Four Relaxation Techniques

"Happiness is not an acquisition. It's a skill." --Barbara De Angelis, PhD, 1994
  1. Progressive Relaxation
  2. Biofeedback
  3. Guided Imagery
  4. Externalizing

Try using a relaxation exercise if you’re feeling stress, anxiety, or anger.

Progressive Relaxation:

Most of the time, we are unaware of tension in our bodies until it escalates into headaches, muscle tightness, even vomiting, diarrhea, and ulcers in more extreme situations. An important part of recovery is becoming aware of our feelings. Our thoughts and feelings are major sources of this tension; creating tightness in neck and shoulders, the lower back, stomach, or legs and feet. However, we aren't always aware of our internal state, so, another way to recognize and manage some of our internal feelings is through identifying what it feels like to be tense.

Progressive relaxation can help us learn to recognize the tension or stress in our bodies, so we can STOP it before it becomes a major physical problem (headache, muscle tightness, etc). Progressive Relaxation exercises purposefully create tension beginning from one end of our bodies to the other. What’s the purpose? It helps us recognize what tense and relaxed feels like. Since we all store stress in our bodies, we can only release body tension if we are AWARE of it.


Many times we become aware of our stress, anxiety or anger from symptoms such as: feeling hot, sweaty, flush, increase in heart rate, or noticeable fidgeting.

Thoughts and feelings which create fear can initiate the fight or flight response in all of us. A potential threat (ex: seeing a spider in front of you) can cause a chemical reaction in our bodies (release of adrenaline). The release of adrenaline can cause an immediate increase in heart rate and breathing, which then causes the release of even MORE adrenaline!

Even small amounts of stress we are unaware of can release stimulating chemicals.

What can we do when our bodies start to "take over"? It’s neat, we can "trick" our bodies into a calm state (similar to just waking up in the morning) and even out of a fight or flight response.

We do this by slowing our breathing down (this is in our control), which in turn slows our heart rate, which STOPS the release of our natural stimulants! Our body is fooled out of what it thought was a dangerous situation.

Here’s a simple Breathing Technique:


  1. Inhale for 3 SLOW seconds
  2. HOLD IT for 3 SLOW seconds
  3. Exhale completely for 3 SLOW seconds.
  4. Repeat 3 times.

It’s easy to remember because a triangle has three sides, and each step involves the number 3.

If you like Triangle Breathing, it can go one more step. During the inhale, say to yourself, "I am...", and on the exhale, "relaxed..." (relaxing music can be played while you do this).

"I am.......................relaxed........................". You can repeat the breathing for as long as you wish; if done long enough, you may fall asleep.

It’s amazing how quickly triangle breathing can calm our bodies; bringing our breathing and heart rate go back to baseline.

Guided Imagery:

You can do Guided Imagery yourself, but is is most helpful when guided by a friend or counselor.

Guided Imagery can help us:

  • Get in touch with our inner voice/guide
  • Work on problems
  • Process past, present, and future events.
  • Remind us of the safety and security we all have within

What is our inner self or guide? It is the true self we all have. The true self is who we are fundamentally, unaffected/unhindered by our environment, daily stress, or other people’s influence. Our inner guide gets drowned out in daily life - we can’t hear it and we aren’t accustomed to tuning ourselves in to listen. Many people block their inner voice or are unaware they have one.

Guided imagery can help us reconnect with our inner guide/voice; helping find sources of stress and remind us of the safety and security that is always with us, if we just let ourselves visit it.

Most counselors are familiar with guided imagery and can help get you started connecting with your inner guide (the counselor in all of us).

Many times, a very helpful part of guided imagery is the processing/talking about our experiences just after the imagery exercise is finished. Processing can help bring internal messages into the here and now (real life), where we can evaluate how these messages fit for us.

A general imagery may go something like this:

  1. Get yourself into a relaxed state
  2. A friend or professional guides you through a verbal exercise (speaking slow and soft, incense can be burned while you do this too).
  3. Imagery guides you deep into a safe place where your inner guide may speak to you
  4. When you awake from the imagery, a sense of peace is with you, and you may have new thoughts about something that’s been troubling you.



This technique is especially useful for people with chronic body pains: back, neck, foot, headaches, etc.

Like guided imagery, using a friend or professional is a good way to begin mastering this skill. Externalization is the same kind of exercise as guided imagery, but with a different focus:

  1. Get into a relaxed state
  2. A friend or professional guides you through a verbal exercise (speaking slow and soft, incense can be burned while you do this too).
  3. However, this verbal exercise focuses on developing a defined picture of your pain (in your back, neck, etc), LOOKS LIKE.
  4. The person guiding the imagery will ask you to focus on the pain, determine it’s size, shape, color, etc.
  5. Once you get a good picture and sense of the pain’s size, shape, activity, you can develop a way (during the imagery) to dissolve it, or remove it from your body. see example below:


Maybe the pain you feel in your back looks like cold steel, in the shape of a jagged metal ball, the size of your fist. And it feels like it is twisting around in your lower back.

If this was your description of the pain, you will then develop a meaningful way for YOU to eliminate it (temporarily). You could imagine the ball gets surrounded by warm water (removing the coldness of the steel), then the water has abrasives in it which grind down and remove the jagged edges on the steel ball....eventually, picture a hot source in the center of the ball which melts the steel from within, completely dissolving it.

While this may sound far fetched, once you get deep into a guided imagery, this really works. It’s not a permanent fix, but it can temporarily relieve pain, and for some people, even a few minutes is a relief.


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