Understanding your emotions--behavior, feelings, physiology, and thoughts--will help you plan ways to change them. Use the steps in chapter 2. If an unwanted emotion is your main concern, read the appropriate chapter (5 to 8) and then refer back to this chapter for basic methods to change the emotional parts of the problem.
First, don't forget that methods focusing on the behavior or changing the environment (chapter 11) can also reduce an unpleasant emotion, e.g. reduce your fear by putting better locks on the doors or by avoiding someone you are mad at. Fears can also be reduced by modeling someone who is less afraid than you are (see method #2 in chapter 11). You can develop other behaviors that will counteract the unwanted emotions, e.g. activity counteracts depression, assertion counteracts anger, facing the fear counteracts it, relaxation counteracts the hyperactivity of the workaholic, etc. Contrary to the notion that "time heals," there is evidence, as discussed in chapter 5, that fears, grief, memory of a trauma, etc. don't just fade away. These feeling do decline if we repeatedly expose ourselves to the upsetting situation or memory over and over again while relaxed or under less stressful conditions (yet, becoming very distraught while talking to friends about the "awful" situation doesn't usually help). However, changing the consequences of a behavior can alter emotions also, e.g. ask your friends to praise your healthy assertiveness and challenge your mousy conformity.
Second, don't forget that our thoughts strongly influence our emotions. And, since we can sometimes change our thoughts and since psychology is in a "cognitive" era, there is great emphasis on cognitive methods at this time. See chapter 14.
The methods here deal with basic raw emotions: anxiety or fears, anger, and sadness. Of course, these same methods can be used on the emotional part (level II) of any other problem. Passive-dependent problems tend to be handled with cognitive-behavioral methods and new skills.
Emotions are a crucial part of our lives and they are fascinating. Several recent books will help you understand. Lazarus & Lazarus (1996) explain how emotions are aroused and their effects, including the impact on our health (see chapter 5). Goleman (1995) argues that we overemphasize academic IQ and neglect emotional IQ (knowing and handling our gut feelings and impulses, self-motivation, people skills). You might gain further insight into your feelings from several other books: Averill & Nunley (1992) for being more creative in your emotional life, Keen (1992a) for just exploring your emotions, Felder (1988) for getting rid of your "emotional baggage," Preston (1993) for working through emotional distress, and Kinder (1993) for understanding why (a biological or brain chemistry orientation) you feel the way you do and then for changing those feelings.
Learning To Produce Desired Emotions
Being able to relax at will is a handy skill. Most people can learn to do so. There are many methods but they all have much in common. No one relaxation technique is best for everyone. Madders (1997) provides a practical, detailed guide to many relaxation exercises. Your first task, then, is to find a method that works well for you. Three methods will be described here: (1) deep muscle relaxation, (2) recorded relaxation instructions, and (3) Benson's method. In addition, relaxation via suggestion is provided in method #2, meditation is described in method #5, self-hypnosis in chapter 14, and many other approaches are possible: progressive relaxation (more complicated than deep-muscle relaxation), taking a nap, taking a warm bath, getting a massage, daydreaming, praying, gardening, reading, simple work or hobbies. After learning a good method for you, the major problem is taking the time to relax when you need to.
The Anxiety Panic Internet Resources Web site describes various disorders and provides suggestions about how to Relax. Many descriptions of "How to Relax" are on the Web. Here are two: Guided Relaxation and Relaxation & Meditation. Be sure to see desensitization and meditation later.
- To reduce tension and overcome general feelings of anxiety.
- To counter-condition fears and phobic reactions, as in desensitization (method #6).
- To counteract panic reactions and to counteract the constant activity of a workaholic or social addict.
- To aid other purposes, such as concentrating and increasing learning efficiency, overcoming insomnia and improving sleep, and improving one's general health.
STEP ONE: Select a relaxation method to try; decide how to give yourself the instructions.
