This week I have needed to kick stress into touch a bit. My sleeping is still a bit disrupted, I’m often on my own during the day (something I’ve never excelled at) and there’s a few tests and interviews looming. As stress provoking as being unemployed can be, that acute stress of an interview is its own special form of awful.
Since I was little I’ve known about this technique of muscle relaxation – which I can first remember using around the time of my 11+ exam. Essentially, it involves becoming aware of tension in the body by alternating between tension and relaxation in each part of your body. You work through your whole body tensing and relaxing the muscles. We used to have a cassette tape with a lovely deep voice talking you through this, which almost invariably led to me falling asleep. Over time, the way I use this technique has changed. Whilst it is not essentially designed for sleep, I have found that I tend mostly to only do this at night when I am struggling to sleep. I have memorised a very basic script to talk myself through tensing and relaxing each group of muscles in turn. This is a very stripped down and abbreviated version that I almost do frantically as a means to an end of getting to sleep – sometimes in a very restricted way so as to not wake up my long asleep partner next to me. This way of doing progressive muscle relaxation has definitely served a function and helped me out on many occasions, but this week a little more intense, a little less abbreviated relaxation may be called for. So in the interest of this project I thought I would go back to the basics and try a recording again.
Why it might be relaxing:
- Part of the purpose of this exercise is to draw our awareness to tension in our bodies that we might not have noticed. By deliberately tensing and relaxing our muscles we are highlighting to ourselves the difference between how they feel when they are tight and working and when they are truly resting. Noticing when we are tense can be a very useful skill as tension can be a cause of headaches. It also is our body highlighting to us when we are stressed, which is sometimes easily glossed over.
- This technique has been found to have an effect as part of therapy to combat stress related disorders.
- It is a method of focussing on the present and on yourself, rather than worrying about the future, getting too caught up in thoughts and trying to solve problems. Whilst these things can be necessary and appropriate, we all need a bit of a break from them sometimes.
The night before trying this technique I had been struggling to sleep and so used my abbreviated technique to help me unwind and I was able drift off eventually. But, as it always does, the morning rolled around and worrying got on top of me. I was the middle of the day and I was feeling frustrated with my lot in life which was making me generally quite grumpy, irritable and worried. I remembered that I had promised myself to give progressive muscle relaxation a proper go, so I put a stop to my sulking and cracked on.
No longer having a cassette or anything to play it on meant I needed to hunt for a new recording. Youtube is full to the brim of them, so a quick search returns tonnes of different progressive muscle relaxation or guided meditation videos (the latter being for another week I feel). For me the voice is really important, as is the background music. Something too sugary sweet with very floaty music just isn’t to my taste. I would say I clicked on around 10 videos before I found one I liked, but really it is just down to your own taste. I’ll link the one I used at the bottom of the page. I would say it is worth spending a little bit of time looking, as if the person’s voice annoys you it’s going to be that much harder to switch off.
As it was the middle of the day I wanted to use this technique for relaxation rather than to go to sleep. To help me with getting back into the real world afterwards I made myself a cup of tea and left it by my bed so that by the time I finished it was the perfect temperature (this was an excellent idea that I highly recommend). I put out a nice comfy throw on my bed and laid down flat.
I really liked the voice of this video and found the music not too intrusive. Being talked through the exercise did definitely feel very different to just running through the motions in my own head. For a start it was much longer – I normally just rush through it in a desperate bid for sleep. Secondly, when there is another voice present it is a little easier to switch off, or at least quieten, my quite distracting internal monologue. This is never easy and is one thing people tend to report as a barrier to relaxation. Bringing your attention away from that constant stream of “What do I do about this? Did I leave the oven on? I hope x is ok…” and just trying to focus on the moment is a tough skill to master. But this was a little easier with someone else’s voice to concentrate on.
Another thing I found whilst doing this is that I did start feeling a little tearful and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I suspect it has something to do with putting some time aside to actually concentrate on relaxing and how much this can really highlight everything you’ve been busying yourself to avoid. A small word of caution for anyone who tries this is that sometimes techniques like this can make you feel a little anxious. I find that putting too much attention on my breathing has an anxiety provoking effect for me. However, this is quite an unusual thing and very much down to the individual. If you do experience this it is completely fine and doesn’t mean you won’t be able to relax like this – you’ll just have to dig a little deeper to find techniques that work for you.
Overall, I would say this was a very relaxing thing to do. It made me feel much calmer than the rushed version I had been doing and when (after some tea drinking and general dithering) I did get up and rejoin the real world, I felt that little bit more prepared to do so. I would really strongly recommend this if you haven’t tried it before as it is very simple to do, not at all time consuming and pretty effective in the short term. In the long term, as mentioned earlier, learning to notice when your body is tense can be really helpful – but this takes a bit of practice (in writing this I notice I’m sat here with my foot tense and pointing upwards and my legs clamped together – lots more practice needed for me!).
More relaxing: It may be beneficial to put aside some time each day to do this if you find it is helpful, this will help with learning to identify the tension in your body a little quicker. Also, for me it helped not to have anything to rush off for as I was able to bask in a nice relaxed mindset for a little longer. A final thing, I have heard of people making these recordings themselves or asking a loved one to do it. You might find that a familiar supportive voice helps you relax better.
More practical: Having compared it to a recording learning a script in my head was less effective. However it is a trusty and good technique that can be easily applied when you need it. It doesn’t require any technology (very helpful if you’ve got a light sleeping partner for example) and can be extended or reduced to fit the time frame you have. It also works well if you simply don’t want someone talking you through the steps, which not everyone does. I’ll attach a script at the bottom which you can follow if this is the case.
Male Voice Progressive Relaxation Audio – NHS progressive muscle relaxation which I used for this week.
Female Voice Progressive Muscle Relaxation Audio – A very similar recording made by the same group but with a female voice.
PDF for a Progressive Muscle Relaxation Script – Lots of different ones or more information about this technique can be found with some basic Googling.
Pictures – unlike previous weeks, these aren’t my pictures. That’s not my pet lion nor my incredibly muscular body – I’m sorry. Getting pictures for this week was tricky.