When we talk about relaxation exercises on this site, we mean something quite specific – namely, exercises that help you to release tension from your muscles. However, when people refer to someone as being a “relaxed person,” they’re usually referring to that person’s state of mind. They probably mean someone who tends to be more on the calm and contented end of the spectrum, not easily upset, not inclined to worry, someone who manages to stay balanced in challenging circumstances.
Would it surprise you to hear that simply by learning to relax
your muscles, you can become more like the relaxed person we just
described? Well, it's true. Since the mind and body are so closely
connected, when you start to release tension from your body, your mind
begins to relax as well.
Dr. Edmund Jacobsen was one of the early pioneers in the field of mind-body medicine (then known as psychosomatic medicine). Using one of the first machines ever available for measuring electrical activity in the muscles and nervous system, he demonstrated that there is a connection between tension in the body and tension in the mind. He showed that when muscular activity decreases, activity in the brain and spinal cord decreases as well.
So calmer muscles make for a calmer mind.
Jacobson went on to demonstrate that excessive tension in the muscles can be associated with a variety of disorders of both mind and body – and that by simply learning to relax our muscles, we can not only help to prevent those disorders, we can help to heal them as well.
Releasing tension works in both directions. When you start to
relax your mind, your muscles get the message and they, too, naturally
begin to let go of tension.
But is there one thing that can relax mind and body at the same time?
You can probably guess the answer: remembering to breathe. That is, remembering to activate your mid-prefrontal cortex (the MPFC), to shift your attention to the “hub” of your “wheel of awareness.” You might just take a few slow, conscious breaths – or use some other technique to help you focus your attention and get in touch with the core of calm, ease, and contentment that becomes available when you activate your MPFC.
If that sounds appealing, why not take a brief moment to
remember to breathe right now. Here are some simple instructions to
help you do that:
Spending just a moment or two to contact your core sends
ripples of relaxation throughout your mind and body, and can change how
you feel about and respond to whatever may be happening on the rim of
your wheel of awareness.
Remember the story of the officer standing in line at the grocery store who was becoming increasingly irritable because the cashier was taking so long with another customer? As soon as he shifted his attention away from his anger to notice the tension in his body - even before he made a conscious effort to breathe and relax - his mind and muscles were probably already starting to relax.
Just a brief moment of
self-awareness can focus your attention sufficiently to awaken some
sense of your core. And even a little taste of your core can allow
tension, irritation, and worry to begin to melt away.
But it’s not always easy to make that shift inward to your core. When you find it difficult, relaxation exercises can be a very helpful aid.
As we said above, the relaxation exercises we teach on this site work directly to release muscle tension. When your muscles relax, it sends a message to your brain that you’re not in danger. That message then reverberates throughout your brain and nervous system with many beneficial effects, which include:
As you learn various relaxation exercises, it can be helpful
to keep in mind that relaxation is our natural state. What you’re
really learning is how to release the habit of creating tension,
making it possible to enjoy your natural state of alert relaxation.
If you’re like most people, much of the time you’re walking around with tense muscles that you’re not even aware are tense. You may not become aware of them until they start to ache or cause problems. So the first step in unlearning the habit of tension is to become skillful at noticing when your muscles are tense. Once you’re good at identifying tense muscles, then you can learn to help them relax.
Eventually, with lots of practice, in order to release unnecessary tension, all you’ll need to do is bring your attention to the tense area, holding a gentle intention for it to relax.
Because relaxation is our natural state, sometimes, even without practice, just taking a moment to scan through your body looking for tense muscles can remind the body to relax and restore its natural state.
Take a moment to try a quick relaxation exercise now:
Research has shown that regular practice of relaxation
exercises strengthens your immune system, improves the health of your
heart, and, if you’re diabetic, can even lessen the amount of insulin
But try it and see for yourself. We predict that with regular practice of relaxation exercises, you’ll find it easier to get relief from pain, anxiety, and emotional reactivity. Because you won’t be as tired or stressed out, it will be easier for you to maintain a positive, constructive attitude when the going gets rough. And it will be easier for you to maintain other healthy habits with regard to things like eating, exercise, sleep, and even how you use your time and spend your money.
We invite you now to experiment with some of the relaxation exercises on the site so that down the road you can begin to harvest their many benefits for your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.