Consider these three ways of relaxing and pick one to try:
- Deep-muscle relaxation is easy to learn. It is a simple routine: first tense the muscles, then relax them. This procedure is used with many small muscle groups all over the body. Most of the anxiety and tension you feel is in your muscles. So, by focusing on relaxing your muscles, you can calm and comfort your entire body (and mind) by excluding distressing thoughts (since you are concentrating on groups of muscles). This method is based on the simple principle that muscles relax after being tensed, especially if suggestions to relax are also being given. So, mind and body can be calmed by starting with the muscles. The detailed steps are given below.
- There are a large number of commercial cassettes that provide relaxation instructions. Usually it is better to make your own tape. In this case you start with the mind and send relaxing messages to the muscles. Detailed instructions are given below but you need a cassette recorder readily available to use this method.
- The Benson (1975) method is basically meditation (see method #5) used as a relaxation procedure. The idea is to free the mind from external stimulation, which slows physiological functions and reduces muscle tension...and that reduces impulses to the brain...and so on in a beneficial cycle. Like meditation, the calming effects of all these methods last beyond the time doing relaxation.
STEP TWO: Learn how to do the relaxation method you have chosen.
Below are detailed instruction for the three relaxation methods:
- Deep-muscle relaxation involves focusing on a small group of muscles at a time, e.g. "make a fist" or "make a muscle in both arms." With each set of muscles you go through the same three-step procedure: (a) tense the muscles. Notice each muscle. Tighten the muscles until they strain but not hurt. The muscles may tremble which is okay but be careful with your feet and other muscles that tend to cramp. It does not need to be rigorous exercise. Hold the muscles tense for 5 to 10 seconds. (b) Suddenly, say relax to yourself and let the muscles relax completely. (c) Focus your attention on the marked change in the muscles from when they are tense to when they are relaxed. Enjoy the pleasure and relief that comes with relaxation. Give yourself instructions to relax more and more, to feel more and more comfortable all over. Relish the peaceful, refreshing, rejuvenating calm for 20 to 30 seconds, then repeat the process with the same muscles or with a new group. In this way you replace muscle tension with soothing relaxation all over your body.
At first, this three-step procedure may need to be repeated two or three times for each set of muscles. With practice, however, you can relax in a few minutes. Use groups of muscles something like the following (don't get overly precise about this, any group of muscles will do fine):
- Hands and forearms--"make a tight fist" and bend it down towards the elbow. Start with one arm, move to both arms.
- Biceps--"make a muscle." Both arms.
- Triceps--stretch the arm out straight, tensing the muscle in the back of the arm. Both arms.
- Forehead--raise eyebrows and "wrinkle forehead"
- Eyes--close eyes tightly (careful if wearing contacts)
- Jaws--clinch teeth
- Tongue--press against roof of mouth
- Lips--press lips together
- Neck--roll head right, back, left, down (chin on chest)
- Shoulders--shrug up, move forward and back
- Chest--inhale and hold it, relax as you exhale
- Stomach--"suck it in," push it out
- Back--arch it
- Thighs--make legs stiff and bend toes and feet up towards knees
- Calves--make legs stiff and straight, bending toes and feet down away from head
- Toes--curl toes
- Occasionally give self-instructions for the muscles recently relaxed to continue relaxing more and more. Check to see if all are comfortable; if not, move them or go through the tense-relax routine again.
- Give general instructions to feel good and warm and heavy, to smooth out the muscles, to feel calm and rested, to enjoy the relaxation, etc.
- Imagine you are floating down a mountain side on a soft cloud, enjoying the view and counting down slowly from 10 (top) to 1 (bottom), and feeling more and more deeply relaxed as you float to the bottom of the mountain.
When you want to come out of the relaxed state, say to yourself: "To wake up I'm going to count from 1 to 10. When I reach 10 I will be awake and refreshed. 1...2...3...4...5...you're half way there...6...7...8...begin to stretch...9...10, wide awake and feeling good.
- Recorded relaxation instructions should, of course, be done in a soft, soothing voice, using a good recorder. Speak slowly and draw out the words like a hypnotist: "de-e-e-eply relaxed." The self-instructions suggested below are adapted from a script by Dorothy Suskind (Cheek, 1976). Make whatever changes you like, perhaps using some of the deep-muscle relaxation instructions.
