...training the parasympathetic relaxation response has many health benefits, including IBS hypertension, anxiety, high cortisol...

Phase 1
How to Switch on a Relaxation Response to Switch off Stress Responses in your Body

© www.PeterSmithUK.com –Holistic Medicine Practitioner-
[Version: 2/Sep/13]


Page Contents 

  • What You’ll Gain
  • The Brain is Plastic and we can Change its Structure with These Exercises
  • Relaxation Response Setup 
  • Mental Tricks to Initiate the Relaxation Response
  • he Relaxation Response Procedure
  •  Version 1 Simple Progressive muscle relaxation
  •  Version 2 Relaxing using a Focus Word
  •  Version 2 Relaxing using Slow Breathing without a focus word
  • Feelings and Sensations That Tell Let You Know You Have Switched on Your Relaxation Response
  • Completing Your Training 
  • Phase 2 Taking the Relaxation Response out into Every Day Life

What You’ll Gain

With this training program you will learn and develop a new ability:
How to control your own nervous system and switch on a relaxation response and switch off stress responses and in your body.
For an explanation of the stress response (in which the sympathetic nerves are dominant and HPA-axis is active) and the relaxation response (in which the parasympathetic nerves are dominant and the HPA-axis is inactive) see [insert link]
 
There are two phases to the training:
In the first phase of the program you learn how to switch off stress responses and switch on very deep relaxation responses deliberately and mechanically while lying in a peaceful place. Once you’ve learned how to do this with ease you move onto the second phase of the training in which you learn how do a quick “mini” relaxation during the day while doing other things at the same time like working on the computer, sitting in a meeting, reading, watching TV etc. These mini sessions are sufficient to cancel or switch off excessive and unnecessary physical stress responses that may be harming your health in some way.
 
Eventually with several months of practice you should be able to switch on these mini relaxation responses semi-automatically with very little effort regularly throughout the day even while standing and strolling.

A great thing about this training is that by completing this full training program you will permanently change the way your body internally deals with stress responses.  The effects are permanent for two reasons.
 
Firstly when you train your brain and nervous system how to do something new like ride a bicycle, drive a car or swim it never completely forgets how to do that thing and you retain the new skill for life; this is also true for the relaxation response training so the hours you put into completing the training is a lifelong investment in your health.
In addition to simply learning a new skill studies have shown that when you undergo this type of intense ‘mental’ training it actually changes the physical structure of the brain.

 

The Brain is Plastic and over time we can change its Structure with Mental Exercises.

To change brain structure takes just 25 mins a day for 3 months.
 
It used to be believed the structure of the brain was fixed, but since 2000 (Lazar et al) it has been shown that repeatedly practicing the same exercise -including meditation- for 20-25 minutes per day results in the parts of the brain used during the exercise growing bigger after 3 months of practice.  This is called neuroplasticity, it’s can be thought of as similar to growing a muscle by repeatedly exercising it and just like growing muscles it’s not an overnight process however and to achieve appreciable changes takes several months of daily practice. What I can tell you from over twenty years of practice is that I’ve observed completing this programme does something to people’s health that cannot be achieved by any other treatment (no herbs, no supplements etc.) and if you cut corners by only doing a training session 2-3 times per week you won’t get the same benefits. 
 
This neuroplasticity phenomena has enormous potential for our mental health both good and bad; if you regularly harbour depressed, pessimistic, paranoid and anxious thoughts unfortunately you will develop and strengthen the parts of brain that enable these unhealthy thoughts, when we practice mindfulness meditation on the other hand we grow the physical structures in the brain involved in feeling peaceful and letting go of unhappy, angry, anxious and stressful thinking.

Another very interesting discovery is that the regular practice of mindfullness meditation not only causes growth in helpful parts of the brain but it also diminished the size of a part of the brain called the amygdala.  The amygdala scans our environment looking for anything threatening and then raises the alarm, it’s like the burglar alarm in a bank. In some people the amygdala activity is overactive causing them to over produce stress and anxiety. 

So we can literally increase our brains physical capacity to achieve healthy mental states and help ourselves treat problem metal states.
 
This technique will teach your nervous system how to get into a deeper state of relaxation than you ever achieve in normal daily life, and how to switch quickly from a stressed (possibly normal) state to a profoundly relaxed state much more quickly and easily than you have ever done before. 
 
The second phase involves learning how to switch on a “mini” version of the deep relaxation response you’ve just learned regularly in everyday life, this mini relaxation is nowhere near as deep as the full relaxation response but it effectively switches off all excess and unwanted stress effects in the body. With practice you'll find you are able to do this almost any time and anywhere while you are doing other things at the same time with your eyes open, for example while working on a computer, watching TV, or in a meeting long as you're not actually the person talking, while stuck in a traffic jam or on a delayed train etc.
 
