your stress levels.  Taking the time to learn how to do this can have enormous health benefits. 

You might think that adding one more “must do” item to your “To Do” list will only add more stress to your life, but the long term benefits are worth the small amount of time it takes to put this habit in place.  

Once a Day is All it Takes 

Once a day find a quiet time and space away from family or work.  During that time, close your eyes, tense the different muscle groups, breathe and then release the tension as you expell your air. As you systematically relax all the different parts of your body, tell yourself you are letting go of all the stress that is stored there. Pairing relaxing phrases with the breathing and relaxing teaches your brain to associate it with calming breathing, relaxing, and letting go of tension.  

It is difficult to learn how to relax on our own, as we often try to “make” ourselves relax instead of “allowing” the body to relax. It is really helpful to use a relaxation CD that helps put the process in place. 

An emmy-award winning composer friend and I collaborated to produce the Relaxation CD available on my website.  The music is composed specifically to match the simple script that teaches you how to become aware of where you hold the tension in your body and how to quickly let go of that tension. 

The script is based on relaxation techniques taught by a physician years ago working with bio-feedback. In the CD, you tense different muscle groups, breathe into that tension, and then slowly release both the air and tension. You learn to allow intruding thoughts to simply pass as you re-focus on relaxing.  

The CD is both relaxing and instructive. We hold tension in different parts of our body. In the process of going through this exercise, you will discover where you hold your stress and tension and how to let go of it quickly. 

When you add to the sequencing of tensing, breathing and release, words such as “letting go, relaxing deeper and deeper” you are increasing your ability at a later time to quickly release the tension in your targeted area. 

Our brain responds to words. Without realizing it, we are constantly streaming some kind of stress loaded statements in our mind all day. Purposefully choosing different words that associate slow, deep breathing with instructions to let go of tension, helps return the body to a restful state.

It takes about 30 days to put a new habit in place. If you listened and followed the CD every day, you will put in place stress release responses that you can use anytime anywhere.

In Thursday’s blog, I will give you the basic information needed to put in place your own relaxation exercise. 

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC 

Focus On What you can do

What do you say to yourself?

When we are under pressure to complete a job within a time frame, our thoughts can add to that stress.

  • I’ll never finish in time
  • If I don’t do a good job, I might lose my job
  • I wish I could work as fast as Susie
  • If I don’t get this done soon, they will take their work somewhere else.

When these and other automatic thoughts stream through our mind they have an immediate response. When these automatic thoughts are negative statements about ourselves and our abilities, we are telling ourselves we are incompetent and our doubts add another layer to the stress of pressure we are experiencing. 

We can maximize our energy and work by replacing negative thoughts with positive affirmations:

  • I am relaxed, capable and confident.
  • As I relax I am thinking clearly and creatively
  • I handle whatever challenge is placed before me
  • There are answers to every problem
  • I ask for and receive help from God and others
  • I can do this
  • Every time I stop, breathe deeply and slowly, I am letting go of my tension
  • I am focusing on my job and maximizing my abilities
  • I enjoy what I do and I am happy doing it
  • I find something pleasant in everything I do 

 

These affirmations not only reduce stress, but become a self directive enabling us to work at our optimum and maximize our energy and abilities.

One Minute Tension Breaks

We live in a world that is going faster and faster. We are expected to do more and more while maintaining or improving the quality of our work. Competition is fierce. Stress turns to distress and can become the norm.

But when our stress energy becomes distress, it takes a toll. Taking 1 minute tension breaks throughout your day, becoming aware of what you are saying to yourself, turning any negative thinking into positive affirmations, is so easy and effective you will wonder why you didn’t do it earlier.

The body is amazing and it will continue to tense and adjust until our muscles are literally tied up in knots. When you purposefully relax it, you will be able to accomplish so much more.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Quick Relaxation Techniques

An adrenaline rush can help you perform superhuman feats in emergencies, but when that adrenaline rush keeps you in high stress and tension over a long period of time it reduces your work productivity and ability to perform at your best. By taking some time outs, you can  maintain  a high level of intensity without the added stress of panic adrenaline.

Here are some quick Stress Reduction Techniques you can use 

When under pressure to complete a project, we typically throw ourselves into the work nonstop until completed.  But without purposeful breaks, the additional tension soon compromises our work.

Taking mini time outs might seem conunterproductive when you are on a deadline, but those breaks can actually maximize  your performance and minimize the time to complete the job. 

