How do you know if you are tense?
Strange to say, but it is the case that we can be so habitually tense, almost without realising it, that we gradually become accustomed to the sensations of living in a tense state and just think of it as "normal".
So here are some clues that may help you to spot undue levels of tension:
heart racing or pounding
hyperventilating; feeling light-headed or faint
persistent tiredness or exhaustion
aches and pains
difficulty with sleeping or gritting your teeth at night
waking up tired
loss of appetite or not eating well, perhaps with our stomach "in knots"
developing minor ailments such as headaches, migraines or stomach upsets
mind in a whirl; can't think straight, concentrate or work effectively
sense of rush and pressure, lack of time.
These symptoms can also be caused by other medical problems, so if you are unsure, it is worth checking this out with your GP.
Whilst some tension can help in the short-term by making us alert, or by motivating us to get on with something, in the longer-term it can begin to cause problems with our health, and in time our work and relationships are also likely to suffer. Generally, the more relaxed you are the better your mind works and the more capable and adaptable you can be.
Which apporach to relaxation?
There are many approaches to learning to relax; none is "right" for everyone - it is more a matter of finding an approach that makes sense and works for you. Learning to relax muscle groups physically, learning mental relaxation, meditation, yoga, prayer, biofeedback - all are possible approaches. As our body is not disconnected from our mind and our emotions, it is possible to use any of these starting points to benefit our entire being.
Like exercising in order to get fit, doing relaxation exercises once won't make you "fit": learning to relax takes time and practice in order for you to become proficient.
You will find instructions for a simple physical relaxation technique attached below.
Although the physical relaxation method attached below doesn't aim for deep relaxation, it should nonetheless help you to relax mentally too. It isn't possible to be really relaxed physically while being tense mentally, or vice versa.
However, here are some suggestions which may help further with mental relaxation.
1. Replace stressful thinking with pleasant and relaxing thoughts
2. Thinking about something stressful while practising
One approach is to turn your mind away from stressful thoughts and situations, and instead think about something pleasant. This is a form of "day-dreaming" which you can turn to your advantage.
Imagine somewhere, real or imaginary, that you would like to be and where you can relax and put aside the cares of the world for a little while; gradually begin to imagine the details of this place, the sights, sounds, smells. Imagine yourself "unwinding" and "recharging your batteries". Then gradually return to your current world, but bring the new found feelings of life and energy back with you, so that you can use them in your current circumstances.
It is the last part of this technique - bringing your re-found energy back to apply in the present - which is the important bit. Merely imagining pleasant places may give some respite from current difficulties, but can too easily become an avoidance of the present circumstances.
Taking the above approach further: once you are physically relaxed, try imagining yourself in a situation that you feel tense about, and then focus again on relaxing. Alternate your attention between the tense situation and relaxation, until you can remain relaxed while thinking about this situation. In this way you can mentally "rehearse" for a coming stressful event, something you are feeling anxious about such as an exam, an interview, a presentation, before you have to face it in reality.
For example, in order to prepare for a coming examination, first relax physically, then imagine yourself revising for the examination. When you can do this and still remain relaxed, begin to introduce thoughts about the day before the exam whilst practising remaining relaxed. Then think about going to the examination, and eventually imagine yourself doing the examination, all whilst remaining relaxed enough to work well.
NB Imagining yourself revising, etc. is not a substitute for actually revising!
Nonetheless, this is a proven approach to improving one's performance: it is similar to the visualisation techniques that sports psychologists teach athletes to use as an aid to improving their performance.
Building relaxation into everyday life
For these techniques to be of real use, you will need to build them into your everyday life, so that when something very stressful comes along, you are already thoroughly practised in the skills of relaxation and can put them to good use in the midst of difficulty. The day of an examination, interview or presentation is not the day to begin practising.
As time goes by, you will probably find that you are more readily aware of any signs of tension in your body. As you become more alert to the early warning signs in your body, you can begin to relax before tension becomes a major problem.
You may become so proficient that you do not need to tense up muscle groups prior to relaxing them - the tensing stage is not actually necessary, but was introduced as an easier method for beginners. You may find in time that you can simply relax at will.
You cannot overdose on these exercises; nor are they in any way harmful or addictive. They simply make good use of a natural process.
Practise when life is going well, and then gradually build it into more stressful events. Incorporate it into all aspects of your life and then you will be well able to keep disabling tension at bay when stressful events arise.
Further information and support
Mind have produced a helpful guide to relaxation
which includes further information and exercises.
If you want further help with learning to relax, or to apply this in stressful circumstances, you can contact the counselling service or your GP for an appointment. You may also want to consider spiritual approaches such as prayer or meditation, and you could contact the College chaplaincy to discuss this.
Physical relaxation exercise (doc, 26 KB)