You could try and learn the mini relaxation response technique straight away and miss out the first phase of deep relaxation training, but I suggest it will take you longer to perfect the mini relaxation response technique if you miss out the first step and it's possible that you'll never be as good at the mini relaxation response technique as you would if you had spent the time developing your abilities to switch on a profoundly relaxed condition in the first place. 
 
It's interesting to note that the harder you find it to switch on a relaxation response that probably means the more you need to do learn how to do it, it’s also probably true that the harder you find it the greater the health benefits will be; so be patient with yourself and take as much time as you need to become proficient.

It is possible for a person to be very good at switching on the relaxation response and yet still be suffering from the negative effects of long-term stress. They could be trapped in an on-going stressful situation over which they feel they have no control and need to make mental and structural life changes that will reduce or remove this form of negative stress. Alternatively the problem may be that despite their innate ability to relax they are being overrun by producing too frequent stress responses. This can happen when the part of the brain called the amygdala has become programmed to sense threats and danger at every turn. This typically occurs in people that have had a highly stressful or traumatic up brining, but it can also result from a single very traumatic event, in which case may be called post-traumatic stress disorder. In such situations a person could still gain considerable benefits by further developing their relaxation response skills, however on its own this approach will only ever produced limited results and they should combine the technique with hypnotherapy/NLP to reprogram the amygdala and stop excessive stress response been produced in the first place.  If you find yourself feeling morestressed and anxious when you try to switch on the relaxation response you are carrying something in your subconscious provoking stress responses and you need to consult a therapist to switch it off.

Phase 1
The Relaxation Response Setup

Where to Practice


In the beginning to learn the relaxation response you should find a quiet peaceful place for your practice, your bedroom is usually a good choice. Eventually you can learn to switch on the relaxation response almost anywhere even in the middle of a busy and noisy environment. If you don't have insomnia and are doing this exercise for physical health problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, hypertension, PMS etc I recommend you don't lie in your bed as you are likely to fall asleep. Instead lie on the bedroom floor, have a pillow or two under your head and cover yourself with a duvet to keep warm. 
 

Posture

Lay on your back with your hands comfortably by your side or resting on your hips; if you put your hands on your belly your chest they will move up and down as you breathe this movement can make it harder to completely relax the arms and shoulders. 
 
It's probably not a good idea to cross your legs at the ankles, strangely it can make it harder to relax the lower legs, but try it for yourself. It can be very comfortable particularly for people with lower back issues to put a few pillows behind the knees to bend the legs, experiment as you want, the only rule is to be comfortable and completely supported so you can let your body go.

Have enough pillows under your head so that when you completely and utterly let go of all muscle tension in your jaw your mouth doesn't fall open. When your mouth falls open and you start breathing through the mouth if can make it harder to relax the throat and mouth. You want to raise the heads sufficient so that when you completely relax the jaw your lips still touch.
 

How to Breathe

Most people shallow breathe at a rate of about 13 breaths per minute; it's been shown that if you can train yourself to breathe more slowly throughout the day at say 8 or fewer breaths per minute you can significantly lower your blood pressure. 
 
Try something right now, take a deep breath in and see how you do it. Did you pull your chest up and raise your shoulders while sucking your belly in? If you did you probably shallow breathe into your chest and don't breathe into your belly or use your diaphragm. 
 
Now try this keep your shoulders and chest relaxed or just forget about them and inhale slowly down into your belly. Your belly should expand and you might be able to feel your diaphragm in the solar plexus area pushing down. Only once your belly is pushed out almost the point of straining you then start to fill and expand the lower part of your rib cage and allow your chest rises a little. This is one of the best way to breathe to quickly induce a relaxation response. 

Just to make sure you've got it try this exercise: lay on your back with one hand on your belly roundabout your belly button, and the other hand above your belly on the bottom of your rib cage. Now as you inhale you have to make the lower hand over the belly button rise first without the upper hand on the chest moving at all. Do this even if it feels unnatural and you have to force the breath down into your belly without moving your chest, once you're belly feels quite full and you are beginning to strain you continue to inhale now breathing into the lower chest and raising the upper hand. At no point should you draw the shoulders up to take in more air. Practice this until you are proficient at it, until it becomes part of your muscle memory and feels as natural to the way you used to breathe. 
 
There are a few people, particularly people with anxiety disorders and prone to panic attacks that find doing any kind of deep slow breathing quickly and dramatically raises their level of anxiety. The people who promote the Buteyko breathing method of claim this is a very common phenomenon, however if I count up the number of times I’ve seen it I suspect it is as uncommon as from one in 500 to 1000 people experience this phenomenon. However common or not it may be it can produce quite extreme increases in anxiety alarmingly quickly and people who have it are simply unable to use slow abdominal breathing as a tool to help them switch their nervous system from a stressed sympathetic dominant to a relaxed or parasympathetic dominant condition. Fortunately there is an alternative breathing technique which people that experience this phenomenon actually find it significantly reduces their feelings of anxiety and this is the Buteyko breathing method. You will need to find courses in your local area to master the Buteyko breathing method if you find that slow abdominal breathing triggers panic in your system.

