Living with Stress - Regional relaxation

Muscle-relaxing exercises are effective in reducing tension because the mind can affect or control groups of muscles even though the causes of stress may not be reachable—or even recognizable. Learning to relax controllable muscles, the individual can attack first the muscular tension, then the psychological stress that undergirds it. “Uncontrollable tensions” thus come under the influence of the mind. The source of the stress may or may not be still at work; the exercise nonetheless relieves the symptoms that it has caused.

For the purpose of relieving muscular tension, the person first concentrates on muscle regions or groups. Effort is then exerted to recognize voluntary muscle contractions. In one muscle group after another, the levels of voluntary contraction are progressively lowered. With practice, the subject's perceptions of his own muscular state improves. Eventually he can identify and eliminate any slightest degree of in voluntary muscle tension of any kind in any part of the body.

Often, a kind of meditational relaxation takes place. The subject gradually and for short periods achieves a state of high concentration. Nagging life-problems are—briefly—forgotten.

Tension-reducing exercises fall into a basic pattern. To a large extent, they take their cues from the model developed in 1929 by Dr. Edmund Jacobson. In this model, a formal training method for teaching a person to relax groups of muscles at will, the subject consciously alternates contracting with relaxing various muscle groups at maximum, half-strength, and very slight levels of intensity.

Patterned methods of relaxing muscles should be practiced five or ten minutes a day. They can become part of an exercise program, or they can be completely separate. They do, after all, have their own rationale.

One set of exercises for relaxation of muscle groups follows:

Relaxation Breathing

Lying on your back on the floor, bend your knees so that your feet can rest flat. While taking a deep breath, let both the chest and the abdominal wall rise and expand. The breath should be held for a few seconds. Then expel it through your mouth with a rush. Repeat the exercise four or five times at regularly spaced intervals.

Arm Tension

Standing erect, swing both arms forward and back, then side to side. At the same time the arms should be allowed to drop during the swings; the hands should brush your thighs at each pass. Keeping the shoulders low and as relaxed as possible, repeat several times.

Next, sit on the edge of a chair and clench one hand tightly. The hand is kept clenched while the arm is swung vigorously in wide circles. Repeat the movement with the other arm.

Leg Tension

While sitting on the edge of a table, swing your legs freely backward and forward, bending at the knee. Try to keep your legs moving in rhythm.

Stomach Tension

In a kneeling position, lower your body so that your feet are under your hips. Extend your arms over your head and clasp your hands. Then swing your trunk down to one side and around. At the same time swing your arms in a wide circle over your head until you come up on the other side.

For an alternative stomach relaxer, stand with your buttocks against a wall. With feet spread apart and a few inches from the wall, bend your body forward and let it sway from side to side. Keep arms and head loose.

Relaxation for the Week Muscles

With your head forward and lowered, back straight, and shoulders loose, turn your head first to one side and then the other. Your chin should touch first one collarbone and then the other. Movements should be slow and rhythmic.

Stretching and Pulling

The personal war against stress, tension, and fatigue ought to take posture and working positions into account. For example, the secretary who has to sit for long periods while working may want special exercises to counter back fatigue, aching muscles, and even headaches. The train conductor who has to stand for long periods may utilize similarly patterned exercises.

One six-part set of simple tension and fatigue-combating exercises calls for stretching and pulling motions:

1. Shoulder/head pull: In a sitting or standing position, place your arms behind your back. The left hand grasps the back of the right. The hands are pressed against the buttocks. Push your hands downward slowly, at the same time pulling the shoulders back and the shoulder blades down. The head should be tilted as far back as possible. Next, pull your shoulders forward and your shoulder blades up. Bring the head forward as far as possible. Repeat the exercise two or three times.

2. Shoulder shrug: In a sitting or standing position, hold your arms at your sides. Slowly pull your shoulders up and back as far as possible while holding the head upright. Finally, let the shoulders drop into a normal, completely relaxed position.

3. Shoulder roll: Again while sitting or standing with your arms at your sides and your head upright, pull your shoulders forward and down. Then push them back as far as you can. Finally let them drop into the normal, relaxed position.

4. Back fold and unfold: Sitting or standing, hold your arms relaxed at your sides. Go through two or three twisting, bending movements. Then bend far forward and gradually compress your body into a ball shape. The head should be dropped and the back rounded, with the arms hanging loosely. Straighten the spine slowly and by degrees—the lower back first, then the upper back. Try to be aware of each vertebra as you work your way upwards. The shoulders, chest, and head Mow into the starting position. Repeat two or three times. If done in a standing position, this exercise can pay an added dividend. Simply stand with the knees bent slightly to relieve tension in the backs of the legs.

5. Foot stretch and pull: Sitting on the floor or on the edge of a chair, with your legs extended straight out, curl your toes under slowly. Straighten the feet as far as they will go. Then turn your toes back toward your face as far as possible while spreading your toes at the same time. Release and let your feet relax. Repeat two or three times.

6. Foot roll: Rotate the feet at the ankle while sitting as in step 5. Rotate slowly, first clockwise, then counterclockwise. Stretch the feet as far as possible. Repeat two or three times.

The stretching and pulling exercises, or variations on them, can be used during the warm-up part of an exercise session. The stretchers and pullers promote flexibility while preparing the muscles, joints, and ligaments for the more strenuous exercise which follows.

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