Five Minute Walk Away

Get up and walk away from your work. Physically remove yourself from your work area and find a quiet spot by yourself.  

Stand with arms at your side. Take a deep slow breath, and slowly raise your arms, stretching them high over your head.  Hold them there for a minute and then slowly expell your air and gradually bring your arms down to your side.  While doing this exercise, focus your mind on relaxing your whole body.   Repeat several times.  

Before returning to work, take an additional minute to walk around, stretching muscles and focusing on anything other than work.

Ten Minute Time Out   

If your project takes a longer period of time to complete, schedule longer breaks throughout the day.  Even when you think you absolutely have no time, do it anyway.  Set your watch.  Going for a walk outdoors is helpful because it enables you to relax your mind as well.

Walk someplace away from trafficked areas and someplace where it is pleasant. Walk slowly and enjoy the sights and sounds around you. Focus on relaxed breathing, the temperature of the air, flowers, and all the intense colors, shapes, textures, forms. Breathe slowly into all of this as you absorb the beauty of nature. 

Another quick time out using visualization

Find a place where you can sit down and relax. Close your eyes and focus on breathing from the diaphragm.  Tension promotes shallow breathing from the chest cavity which adds stress.  Take slow even breathes in through the mouth, hold it a second and then slowly release through the nose.

If thoughts about what you should be doing intrude, simply refocus on your breathing instead of trying to stop the thoughts.

As your body relaxes, repeat to yourself, “I am letting go. I do not need this tension and stress.” Imagine your tension melting away. Relax into this wonderful sensation of stress melting away and muscles relaxing.  Savor the feeling of relaxation.  

When you are ready to return to work, open your eyes and give yourself a moment for the blood to start flowing and your energy levels to return before getting up and moving around. 

You can use this exercise anytime.  Practice doing this exercise when you are not stressed.  You will find it becomes easier and easier to shed tension and relax your mind and body the more you use it.

In Thursday’s blog, I will share some additional information on how to relax and reduce stress and tension. 

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

My First Response

You have a deadline – a major report is due in half an hour and your computer crashes. The school calls, your child is sick, you are in the middle of a rush job and your office is an hour away from school. You have a meeting scheduled in half an hour and you can’t find your carefully prepared notes that include pertinent graphs and vital information.  You are working on a major project,  everything seems to be going wrong and your client is calling every 5 minutes. You feel panicked.  

I’m sure you have your own 1001 crisis moments when stress is suddenly escalated to the moon. In an instant your fight/flight response is activated and adrenaline is pouring out your pores along with perspiration.

But even though your body and mind are prepared to run or fight, the proverbial tiger at the door isn’t there; at least not in physical form. You are geared up for battle with noone to fight or no place to run. Sometimes, we become like the deer frozen in their tracks staring into the headlights of an approaching car. 

What is your first response to a crisis?

It is easy to panic when you are meeting a deadline and everything goes wrong, your job or someone is depending on you or life simply dumps a truckload of problems on top of you. 

Panic, fear and anxiety are responses to perceived danger and are connected to the automatic thoughts that tell us we need to do something to survive. Even when that survival is psychological, our physical responses to that danger remain the same.

When our responses to problems are exaggerated or are out of proportion to  actual events, we find ourselves in a state of constant high alert and stress.

No matter what the situation – no matter how dire or drastic – we can stop, evaluate and choose a more appropriate response. That first step in finding a solution, is lowering the immedate stress level so we can think and act more appropriately.

When we develop practical responses to every day problems, we can better handle emergencies. If our typical response is exaggerated or out of proportion to the situation, we soon develop habits that keep us feeling hopeless and helpless. It isn’t the events themselves that stress us out, but our perceptions of what we can do, are able to do or believe we must do.

Unless someone is physically in danger where immediate action is required, the first thing when faced with what seems like a catastrophic crisis is to STOP. 

Take a few calming deep slow breaths that come from the diaphragm, and allow your mind to become calm. Taking those few seconds or minutes out of a time pressured situation might seem like an eternity but it isn’t. You are calming your reaction so you can find appropriate solutions. 

Next, do a quick assessment. What is the first thing that needs to be done? What can you do and what can’t you do? What resources are available to you? Make a quick inventory of options. Choose the best and act. 

Panic can keep us from thinking systematically and logically adding more pressure and intensity to our situation. We can reduce the effects of that panic by challenging the thinking associated with it, turning it from catastrophic to manageable.