As I’ll discuss more in phase 2 the breathing muscles are one of the few places in the body that are controlled by both our conscious central nervous system and our unconscious autonomic nervous system. So for example when were very stressed our breathing rate will increase automatically but we can consciously override this and deliberately slow our breathing down. These areas where we have dual conscious and unconscious control are like bridges that we can use to make our internal physiology cross over from a stressed condition where the sympathetic nerves are dominant to a relaxation condition where the parasympathetic nerves are dominant. In total there are nine muscle groups that are under dual control in this way. In phase 2 we will use seven of these bridges to induce mini relaxation responses.
 
By far the most important of the seven relaxation bridges other breathing muscles and you need to have mastered either slow abdominal breathing or the Buteyko breathing method to be able to take the relaxation response out into the real world in everyday life situations so that you can switch off stress responses pretty much anywhere and any time you want to. This is what you’ll learn in phase 2, for now concentrate on developing your ability to put your body into an extremely and deeply relaxed condition.
 

Mental Tricks to Initiate the Relaxation Response

Mental Trick 1: Imagine or create the feeling of being in a safe and stress free environment.
As I discussed in What Causes Human Stress Responses? The hypothalamus can’t tell the difference between a real or imagined source of stress and our big human brain can switch on a stress response just by consciously remembering or thinking about stressful scenarios. Fortunately however this effect works both ways so if you consciously imagine you are in a safe place and all your stresses are going to work out for the best and  the hypothalamus will switch on a relaxation response. 
 
I think of the stress response producing parts of the brain like the amygdala and hypothalamus like the guy that used to mechanically pull levers in an old-fashioned train signal box, when they hear a bell and see a light flashing they mechanically move a lever to divert a train from one track onto another, they simply follow instructions. The hypothalamus responds to signals from the higher mind and the amygdala it doesn’t know whether the signals are real or imagined so by consciously changing what we think we can send the signal we want to the hypothalamus to switch us from a stressed condition to a relaxed condition.
 
Some people find it helpful to imagine going to a safe relaxing place (a beach a garden etc.) or imagine creating a safe cocoon (a bubble or some such) around themselves. If you can do this use this mental as a mental technique to send the right signal to the hypothalamus.

Mental Trick 2: Tell your stressful thoughts you are busy and to leave you alone just for 20 minutes.  
An additional mental trick you can use is to mentally choose that for the next 20 minutes you going to give up thinking about your problems and your stresses. You can return to thinking about such things after the exercise in a better state of mind when you are refreshed from your mini-break. 
 
Preventing the mind from wandering and becoming distracted especially by worries and concerns by can be a challenge.  I’ve seen books meditation with a format: "chapter 1 how to meditate, chapter 2 through 20 how to deal with mental distractions". Quite a common experience many people have is that when they take a quiet moment to switch on the relaxation response they find their mind is suddenly flooded by thoughts about the significant stressful issues in the life, these thoughts may tempt and seduce you to have a good old think about them but this is not the time for that, tell them not right now I’ll get back to you later right now I’m busy doing my relaxation!
 
Holding the mind still and empty without using anything to focus on and hold the mind still is very difficult for most people. In the late 80s I got to a point where I could hold my mind completely empty and still without using a mental focus trick for perhaps a whole five minutes, I was only able to do this after two and a half years of meditating for ten hours a week. It wasn't my goal to be able to achieve this Zen empty mind state and I can't say there was anything superior about it to the other much easier meditations I was doing, I'm just making the observation that holding the mind still and stopping it from wandering without using a mental focus trick can take a lot of practice. You do not have to completely empty your mind or do anything remotely like that to switch on a relaxation response.

Rather than trying to hold your mind empty and still, it’s just as beneficial to stop your mind wandering by completely focused on performing the instructions of the exercise or meditation you are doing, i.e. occupy yourself by focusing on feeling each body part and imagining it relaxing, focusing on the sensations of breathing, the sensation of actively making your mind passive (paradoxical I know), the sensations of your arms and legs going heavy or floaty and notice how as you do these things you can increase the sensation of the relaxation response. 
 
There are several tricks you can do to help temporarily prevent stressful thoughts occupying your mind while you are switching on the relaxation response:-
  • Some people find it useful to make a deal with all their stresses and concerns that they will get back to them later; imagine a situation where someone says to you we need to talk and you say okay I'm busy right now just give me 20 minutes and then we can talk. Say this to your stressful thoughts.
  • Some people mentally visualise putting all their stresses and concerns into a big box or chest, closing the lid and temporarily locking them away. Basically find some way to temporarily putting your concerns on the side of shelf.
  • Alternatively imagine what you would do if you were talking on the phone and someone tried to talk to you, what would you do? You might briskly hold your hand up towards their face and say fairly forcefully "not now I'm on the phone, wait till I’ve finished". Try dismissing stressful thoughts in a similar forceful manner as they attempt to engage you: "not now I'm busy doing my relaxation".

Mental Trick 3: Practice mindfulness and non-attachment i.e. become a detached passive observer of your thoughts.
 
With the mindfulness and non-attachment technique you adopt a detached mental attitude whereby you just observe your thoughts and feelings from a distant and detached place without responding to them. If you’ve not done this before it may sound strange and hard to do but actually it’s not that hard to learn. 
 
Mindfulness is focusing on the sensations in your body and mind; being observant of aware of these things, it has a great ability to make one still.
Non-attachment is remaining passive and not reacting to the sensations, thoughts and feelings in your mind as they arise.
 
As stressful thoughts come up in your mind let them drift by or through your mind simply observingthem in a passive way without trying to stop them or change them in anyway. Another thing you don’t do is judge your thoughts of feelings, you simply accept them.

You become a passive observer of your own thoughts and feelings for example if you remember something that makes you angry you remain in a passive and detached place and peacefully think "okay there goes my anger" or there goes my fear etc. This mental exercise is sometimes called the practice of none-attachment; it's a very useful and classic mental trick for dealing with negative thoughts and feelings during meditation and relaxation training. It is one of the key components of a technique called mindfulness based stress reduction that has been effectively used and researched to diminish depression and anxiety.
 
Eventually with practice you can find a neutral mental position from which stresses and worries have less effect on you. It's possible using the non-attachment technique to temporarily escape and recuperate from on-going unremitting stresses and concerns that we feel we do not have any control over or ability to influence, as I discussed elsewhere this type of stress is the type of stress that damages our health, as opposed to intermittent stress and stress that you feel you have some control over that are positively good for our health. 
 
Learning how to even temporarily detach from stressful concerns and just passively watch your thoughts and feelings as they drift through your mind without reacting to them is a very useful life skill to develop. If you want to deep your abilities with practicing non-attachment I highly recommend attending a Buddhist philosophy workshop on the subject, you can learn and practice non-attachment without becoming a Buddhist, they just understand and teach it well.
 
In the previous mental trick I suggested you try to stop your stressful thoughts or put them to one side, with the mindfulness and non-attachment technique however one doesn’t try to stop of alter ones thoughts in any way but simply allows them to flow. These instructions may seem at contradictory but you can combine both when I meditate or relax. Personally I use the technique of telling my mind to stop thinking about my stresses when I start the practice just to quieten down and help me get started, then once I’ve entered a more neutral and peaceful state of mind I switch to allowing any thoughts or feelings to pass through my mind passively without dwelling on them. You don’t have to do both techniques, just use whatever enables you to switch on a relaxation response.
 
The brain and mind are more active when the body is producing stress responses and less active during the relaxation response, this may be obvious but we can make use of it by deliberately making our mind go into a more passive state we can initiate the relaxation response. Adopting a passive mental attitude at the same time as you relax your muscles is key component of switching on the relaxation response.

Another way to remain mentally passive is not to try and force anything, this technique is not a competition and there’s no place here for being perfectionistic or impatient with yourself if you cannot master the technique straight away. Paradoxically trying too hard to switch on a relaxation response with a perfectionistic attitude may actually prevent the relaxation response from occurring. We are not consciously capable of directly controlling autonomic nervous system and HPA axis and making them produce a relaxation response, that is done for us automatically all we have to do is create the signs that our hypothalamus will respond to by reduce our breathing, make the mind go passive, and relax and muscles and our internal physiology (the autonomic nervous system and HPA axis) will switch on a relaxation response and cancel all stress responses for us.
 

Summary of Mental Tricks

  • Temporarily imagine you are in a safe place.
  • Temporarily put all your troubles to one side and occupy your mind with the exercise and body sensations so completely that you are mentally absorbed in the exercise.
  • Move your mind to a detached position from where you simply observe your thoughts and feelings passively without reacting or dwelling on them. 

Mental Props

In addition to the above technique meditation and relaxation uses “props” to focus the mind in one place and help us stop it wandering. The two most common props developed by meditators over the years are:-
  • Focusing one's mind on one's breathing. Normally our breathing is something that simply occurs in the background without us even being aware of it. One of the most commonly used and useful techniques to occupy the mind and hold it still during meditation or relaxation is practising focused awareness (mindfulness) of one’s breathing. Notice the physical sensation of your belly and chest moving up and down as you inhale and exhale; see if you can feel the breath changing the shape of your nostrils as you inhale and exhale, you may be able to hear your breath moving in and out through your nostrils, see if you can feel your heart beat and see if you can notice how it speeds up and slows down as you inhale and exhale. You can if you want deliberately take a few deep breaths to help you intensify these sensations then relax your breathing and continue observing the sensations of breathing.  
In some meditations one does not change one’s breathing in anyway but simply practices mindful awareness of the breathing, however our goal is to change the balance in our autonomic nervous system and making our breathing slow and lengthening the out-breath is the most direct physical thing we can control to alter the balance in our autonomic nervous system. The few people who experience increased anxiety when they attempt to perform slow abdominal breathing should use the Buteyko breathing method instead.
  •  Focusing one's mind by repeating a single word or phrase this is called a focus word.
Some people find using a focus word very helpful to induce a relaxation response other people find the focus word method distracting and it doesn’t work for them.
 
Below you'll find three sets of instructions. Firstly a simple muscle relaxation technique, then a version using the focus word method and lastly a slow breathing method. All of these techniques work equally well and you can even combine them as you want. Try each method for a few days and settle on the one that feels the most natural for you, keeping in mind that the only goal you are aiming to achieve here is a state of deep and profound relaxation, how you achieve it does not matter.
 

Choosing and Using a Word to Focus the Mind

Verbally or mentally repeating a word is a technique that has been used by meditators to focus the mind for eons. 
 
With this technique you will mentally repeat the mental focus word either as you begin exhalation, during or at the end of your exhalation.  
 
In yoga and traditional meditation circles the meaning of the word you use is considered to have special powers and effects however there are some modern studies that show that choosing a neutral word with no special meaning produces all the same physiological benefits. Obviously it would not be appropriate to choose a word with a negative meaning that brings up the bad feelings. 
 
For the purposes of inducing a physical relaxation response it makes no difference whether you choose a word or phrase that has a spiritual significance for you or a totally neutral word.

If you wish you may choose a word that has a special significance for you, Amen for example, however if this means that you will start to turn the relaxation response training into a prayer session it would be better to chose a neutral word. Once you're able to switch on the relaxation response quickly and efficiently and have progressed onto phase 2 of this training, you could replace the neutral word with a spiritually significant or prayer word if you wanted and continue the exercises as a regular meditation or prayer session with added relaxation health benefits. 
 
I've seen the word "the" recommended as a neutral word, but personally I found it strange and uncomfortable to use; when I repeat the word "the" on its own it engages my mind with the question: “the what”? 
A neutral word recommended in the book the Relaxation Response by Benson is "one"; try it and see how it works for you. When I use “one” as my focus word it feels unnatural and I always want to start to count i.e. one, two, three... Actually counting works just as well, remember the only point to using a word is to help focus the mind and stop it wandering. 
The word I recommend using as a focus word is "relax", it works both as a word and a meaningful suggestion.
 
What words you use is up to you; choose a word from the list below or make up your own and try it for at least one complete training session, switching words during a session really doesn't work. 

The following are some suggestions for your focus word:
Relax. One. Counting: one, two, three… The. Breathe. Inhale/Exhale (said as you inhale and exhale). Harmony. Beauty. Peace. Tranquillity. Balance. Om (an Eastern spiritual chant). Sat Nam, say Sat with your inhalation and Nam with your exhalation (translation: sat=true, nam=name or my true name/identity). 
 
As soon as you find a word that works for you accept it and stick with it, remember the word itself is not important it's just a prop to help you to focus the mind.
 

The Relaxation Response Procedure

If you want I have a free mp3 download to talk you through the technique available via email to get you started. (warning it’s a big file to  download).

 

Simple Summary

In the sections below I offer several different options and tricks people find helpful to switch their body from a stressed condition to a relaxed condition. You don’t have to use all the techniques in the end all you have to do is:-
  1. Lie fully supported on your back in a peaceful place,
  2. Keep warm,
  3. Slow down or reduce your breathing,
  4. Use a mental trick or two to make your mind become passive,
  5. Progressively relax all the muscles of your body by telling one part of the body at a time to go soft and relaxed. 

Version 1: The Simple Muscle Relaxation Technique

  1. Lay down in a quiet place.
  2. Adopt a detached and passive mental attitude. Leave your stress behind for the next few minutes. 
  3. Take a few deep abdominal breaths and set your breathing to a slow pace, especially slow your out-breath. Optionally start Buteko breathing.
  4. Progressively relax all your muscles.
You can begin the relaxation at your toes or your eyes the choice is yours. Focus all your attention on one part of your body at a time, feel that part of the body and simply tell it to relax and let go, to go in loose and limp. 
 
For most people the sensation will be a feeling of sinking and becoming heavy, however some people experience a feeling of lightness. Whatever feeling you get keep recreating it in the next part of the body as you continue. 
 
Focus on and relax every single part of your body so for example if you are starting at the feet feel your toes and then tell them to go soft and relaxed, then relax the top of the foot, then the bottom of the foot, then the inside of the ankle, then the outside of the ankle, do the back of your calf then the front of your calf, your shin, then your kneecaps etc. Now you may think you don’t have any muscles or tension in your shins or kneecaps and that's true but the goal is training is your brain and autonomic nervous system, we are not really interested in the tension in the muscles. Every part of the body even your shins has a corresponding area in your brain and the more parts of the body you focus on and tell to relax the more parts of your brain you will recruit into the relaxation training.
 
In the beginning you may not be able to focus your mind easily on specific individual body parts, so for example in the beginning you may only able to relax both arms together, with practice however you'll find you can be much more specific and can relax just one arm at a time eventually you will be able to relax your fingers one at a time. In this way you can keep your mind busy and recruit more regions of the brain, hardwiring new neural pathways that enable you to activate a deep relaxation response at will in the future
 
As an example you could do it like this:
Focus all your attention on your eyes and then just tell them to go soft and relaxed.
Now focus all your attention on your cheeks and tell them to go soft and relaxed.
Now focus all your attention on your lips and your tongue and tell them to go soft and relaxed.
Now focus all your attention on your jaw muscles and tell them to go soft and relaxed.
Now focus on and relax your throat.
Now focus on and relax your neck, let the full weight of your head rest on the pillows.
Now focus on and relax your shoulders.
Now focus on and relax your upper arms.
Now focus on and relax your elbows.
… Your forearms
… Your wrists
… The backs of your hands
… The palms of your hands
… Your fingers
 

Now come back to your eyes and face and deepen the relaxation in these parts, before progressing onto relaxing your back:
… Relax your upper back, between your shoulder blades
… Relax the middle part of your back
… Relax your lower back
… Relax your hips and pelvis

Now come back to your eyes and face and again deepen the relaxation in these parts, before progressing onto relaxing the front of your body:
… Relax your throat and chest
… Relax your solar plexus or stomach
… Relax your lower belly and the groin area

Now come back to eyes and face and again deepen the relaxation in these parts, before progressing onto relaxing your legs and feet.
… Relax the upper parts of your legs first, the front and then the back
… Relax your knees
… Relax the lower part of your legs, first the front and then the back
… Relax your ankles
… Relax the top part of your feet
… Relax the soles of your feet
… Relax your toes
 
Once you’ve relaxed your whole body imagine relaxing it twice as much and then twice as much again; check different areas of your body like your neck, shoulders and back to see if there is anywhere that isn't as relaxed as it could possibly be and make it so. In time you may notice particular spots that for you need more attention such as right at the base of the skull or top of your neck, or between your shoulder blades, or your lower back for example.
 
I can email you a 20 minute guided muscle relaxation instruction recording to get you started. (warning it’s a big file to  download).
 
The whole procedure should take about 20 minutes.

 

Version 2: Relaxing using the Focus Word Method

  • Lay down in a quiet place cover your eyes if you want to cut out the light. 
  • Adopt a relaxed and passive mental attitude. Choose to temporarily not dwell on stressful thoughts for the duration of the exercise. If there's a real or imaginary place (a beach or secret garden etc.) that if you imagined going to you would feel relaxed and safe go there now, if you can imagine surrounding yourself where you are in a safe cocoon do that.If these things do not come naturally to you you don’t have to do them all the other techniques will still initiate a relaxation response.  
  • Now deepen and slow your breathing. (or start doing Buteyko breathing if you prefer). Start by taking a few deep but slow breaths into your belly first using your diaphragm and once your belly is full allow your chest to begin to rise. Throughout the rest of the exercise you want your breath to be fairly deep but you should not be straining in a way that it gets in the way of you being able to relax your body.  
  • Now deeply relax your body. Maintain a relaxing breathing pattern in the background while you shift your focus to the next section: relaxing your muscles. Some people like to start repeating their focus word at this point while they perform the muscle relaxation at the same time, this may require a bit of multitasking it’s up to if you want to start repeating your focus word now or after relaxing your muscles. 
This is a brief more general relaxation than full detailed sequence described in the simple relaxation technique above. Go through the whole body in a general way relaxing your face, your neck and shoulders, your arms, your back and your legs. When you feel you have let go all the tension in your body move your focus to your focus word.
  •  Now start repeating your focus word if you are not already. Mentally repeat your focus word. For example: inhale slowly and mentally say “relax” or count “one” as or just before you start to exhale slowly, OR: inhale then exhale and say “relax” or count “one”. Repeat and continue.
You can just repeat “one” or count “one”, “two”, “three”... You can continue counting indefinitely but I recommend counting to 10 or 20 and then starting from one again. It’s up to you how you do it, remember all that matters is that you hold the mind focused.
Continue until you have been lying relaxing for a total of 25 mins. then you’re done.
 

Summary Relaxation Response Using a Focus Word

To make the relaxation response “emerge” do these things:-
  • Lay down in a quiet place.
  • Adopt a detached and passive mental attitude. Leave your stress behind for the next few minutes. 
  • Take a few deep abdominal breaths and set your breathing to a slow deep pace, especially slow your out-breath, of perform Buteyko breathing. Optionally start mentally chanting your focus word at this time.
  • Progressively relax your body.
  • Mentally repeat your focus word for the remainder of the session.

Version 3: Relaxing using Slow Breathing without a Focus Word

Our autonomic nervous system becomes more parasympathetic dominant as we exhale and moves more towards being sympathetic as we inhale, by increasing the length of our out-breath we can increase parasympathetic dominance in our autonomic nervous system which is exactly what we are trying to do. During the following exercise make your out-breath longer and slower than your in-breath and feel how you sink deeper into a relaxed condition as you exhale.
  • Let your eyes close, you can cover them if you want to cut out the light. 
  • Adopt a relaxed and passive mental attitude. Choose to temporarily not dwell on stressful thoughts for the duration of the exercise. If there's a real or imaginary place (a beach or secret garden etc.) that if you imagined going to you would feel relaxed and safe go there now, if you can imagine surrounding yourself where you are in a safe cocoon do that.If these things do not come naturally to you you don’t have to do them all the other techniques will still initiate a relaxation response. 
  • Now deepen and slow your breathing. Start by taking a few deep breaths remembering to breathe into your belly first using your diaphragm and then once the belly is full allow your rib cage will begin to rise. Throughout the rest of the exercise you want your breath to be fairly deep but you should not be straining in a way that it gets in the way of you being able to relax your body the main thing to do is make your breathing slow, especially slow down your out-breath.
As you manually slow your breathing notice how it changes your whole body to a more relaxed (parasympathetic dominant) condition. 
  • Now deeply relax all your muscles. Keeping your breathing slow in the background as you temporarily shift your focus to relaxing your body. Just go through your body once, focusing on and then relaxing all your muscles as you go. Follow the procedure for the simple muscle relaxation method above.    
Once you’ve relaxed your whole body imagine relaxing it twice as much and then twice as much again; check different areas of your body like your neck, shoulders and back to see if there is anywhere that isn't as relaxed as it could possibly be and make it so. 
  • Now return your focus to your breathing. After completing one full body muscle relaxation you switch your focus back to concentrating on your breathing for the remainder of the session. While maintaining a relaxed body focus your mental attention on all the sensations of your breathing as entirely as you can:
    • Notice the physical sensation of your belly and chest moving up and down as you inhale and exhale. 
    • See if you can feel the breath changing the shape of your nostrils as you inhale and exhale.  
    • See if you may be able to hear your breath moving in and out through your nostrils.  
    • See if you can feel your heart beat and notice how it speeds up and slows down as you inhale and exhale. 
You can if you want deliberately take a few deep breaths to intensify theses sensations and help you to feel them, then relax your breathing and continue observing the sensations of your breathing. 
  • Now begin to deliberately slow your breathing. 
Changing our breathing rate is the most direct thing we can do to change the balance of our autonomic nervous system from a stressed condition to a relaxed condition.
 
Start counting in your mind at about one second intervals it’s not important to be accurate just keep to a constant rhythm.
Count how long it takes for you to fully inhale and remember the number. There’s no set correct number just be guided by your own body, typically it will be somewhere between 6 to 12 seconds.
 
Now exhale very slowly controlling your breath all the way out, to induce a deep relaxation effect you want to make your out-breath quite a bit longer then you're in-breath, for example if you inhaled to a count of 7 you might exhale for a count of 12 or 13 it depends on your own physique. 
 
Make a mental note of what numbers you get to at the end of inhaling and exhaling and more or less stick to these numbers as you continue to breathe slowly and fully.
 
Every time you exhale see if you can feel yourself descending into an even deeper relaxation response.
 
If you slow your breathing down too much and feel short of breath just stop slowing your breathing rate and allow your breathing muscles to automatically take over, they will make you take several deep breaths to catch up. Stay relaxed and when you feel recuperated start counting and slowing your breathing again.   After a few days/weeks practice you will develop your skills and work out how long you can make your in-breath, and out-breath so you can maintain the rhythm continuously without ever feeling out of breath.
 
