In my blog entry of 30th April 2013, I discussed the benefits of Relaxation Skills Training (or Applied Relaxation) in comparison with attending the occasional yoga, Tai Chi or meditation class (which are great places to start learning relaxation skills). Here, I will describe the training in a bit more detail. For anyone who is looking to reduce or more effectively manage their “stress”, overcome panic attacks or phobias, break out of a cycle of anxiety or habitual worry, manage a stress-related illness, control exam anxiety, overcome performance anxiety, improve their work efficiency, reduce their levels of physical tension, or even enhance their creativity, this will explain the stages of relaxation skills training and the rationales behind them, so you can decide whether this is something that could benefit you.
As I mentioned in the earlier article, many people may have never experienced a state of deep relaxation. Even during sleep, the body and mind do not necessarily relax completely. In fact, contrary to experiencing relaxation during sleep, many people in our busy Western society either have disturbed sleep or difficulty sleeping, or find that even with a reasonable amount of sleep, they may have rather “active” dreams and wake up feeling less than rested or even exhausted!
Yet deep relaxation is usually the body and mind’s only respite from the constant drip, drip, drip of adrenaline and other stress hormones into our systems from the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response and chronic stress/anxiety/tension states). In deep relaxation, the sympathetic nervous system is toned down or even switched off temporarily, allowing the other arm of our autonomic (automatic or “unconscious”) nervous system – the parasympathetic nervous system – to gain the upper hand for the time being. This part of the autonomic nervous system is responsible for rest, repair and recuperation – allowing body tissues to repair themselves, cells to build up energy stores, our hormone and immune systems to balance and strengthen themselves, body organs to have respite from the effects of chronic stress – in essence facilitating our body’s self-healing abilities. In addition, deep relaxation allows our thinking (analytical) mind and mental stress/anxiety circuits to rest and enables parts of the brain involved in relaxation, memory, creativity, learning and other nurturing activities to become stronger.
Relaxation skills training involves a number of stages, and the number and extent of the different stages can vary depending on a person’s existing skills and experiences, and their particular needs and inclinations. However, broadly speaking, the format of the training will have the same basic elements. Firstly, your body and mind experience deep relaxation, perhaps for the first time, so that you, your body and your mind know what they are aiming for (your “goal” – a relaxed state). And you then practise one or two, or more, relaxation techniques, so that you learn to elicit the relaxation response for yourself, and your body and mind get more and more familiar with this state through repetition of the practices (the body and mind/brain learn pretty much everything through practice and repetition until the state, or new skill, becomes a “habit”). The next stage is to learn to elicit the relaxation response at will (on demand, as it were) – sometimes called cue-controlled relaxation. You learn this first in the clinic room, then you practise doing it at home to reinforce this part of your new skill. When you feel comfortable and confident with being able to bring about relaxation “on cue”, you are ready to go to the next stage. This may involve rehearsing relaxation and maintaining that state while in hypnosis and while imagining situations that normally or previously might cause you anxiety or stress (this stage is sometimes called “hypnotic desensitisation” – you desensitise to the anxiety or stress situation by imagining it happening while in deep relaxation). The final stages – depending on your needs – often involve practising using your relaxation skills out in the real world (“exposure therapy”), first in low-anxiety/stress situations, then gradually, as you build up your skills and confidence more and more, in higher anxiety/stress situations, until you experience feeling relaxed more and more of the time, and finally you find you rarely experience anxiety or stress any more in day-to-day situations.
Of course, you won’t extinguish your ability to feel anxiety, fear or stress completely – and nor should you want to – as these responses, in appropriate (eg. life-or-death) situations, are vital to our survival. But – and this is the point – you will be able to have control over such feelings in situations where they are inappropriate and counter-productive.
As you can probably tell from this description, the art of relaxation takes practice and persistence if it is not your current usual state. But much of this is up to you and done at your own pace and in your own time (as “homework”) – so it needn’t take an endless number of clinic sessions. And the benefits will last a lifetime, and will probably extend your life, productivity and quality of life immeasurably too!
If you think you might benefit from relaxation skills training, meditation/mindfulness training or hypnotherapy and you’d like to book a consultation or find out more about skills training or therapy, or if you have any other questions, please contact me at AJR Hypnotherapy Surrey by email or phone (see top right of this page).