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I wish I could say my kids were perfect… but, since nobody is perfect, they aren’t, either. And when they’re screaming or fighting, it grates on my nerves. And, without an intervention or a relaxation technique, I’m quickly stressed out.
Because, unfortunately, stress is inevitable. Knowing how to handle that stress in a positive manner should be second nature… only it isn’t. I think that’s part of why there’s such an anger problem, especially here in the United States. We’re all stressed – and we don’t know how to handle it in a proper, positive manner – one that doesn’t involve violence.
That’s why it’s important to learn some new life skills – some easy relaxation techniques, including guided imagery (or guided relaxation).
Why Relaxation Technique (like guided imagery) works
So what, exactly, are relaxation techniques like guided imagery? And why do they work?
Well, to explain that, first we need to go over some evolutionary biology and psychology. I promise to keep it simple, though.
Guided imagery or relaxation is a technique that helps you to focus on your breathing, your body, and your reactions to stress. When our bodies are stressed, all sorts of hormones, neurotransmitters, and other chemicals are flushed throughout our bodies and brains. They serve a vital purpose – to help our body prepare to deal with the immediate problem through the “fight, flight, or freeze” response.
Fight, flight, or freeze: all 3 are totally valid options for dealing with an immediate problem. Primitive humans, upon seeing something that could eat them, would have had 3 choices: fight the toothy creature; try to outrun it; or hold still and hope it doesn’t see you.
But since we’re not trying to survive an encounter with a saber-toothed tiger, sometimes those reactions can get us into trouble. Especially when we try to bottle up our stress. And when that happens, our bodies funnel those stresses into other issues… issues like unexplained stomach aches, stress-induced headaches, and other psychosomatic symptoms.
“Psychosomatic: a physical illness or condition caused or aggravated by a mental factor such as internal conflict or stress” – Google search for “define psychosomatic”
Okay, so what that means is that stress is a natural, healthy response that helps us prepare to deal with immediate, life-threatening problems.
However, despite the extinction of those very same saber-tooth tigers, we still experience stress. Tests, work deadlines, and cranky kids are just a few examples. And, in those instances, the “flight, fight, freeze” response isn’t a great option. And yet, that’s still how our bodies are programmed to react.
So how do these relaxation techniques work?
Easy – they give us the time, resources, and capability to help us reason through an issue and/or manage stress that isn’t immediately life-threatening. That way, the stress of day-to-day life can be dealt with in a healthy, productive manner. In other words, using these techniques helps us to stay sane, healthy, and avoid complications that from bottling everything up inside.
Sound too simple? The concept is simple, sure. That’s why it works.
4 Relaxation Techniques, including Guided Visualization
Now, let’s go over 4 of my favorite relaxation techniques. When you’re first starting out, pick one and practice it. It’s far better to have one solid, reliable technique than four wishy-washy ones.
Guided Visualization: de-stressing in 5-15 minutes
Guided visualization is a technique that involves both listening to an audio prompt and visualizing something very soothing. If you’ve done it enough and have the audio memorized, you can also walk yourself through it, though it’s really better to have a prompt. There are lots of available audio files on the internet, such as these provided by Dartmouth.
This technique can be done in as quickly as 2-5 minutes, or take as long as fifteen minutes. My personal favorite involves the following:
Imagine you’re at the top of a set of stairs. As we count to ten, imagine yourself walking down each step. Take a deep breath in and out as you walk down each step. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five. Imagine the feel of each step beneath your feet and the feel of the handrail in your palm. Four, three, two, one. At the bottom of the stairs is a door.
As you open the door, you find a familiar scene. It’s a place where you feel safe and happy. It could be a beach, a hammock under a tree, a forest trail, or curled up on the couch with a book. We’ll spend a few minutes in this place – imagining every detail and the feel of it on our skin. Look, feel, and imagine everything, soaking it in.
For me, this means being in a soft, canvas hammock under an oak tree. I can see the individual leaves. Some are still green, but others are golden or red. I’ve got a table next to me – with a pile of books and a tall glass of ice-cold lemonade on it. There’s a straw in the lemonade.
Spend a few minutes here, in your safe place. Explore it, while focusing on keeping your breathing calm, even, and deep. Feel your body breathing in good, clean air. Feel the tension, stress, and toxicity being exhaled. Each breath brings your body more peace, more health, and more healing.
Now as we head back up the door, close the door behind you. Keep this place safe, as only you are allowed in this place. As we walk back up the stairs, we will count up to ten. When we get to ten you will awaken refreshed, happy, and ready to tackle whatever heads your way. Breathe deeply and count to ten: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
The first few times I tried guided visualization, I laughed and thought it was hokey. But then I realized something astounding: that it worked. And if it worked for me, it’ll work for you, too.
Key Word Breathing: Calming Down in Less than a Minute
This one isn’t quite as involved as guided visualization, but it still works wonders. Key word breathing involves finding a focus word – something that you can see, touch, and easily recognize. It shouldn’t be an abstract concept, as that’s harder to keep your focus. It also shouldn’t be funny. Because as cool as ninja monkey was as my first key word, it made me laugh too much. I had to change it to something less hilarious.
Once you have your key word, imagine it in detail. With every breath you take, repeat your word to yourself as you exhale. I usually just say it to myself, since I don’t want people to stare at me as I chant.
Take long, slow, deep breaths and keep repeating your word. As you keep chanting your word (whether out loud or to yourself) and visualizing it, you’ll be able to feel the stress melt away. It’s amazing. And it can be done in as little or much time as you have available.
Limit Your Stress Now: Just Say “No.”
The third technique is easy in theory. But it’s hard to say no – especially when we’re a society built on saying yes to all the things – all of the fundraisers, the volunteering, and doing for others. Don’t get me wrong – those are all good, admirable things.
However, it’s okay to say “No.”
If you say yes to everything, you’ll find yourself overburdened and burned out quickly. But if you can say “no: to some things, you’ll be able to say “Yes” to the best things.
And building on that same concept, you don’t have to be super at everything. We can just be good (or even just “okay”) at a few things and that’s fine. Because once I admitted that, I realized that I was happier and more available for my family. And I don’t just mean that I’m more available for them with my time – by being less stressed I can be more available emotionally, too.
Be Prepared for Stress Yet to Come – Find a Hobby
Stress is a fact of life. That’s why it’s also important to have a long-term coping strategy. And, one of the best long-term relaxation techniques for dealing with stress is to participate in enjoyable activities. It’s time to get a hobby, y’all.
Hobbies are a great way to relieve stress in the long-term. This technique only works when you have the time, energy, and ability to dedicate yourself to that hobby, though. So if you’re strapped for time, this may not be the best choice. Try one of the other three, as those can be done in as few as a couple of minutes.
But once you’ve got some time to invest in yourself, develop a hobby.
Some of my hobbies include reading, sewing, well, you’ve been reading the blog so you get the idea. But I’m always up to trying a new activity, too. And if I experience too much stress from that activity, I can always fall back on a deep breathing or visualization technique to calm myself down.
Finally, it’s okay to Ask for Help
If these four techniques don’t work for you, there’s one that always works. It’s this: ask someone for help.
There are so many other relaxation techniques! If these ones don’t work for you, find a trusted therapist or nurse or social worker. They’ll be able to give you more options. For example, another of my favorite techniques is called bio feedback. It’s used in therapy and is absolutely amazing. So please don’t be afraid to ask someone for professional help.
There are so many wonderful, trained professionals who know lots of amazing tricks and tips. Don’t be afraid to tap them for their expertise. I assure you, they’ll be more than happy to give you some ideas or point you in the right direction.