Over the next few weeks, I will explore ways to put in place more practical responses to problems.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Stuff

What stuff is creating a special and unique home – what is not  

Too Much Stuff

A friend once said to me; don’t get attached to your house or the things in it. Then you won’t miss it when you lose it.

Yet my home gives me pleasure. I designed and built it to meet my needs for smaller space with lots of light, openness and freedom of movement. I will miss it when I can no longer live here just as I miss the home my husband and I had built and which I had to sell. But I would miss even more the opportunity to have enjoyed it.

Likewise, I would miss the things in my home that give me pleasure, create beauty in spacing, design and color as well as being functional. I would find it difficult living in Spartan quarters without the things I have inherited, were given to me or collected that I love and that hold meaning to me.

But my friend was right in that you can become so attached to your home and things that you lose perspective. They aren’t the end all.

We can collect so much “stuff” that it becomes a great source of stress. When closet doors don’t close, our cars won’t fit in the garage, there is no room in the spare bedroom for guests, and we have to rent outside storage units just to store “stuff”, it’s time to get serious about why we are hanging onto so much of it.

So what do you do?

The prospect of sorting, organizing and getting rid of stuff can be so overwhelming we walk away and treat ourselves to a shopping trip! Wrong move. Moving to a new residence is a great time to get rid of stuff. Downsizing your home is another. But you can get rid of stuff without being so drastic.

Where do you start?

Organizational experts will tell you if you haven’t used something in two years, get rid of it. I have used drastic measures before but have given away things I wish I still had. Since I don’t like clutter, and my home space is designed and designated for just so much, it gives me incentive to not just organize but get rid of things. Here is what works for me.

1. Start in one area at a time. Perhaps that is an overflowing closet, or a room. Keep the target area manageable. Don’t try to do the whole house at one time.

2. Sort and evaluate carefully what you have: What is absolutely necessary, what may be necessary at some time in the future (are you sure it really will be necessary?) and what is meaningful enough to organize space for it.

3. Examine the space available to you. Resist the temptation to simply move excess “stuff” into another area. Challenge yourself. Is this stuff really necessary? Will you really need it in the future or is it an excuse to keep you from making a tough choice?

What are the chances you will be using it anytime soon? Why are you hanging onto it? Imagine how much easier life will be without it. Then ask yourself what kinds of organizational system (shelves, boxes, etc.) do you need. You are organizing for easy access not just storage.

4. Designate areas that are used for storage of seasonal things that are out of the way.

If items have meaning for you, then by all means keep them. I have my husband’s trombone. I know I will not be playing it anytime soon. Items that I have inherited or that were given to me that have a lot of meaning to me, I keep. They don’t have to have any monetary value. The value comes from its association with my life.

My rule is: if I don’t have shelf space or can’t create an organizational system that will store things, it goes. If it holds meaning, I find the space. The rest goes, because I have decided I am not going to build another house any time soon.

Good luck.

©Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Reducing Your Learning Curve

Nothing creates more stress for me than having to learn something in the world of technology. As my daughter has lovingly said, Mom, I think you were born missing the technical gene. I couldn’t agree more. Yet in order for me to continue writing, blogging and sharing my love of God, people and ways to create a meaningful and happy life, working with my computer and cyberspace is a necessity I cannot ignore.

I admire people who can sit down, experiment with the computer and learn to do all the wonderful things it has to offer. I am not one of those people. Recognizing and accepting that has been the first step in reducing stress levels and adjusting my learning curve to one I can handle.

So how have I met this huge learning curve?

First, I not only acknowledge and accept my limitations in this area, but am comfortable in that knowledge. I don’t have to compare myself with others. Understanding technology is simply not part of my persona and never will be. Instead, I can maximize my strengths while improving in those areas that are more challenging.

Second, what is the minimum I need to know in order to do my work? I need to have step by step instructions and the ability to apply it. I need enough understanding and knowledge of terminology and language to converse with a mentor or teacher. That has been frustrating because new terminology is introduced every day. I continue to stick to the basics and learn the rest a little at a time.

Third, I know too much while knowing too little. Most computer self-help books are either too elemental or too advanced. A lot of what I already use is without full understanding of terminology and vocabulary. Because of this, traditional classes do not work for me. I budget time and money to hire a mentor to help me. On my own, I get self-help computer books and gradually learn the basic terminology so I can ask the questions I need to ask for assistance.