"Get comfortable. Close your eyes. Listen carefully and try to relax as fully as you can. Now, stretch your legs out as far as they can go. Turn your toes under and tighten the muscles in your feet very, very tight. Hold it. And now also tighten the muscles in your calves and those in your thighs. Make your entire leg--both of them--straight and tight as a drum, very tense, and hold it, hold it (about 6 to 8 seconds). And now, relax all the muscles in your toes, all the muscles in your calves, all the muscles in your thighs. Notice the relaxation. Let your legs go completely limp. And now, feel that wonderful relaxation coming up from your toes, up your calves, up your thighs. Feeling wonderfully relaxed, very comfortable, warm and limp, very calm, very relaxed. Feeling beautiful, just beautiful, wonderfully relaxed.
Now stretch out your arms. Make tight fists with your hands. Feel the tightness, and now make it tighter, tighter, tighter. Hold it. And now bend both fists down toward your forearm, tense the muscles in your wrist, in your forearm, in your upper arm. Tense it until it trembles. Hold it. Hold it. And now, let go, just let go, and let that wonderful feeling of relaxation flow right through your fingers, your hands, your forearm, and your upper arm. Let your arms go completely limp. Feeling wonderfully relaxed, completely relaxed, very calm, warm, limp, comfortable and beautiful, just beautiful.
Now, with your eyes still closed, imagine yourself relaxing all over...(you can tense and relax each part if you like)...relax your face, your neck, your shoulders, your back, your stomach, all over.
I will now count down from 10 to 1. I am going to find myself deeper and deeper relaxed and I will have a feeling of well-being, as I count down to 1. Calm and relaxed, and wonderfully well, just relaxed.
I'm going to count, 10...9...8...7...6...5, very, very relaxed, 4...3, very deeply relaxed, 2...and 1. I am very calm, very relaxed, and getting more and more deeply relaxed all the time.
Think of nothing now but relaxation, feeling wonderfully relaxed, calm, feeling well all over, just relaxed, calm, relaxed, feeling wonderfully well.
I will now enjoy some quiet time just relaxing. Then when I'm ready to wake up, I'll start the player again. I'll stop the tape player at this time so I can enjoy quiet relaxation as long as I want" ............ (leave a15-20 second pause on the tape)
"I am now ready to wake up and come back to the real world. When I count to 10, I will open my eyes and feel calm, I'll feel refreshed and wonderfully well, 1...2...3...4...5...6, more and more alert, 7...8, beginning to move, 9...10, feeling wonderfully relaxed but awake and eager to get on with the day."
- Herbert Benson's method of relaxation is as easy as the above methods but may take more practice. In his second book, Benson (1984) recommends using a short meaningful phrase or religious saying for meditating, instead of the word "one" which was his 1975 suggestion. For the religious or values-conscious person, a moral phrase helps involve the relaxing power of faith--and you may be less likely to forget to meditate. What words to use? Any phrase of 6 or 8 words or less that has special meaning for you. Examples:
- "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).
- "Thy will be done."
- "My peace I give unto you" (John 14:27).
- "You shall love thy neighbor" (Lev. 19:18).
- "Joy is inward" (Hindu).
- "Life is a journey" (Buddhist).
- "Allah" (Moslem) or "Shalom" (Jewish) or "Peace."
- "Fear brings more pain than the pain it fears."
- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
- "I can not do everything at once but I can do something."
- "God, give me serenity, courage and wisdom."
- "Life's greatest gift is to love and be loved."
- "It takes both rain and sunshine to make a rainbow."
- "To understand is to pardon."
- "The smallest good deed is better than the grandest intention."
After selecting or making up a phrase (a mantra), follow this procedure:
(a) Sit in a comfortable position in private.
(b) Close your eyes gently.
(c) Relax. Search your body for tension; relax the tense spots by moving or stretching or tensing the muscles and then relaxing deeper and deeper.
(d) Notice your breathing but let it be natural, don't control it. Start saying your selected phrase as you exhale. Say it silently, say it mentally to yourself. Say the special phrase each time you exhale (that's why it needs to be short). After you have found a phrase that works well for you, continue to use it every time. (This is relaxation, not a time to learn sayings.)
