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  » Alternative Medicine  »  Relaxation Techniques

What are relaxation techniques?

Our fast-paced society often causes people to push their minds and bodies to the limit in order to achieve things like social status or financial success—frequently at the expense of physical and mental well-being. According to the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard University, between 60 and 90 percent of all medical office visits in the United States are for stress-related disorders. Relaxation techniques are helpful tools for coping with stress and promoting long-term health.

There are three major types of relaxation techniques:

  • Autogenic training. This technique uses both visual imagery and body awareness to move a person into a deep state of relaxation. The person imagines a peaceful place and then focuses on different physical sensations, moving from the feet to the head. For example, one might focus on warmth and heaviness in the limbs, easy, natural breathing, a calm heartbeat, and a cool forehead.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation. This technique involves slowly tensing and then releasing each muscle group individually, starting with the muscles in the toes and finishing with those in the head.
  • Meditation. The two most popular forms of meditation in the U.S. include Transcendental Meditation (students repeat a mantra [a single word or phrase], maintaining an "oh well" attitude if other thoughts arise) and mindfulness meditation (students focus their attention on their moment-by-moment thoughts and sensations).

How do relaxation techniques work?

When we become stressed, our bodies engage in something called the "fight or flight response." The fight or flight response refers to changes that occur in the body when it prepares to fight or run. These changes include increased heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breathing, and a 300 to 400 percent increase in the amount of blood being pumped to the muscles. Over time, these reactions raise cholesterol levels, disturb intestinal activities, and depress the immune system. In general, they leave us feeling "stressed out."

However, we also possess the opposite of the fight or flight response—the "relaxation response." This term, first coined in the mid-1970s by a Harvard cardiologist named Herbert Benson, refers to changes that occur in the body when it is in a deep state of relaxation. These changes include decreased metabolism, blood pressure, heart rate, and rate of breathing, as well as feelings of being calm and in control. Learning the relaxation response helps to counter the ill effects of the fight or flight response. The relaxation response can be developed through a number of techniques, including meditation and progressive muscle relaxation. It is now a recommended treatment for many stress-related disorders.

What are relaxation techniques good for?

Research has shown that meditation can help increase the quality and length of life and reduce chronic pain, anxiety, high blood pressure, and cholesterol and stress hormone levels. Meditation has also been used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam veterans and to break substance abuse patterns in drug and alcohol abusers.

Where can I find a qualified practitioner?

Numerous clinics and hospitals around the country have integrated relaxation techniques into their healthcare programs. To learn more about relaxation techniques and to locate healthcare facilities that include them as part of their practice, contact the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Mass. at 508-856-2656. You can also visit them on the Web at www.umassmed.edu/cfm/mbsr to find a list of the healthcare facilities in 38 states that offer information on and training in relaxation techniques.

Will my medical insurance cover relaxation techniques?

Health insurance providers will sometimes cover meditation and relaxation classes. Check with your insurance company to see what your policy offers.

Supporting Research

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