Fourth, breaking down any new learning into small steps and chunks of information is important. As a former teacher and facilitator of many groups, I am aware of the importance of application of knowledge to facilitate learning. No matter how busy, I challenge myself to learning something new every week in this area.

Fifth, I grace myself time to learn. I don’t even try to keep up with the fast, mad pace of technology. I work at a pace I can handle which reduces stress levels. Understanding how you learn is also important. I am very visual and tactile. So I save time, money and energy by hiring a mentor to help me.

We are each challenged with learning that might be difficult but necessary. For me it was technology. Yours may involve learning how to communicate more effectively, creating a happier marriage, applying good parenting skills, learning how to budget and care for your finances, etc.

No matter what the area of learning, the same principles apply:

• Acknowledge, accept your strengths and weaknesses. This is not limiting. It enables you to brainstorm and come up with alternative options and solutions. Resist comparisons to others.

• Define specifically what you need to learn. Create a plan of action that works for you. What is your learning style? What do you need in time and finances? What can you learn on your own – what do you need assistance for.

• Recognize that it takes time to learn and apply that learning. Adopt an “I can do” attitude and perseverance. Stick to your plan of action.

There are so many things we can accomplish with an appropriate attitude, determination and the willingness to apply self-regulation and discipline.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Reducing Overload and Time Pressure

I am not a techie. Although I operate a website, post blogs twice a week, podcast and do other functions on my computer, the language of computers and technology is still foreign to me. When I have very concise step by step instructions I can usually maintain my ability to function. When something goes wrong or I need to learn something new on my computer, I quickly find myself on overload and feel the pressure of time as I try to complete my designated tasks.

We all have our panic buttons. Everyone has their Achilles heel. For many it is when they have to get up and speak in front of a group of people. I love speaking and find people easy to talk to. My computer doesn’t enjoy going out for a cup of coffee and conversation. While I enjoy the benefits of technology, I struggle with the huge learning curve that can seem overwhelming at times.

Become aware of your vulnerable spots. Perhaps it is relationships, communication or the world of finances. We get overwhelmed when bills are greater than our bank account and we have difficulty learning how to budget; communication deteriorates with our spouse; our children are out of control, and the expectations and requirements of our job keep rising. Whatever the challenge, recognizing what pushes your panic button and when it is pushed allows you to prepare and take action.

When we are on overload or feeling the pressure on our time and resources, panic sets in it bringing along anxiety and fear and worry. What do I do? How will I manage? I already have so much to do. I’m so tired. I wish I could just run away. I’m not going to make it.

Our thoughts begin to spiral downward. We magnify the problem and diminish our ability to resolve it. We compare ourselves negatively with others who seem to have it all together. We have instant recall to all the times we have tried and failed while forgetting all the times we have succeeded. We label ourselves incompetent, stupid, etc. instead of recognizing that we have both strengths and weaknesses and we do not have to put unrealistic expectations on ourselves. We can’t do it all. And we are okay.

Here are some things you can do when overwhelmed.

1. Reduce the immediate stress level. Take some calm even breathes and ask God to help you relax and focus. Panic and fear puts our bodies into survival mode so we can run or fight. You need to use this stress energy in a different way.

Do the following exercise. Find a private spot. Stand in a comfortable position. As you breathe in air, slowly raise your arms above your head. Hold for a second and say to yourself, I am relaxed and in control of my time and my abilities. Let out your air as you lower your arms. Do this several times. 

2. Challenge your negative thinking. Instead of allowing your mind to dwell on all the “I can’ts” refocus them on all the “I can’s”. Resist thinking about how big the problem is. Instead, reframe it into something that is a challenge rather than a disaster. Tell yourself I can find the resources, develop the skill or do whatever it takes.

3. Break the problem down into manageable steps. Any overwhelming task can be broken down into productive steps of action. Become familiar with your typical response to trouble. What have you done in the past that hasn’t worked? What can you do today that will. Ask for help. Get support from others who will encourage you as you learn. Don’t be afraid to say I don’t know. It isn’t a reflection of your competence, abilities or self worth.

Life is full of challenges. Sometimes we will feel as though a truckload of problems has been dumped on us. The first thing is to step outside of it, put it into perspective and work on the demands one at a time. Otherwise our problems become monsters instead of challenges we can meet.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC