Psychological Self-Tools - Online Self-Help Book

Self-Soothing Techniques: Relaxation Methods, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, and Massage

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. and Jolyn Wells-Moran, Ph.D.

Relaxation Methods. Negative emotion of any sort takes its toll on the body. Short, sharp emotions like anxiety and anger cause the body to tense up in preparation for action. Longer acting emotions like depression are associated with either tensions or fatigue. These muscular states are not mere products of the negative emotion, but rather are part and parcel of it. If you succeed in interrupting the muscular tension, you begin the process of defusing the negative emotion itself.

Several relaxation techniques have been developed which people can use to actively create a state of muscular and mental relaxation, even when they are wound up and tense. Many of these techniques work to create their relaxing effect by interrupting existing muscular tension states. Practice of these various relaxation strategies can help break down tension and promote a relaxed feeling state. Regular practice of these relaxation exercises can do something better, which is to help keep tension from returning.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation or PMR is a technique for creating muscular relaxation. It is safe and easy to do, costs nothing, and requires only a few minutes of privacy to make happen. PMR is based on two observations: 1) that muscles can be actively tensed, but not actively relaxed (relaxation depends on a "letting go" process, not a tension-producing one), and 2) that it is easier to relax and "let go" a muscle after it has just been tensed up, than it is to relax a muscle which has not been tensed up. A person practicing PMR first tenses and then lets go different muscle groups in sequence until they have tensed and then relaxed every muscle group in the body. By the end of the tension-relaxation cycle the body has entered into a deeper state of relaxation than would otherwise have been possible.

To perform PMR, lie down on the floor, or sit in a comfortable chair that supports your weight. Tense the muscles in your feet and hold them in tensions for about 10 seconds, being careful to not tense so tightly that cramps or pain occurs. At the end of the 10 seconds, release the tension and drop your feet, allowing them to come to rest as they will. Thereafter, do not try to occupy your feet, but rather leave them resting. When your feet have been tensed and then released, go on to the next muscle group, in this case, your thighs. Work through your entire body: feet, thighs, buttocks, stomach, chest, arms, neck, and then finally, facial muscles. When you have tensed and then released all the muscles in your body, take a survey of your body from the inside, using your attention to determine whether any new tension has crept into your feet, thighs, etc. while you were working the other parts. If you find tension during your survey, let it go as best you can. Lay there for a while enjoying the relaxation. Then, when you are ready, slowly start moving your muscles around again, reclaiming them. Get up when you are ready and go about your business.

Massage. The same principles that inform PMR also inform the practice of massage. Muscles are designed to create tension; they are not designed to efficiently relax. Muscular tension accumulates in the body in the form of chronically tensed muscles (often in the jaw, neck, shoulders, back, calves and feet). Some muscles may even develop spasms which are painful knots of contraction. Chronic muscular tension leads to a host of mental and physical problems, and can create negative mood states all by itself. Without intervention of some sort, there is little hope that this sort of chronic muscular tension will resolve on its own.

Therapeutic massage intervention involves having a trained masseuse exert pressure on the body to loosen up knotted muscles. There are several styles of therapeutic massage commonly practiced today. The most popular are Swedish and Shiatsu styles. Swedish massage style involves deep muscular manipulation (kneading and rubbing motions), while Shiatsu style involves manipulation of muscular pressure points. Both styles are effective so preference for one or the other tends to be a personal choice.

Massage is not a pure self-help method, simply because it cannot be easily performed on one's self. It is also a moderately expensive to expensive procedure (depending on where you go for massage). It is nevertheless a very effective and pleasant relaxation promoting technique and not one that most people think to partake of when they are upset. If you have the means to partake of massage when you are stressed or upset, consider doing so.

 




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