Another option you can include is pausing and holding your breath. It is important to hold your breath only as long as is comfortable, not a breath holding competition, our goal is to induce deep relaxation so only include breath holding if and to the extent that it encourages relaxation. Most people will only want to hold their breath after inhalation with full lungs, some people can also add a short breath hold after breathing out. Observe your body, it will let you know if you can or should add breath-holding, if it makes you get out of breath and you cannot maintain a rhythm it’s not helping.
 
Caution: holding the breath is contraindicated for people with high blood pressure or heart disease, at least in the beginning until you have significantly improved your condition and discussed with your doctor if and when it will be safe for you to add a short breath hold to your relaxation response training.
 
Continue slowing and counting your breaths for the rest of the 25 min. session. 
 
People who find slow breathing gives them anxiety can do the above exercise simply substituting Buteyko breathing.
 

Summary Relaxation Response Using the Slow Breathing Method without a Focus Word

To make the relaxation response “emerge” do these things:-
  • Lay down in a quiet place.
  • Adopt a detached and passive mental attitude. Leave your stress behind for the next few minutes. 
  • Take a few deep abdominal breaths and start setting your breathing to a slow deep pace, especially slow your out-breath. 
  • Do a single pass through your body progressively relaxing all your muscles.
  • Once you’ve relaxed your body focus intensely on the feelings and sensations of your breathing for few moments, i.e. practice mindfulness on your breathing. 
  • Now start slowing your breathing down, making the out-breath longer and slower than the in-breath. Mentally count making each in-breath the same number and each out-breath the same number. Optionally hold your breath for a few seconds after inhaling and exhaling. Continue like this for the rest of the session.
  • The whole procedure should last about 20-30 minutes.

Feelings and Sensations That Tell Let You Know You Have Switched on a Relaxation Response

As I discussed elsewhere when your body switches off the stress response and switches on the relaxation response numerous physiological changes occur. See []. Some of these changes are noticeable and let you know you have successfully switching on your relaxation response.
 

Watch out for:-

Hot hands and feet.

When the stress response is dominant blood is withdrawn from our extremities especially the hands so they become cold. When some people switch on their relaxation response they notice their hands and feet becoming warmer perhaps even feeling hot.
 

Gurgling sounds from your intestines

During a stress response the muscles in the intestines clamp off segments of the intestines and peristalsis is reduces or switched off. When you activate the relaxation response the clamped muscles relax and intestinal movement start again. The un-clamping of intestinal spasms allows backup material to move onward and this can produce audible gurgling sounds. Hearing these sounds is a particularly good (but not essential) sign for anybody doing this training to treat irritable bowel syndrome.
 

Slowing down of your heart rate

Some people particularly people with high blood pressure say they can feel their heart thumping, they may notice this sensation stopping as they successfully initiate the relaxation response.
 
In addition to the above you may notice an unusual heavy or floating feeling in your limbs. The feeling you get during a deep relaxation response is a quite distinctive feeling, perhaps something you have not felt before. Once you've experienced how it feels to be deeply and profoundly relaxed see if you can control and intensify the sensation by deepening each of the things that induce it:-
  • relaxing the body even more deeply,
  • completely let go of stress by imagining you are safe and all your stresses work out OK,
  • make your mind even more passive by using non-attachment and mindfulness, (detachment and passive observation)
  • slow your breathing even more,
  • keep the mind very still by focusing on your breathing or focus word. 
See if by doing these things more even more perfectly you can gradually increase the sensations of relaxation. Be patient, it may take you some time before you develop the ability to switch on a relaxation response quickly at will. Practice every day until you can, remember once you've perfected this skill your keep what you've learnt for life.  Within a year you should be able to change the balance in your autonomic nervous system from a sympathetic dominant condition to a parasympathetic dominant condition and switch off your HPA-axis within a few minutes or less depending on the circumstances.
 

Completing Your Training

After 3 months once you have built up the parts of the brain you need to perform this skill and can switch on a relaxation response quickly and easily you can give up doing a long session in lying down session and move on to phase 2.
 
If there is a specific health problem that you want to work on you can continue doing a lying down deep relaxation and then when you’re in the deeply relaxed condition perform mental visualisation techniques to utilise the healing power of the mind. When you are in a state of deep relaxation your system is more susceptible and open to suggestion so visualising yourself in a state of perfect health completely free of the condition you want to cure utilises and maximises the healing power of the mind. [ADD VISUALISATION TECHNIQUES]

Phase 2 >>>
Taking the Parasympathetic Relaxation Response into Everyday Life
[UNDER CONSTRUCTION]

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Hi my name is Peter Smith I specialise in treating and coaching people how to live well with mental health problems, digestive health problems/IBS, sleep problems and type II diabetes using natural therapies.
I used these techniques to overcome and live well with my own bipolar disorder and IBS. I've been in practice as a natural medicine practitioner since 1988.
 

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