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Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques are very good to learn whether you are currently "stressed out" or not. Daily practice of meditative techniques such as the Relaxation Response has been shown to reduce hypertension, a leading cause of heart disease and stroke. Such practices also help one to clear the mind and get things sorted out, be it your "things to do" list, new teaching idea s, or goals for the future. Also, in times of situational stress (before a speech, during an exam, after a car accident, etc.), one can practice breathing exercises or muscle relaxation techniques to calm down to a point where you feel in control. Be low I've laid out some information on meditative and muscle relaxation techniques that I recently found on the internet while surfing for "stress management" material.

The webpage "Mind Tools" (http://www.psych-web.com/mtsite/smmedit.html) has this to say about meditation:

"The idea of meditation is to focus your thoughts on one relaxing thing for a sustained period of time. This rests your mind by diverting it from thin king about the problems that have caused stress. It gives your body time to relax and recuperate and clear away toxins that may have built up through stress and mental or physical activity."

Herbert Benson, MD. of Harvard Medical School was o ne of the first to research the therapeutic value of meditation. He found that meditation can elicit what he called the "Relaxation Response," which is the physiological antithesis of stress and hypertension. Since previous research had shown that hypertension leads to heart disease and stroke, Benson saw his meditative method as a simple way to reduce stress and health risks. In his book, The Relaxation Response (1975), Benson describes his method to achieve the Relaxation Response. A. Christopher Hammon, on the "Center for Sleep and Stress on the Web"'s "Stress Oasis " (http://www.quantadynamics.com/css/stress/tips.htm) summarizes Benson's method:

"1. Sit in a comfortable position and clo se your eyes.
2. Relax your muscles. Start with your feet and work progressively toward your face. I do this by stretching and tensing the muscles then visualizing the tensions of the day draining out of them as they relax.
3. Breathe deeply thr ough your nose. Become aware of your breathing. Concentrate on breathing with your diaphragm, basically breathe with your stomach instead of your chest so you are completely filling your lungs. As you are breathing out say one word, such as "One." For example, breathe in, breathe out, say "One."
4. Continue this for 10-20 minutes, breathing easily and naturally. When you finish sit quietly for several minutes, at first continuing to keep your eyes closed and then opening them for the last little bit.
5. Don't worry about whether you are doing it right or achieving deep levels of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude. Just be and let relaxation occur at its own pace. Don't worry about anything during this time. This is time you are invest ing in yourself. When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling on them and focusing on your breathing and saying the one word. It takes practice, but with practice it should come with little effort.

Hammon continues wit h four key elements of the Relaxation Response:

"1. A Quiet Environment. A place without excessive distractions contributes to this experience.
2. A Mental Device. A single word or a phrase that can be used to shift the mind from logical, e xternally oriented thought. A word or phrase that can be used to break the train of distracting thoughts and the mind's tendency to wander.
3. A Passive Attitude. A "let it happen" no worry attitude is important for eliciting the Relaxation Response.
4. A Comfortable Posture. What is needed is a position in which the muscles can relax, but at the same time a position in which you do not normally fall asleep.

Subject in Dr. Benson's studies gave varied accounts of their feelings after practicing the meditation response, but the majority reported a sense of calm and felt very relaxed. Regardless of subjective reports, Benson found physiological changes such as reduced oxygen consumption, decline in blood pressure and increased alpha-wave activity, which are all sure signs of relaxation.

On the website of the cosmetic firm Shiseido, (shiseido.co.jp/e/e9706suc/html/suc_top0.htm), the relaxation response is nutshelled nicely:

"First, make yourself comfortable in a quiet place. Then, concentrate on a monotone or another quiet, meaningless sound. Without focusing on any specific thought, let your mind wander at will. Especially don't worry about whether or not you're mediating properly-just let yourself go. As a result, you will feel a calmness spreading throughout your mind and body."

Also on the Shiseido website there is a good deal of information about other relaxation techniques, such as aromatherapy and the Jacobsen Method. The latter techniqu e is a method of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) developed by Edmund Jacobsen in the 1930s. The method is to flex and relax all the muscle groups of the body in a specific order, resulting in full-bodied relaxation. At Gifu-ken's 1997 JET Orienta tion Seminar, a guest speaker used an audio tape to help us practice progressive muscle relaxation. The result, not surprisingly, was that many JETs slept through the rest of her workshop. On the IBM supported "Behavioral Institute of Bo ston" webpage (http://www.bbinst.org/selfreg.html), I found an audio tape script for PMR, very similar to the one we listened to in the workshop. Audio prompting during PMR includes a soothing voice, with imagery and other little "tric ks" to help the listener relax.
Here is how Shiseido describes the bare essentials of PMR:

"First, sit down in a quiet place. Then, beginning with your right fist and your left fists, gradually contract and then relax each individual muscle group within your body. In the order presented, contract and release the following: the lower half of each arm, and then the upper arms, the forehead, eyes, nose, cheeks and mouth, neck, chest, back, abdomen, thighs, calves, and ankles. Hold each mu scle-group contraction for around 10 seconds. The point is to focus on relaxing your muscles. By doing so, you will feel a calmness gradually spread throughout your entire body. Since you have induced relaxation through the body itself, the results w ill be felt quickly and readily."

During PMR, in addition to muscle tensing and relaxing, it helps to maintain positive imagery (for example, thinking of a beach on a warm, summer day) or focus on your breath, a mantra, or number, as in medita tive techniques.

For more detailed information, check out the BIB site or Bernd Harmsen's spartan yet complete practice schedule for PMR on his homepage (http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/ha r/les1.htm).

If anyone does not have access to the internet and would like more information on meditation, the Relaxation Response, or progressive muscle relaxation, contact Scott McDonald, PSG volunteer in Gifu-ken!

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