(e) Your mind may wander. That's OK, don't worry about it. Passively observe the mind's thoughts and accept whatever happens. Just lazily bring your mind back to your special word or phrase. Just relax. Focusing on your special phrase is simply a way of relinquishing your control over your mind. Let your mind relax or do its own thing. When you become aware that the mind has wandered and has now finished its thought, bring it back to repeating the special phrase every time you exhale. Enjoy the peace. (See method #5 for more information about meditating.)
STEP THREE: Arrange a private place and schedule a specific time for relaxing
A private place is crucial: a bedroom, a private office at work, even a bathroom might be the best place. You should take 10-15 minutes twice a day. Ideally, it should be a comfortable place with no interruptions. A bed or a chair with arms and a high, soft back is good (as long as you don't go to sleep). Many people get sleepy if they meditate after a meal. Drown out distracting noise with a neutral sound: a fan, air conditioner, or soft instrumental music. Turning off the lights helps. Perhaps you had better tell your roommate, co-workers, family, etc., what you are doing, if there is any chance they will walk into the room.
STEP FOUR: Relaxing on command
Most people can relax easily in comfortable, familiar, quiet surroundings. But, that isn't where we have the stress. It is harder to relax when called on to speak to a group or when taking a test. What can you do then? One possibility: pair a silently spoken word, like "relax," with actually relaxing. Do this thousands of times, as in the relaxation exercises above or by mentally thinking "relax" as you exhale. In this way the internal command--"relax"--becomes not only a self-instruction but also a conditioned stimulus, an automatic prompter of a relaxation response (like a cigarette, see chapter 4). So, when you get uptight, you can silently say "relax" and feel better. It is no cure all but it helps.
STEP FIVE: Relaxation--a routine or as needed
Many people would say that relaxation should be practiced faithfully twice a day, seven days a week. That is certainly necessary if you hope to establish a more relaxed level of physiological functioning on a continuous basis. Other people use a relaxation technique anytime they have a few minutes to rest. Still others use relaxation only when tension is getting excessive and/or they need to slow down, such as at bed time. Any of these uses are fine; however, they all require practice in advance, i.e. you can't wait until a crisis hits and then decide you want instant relaxation.
It may take 4 or 5 hours to learn the method, practice it, make the recording, or whatever is involved. Thereafter, the technique may be used 15 to 30 minutes a day or only occasionally.
Common problems with the method
Many can't find the time to relax twice a day, especially the people who need it the most. Although 10 to 15% of students are reluctant to try a relaxation technique in class, almost everyone can become deeply relaxed with practice. A few people fall asleep while relaxing. If you do, you may need to set an alarm.
Effectiveness, advantages and dangers
All the above methods, if used faithfully, seem to be effective during the relaxation session. Some research has suggested that meditation works a little better than the other methods, at least for reducing general anxiety (Eppley, Abrams, & Shear, 1989). How much the relaxation continues beyond the session is questionable, however, regardless of the method used. Seeking calm in a storm is a difficult task. In many of us, the stress reaction is just too strong to be easily overridden; we may need to withdraw from the stressful situation for a while (and consider using method #6, desensitization).
One would think that relaxing would be the safest thing in the world for a self-helper to do. It probably is, but several therapists have reported panic attacks in patients when relaxation is tried in therapy (Lazarus & Mayne, 1990). This negative reaction has been observed primarily in persons suffering from very high anxiety. For most people, this shouldn't be a concern. In a class setting, I have found that 5-10% of the students do not fully participate in a relaxing exercise in class. Some don't like closing their eyes; others are reluctant to publicly "make a muscle," "suck in your stomach," "arch your back" (thus, throwing out your chest), etc. But almost everyone can learn to relax. Imaging relaxing visual scenes (a warm sunny day on the beach) works best for some people; repeating calming sayings and self-instructions works better for others; sitting in a warm bath reading a magazine works wonderfully for some. Madders (1997), Cautela & Groden (1993), and Sutcliffe (1995) describe several self-relaxation methods.
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