Treat Anxiety with Relaxation

Read on to learn how to treat anxiety with relaxation

Why learn to relax?

Anxiety results in tension which is unpleasant and even painful. Being relaxed is the opposite of being tense. Learning to relax is an important part of the treatment of anxiety. Anxiety is unpleasant and painful. Tension results in aches and pains, most frequently in the neck and back. For many with anxiety the shoulder muscles act as a guide to their level of tension. During relaxation exercises it is common to find that shoulder muscles are tense, and the advice to "lower your shoulders" surprises many who are anxious, by how often their shoulders are raised, and there is frequently something to drop. If you have aches and pains, then this adds to your problems and you have something else to worry about. Being tense also leads to irritability and is very tiring. Doing things when tense uses more energy than if you were relaxed. If people are tense they tend to rush around and speed up therefore using up more energy, leading to fatigue. Learning to relax enables you to slow down and to cope more comfortably with the pressures of daily living. Learning to relax soothes both the body and the mind.

There is more than one component to learning how to relax. Learning to relax is many things:

  • It is an attitude: an attitude of taking things in life calmly and in your stride, or learning to keep cool.
  • It is a physical skill: a skill of learning how to be aware of tension and how to deal with tension, both mental and physical.
  • It is a habit: a habit of developing routines that work for you rather than against you.
  • It is a restorative: a way of providing yourself with rest and recuperation. Along with recreation, it is learning to refill the systems that are being depleted and giving you more energy.

Relaxation is a great way to make yourself feel better. It is a skill that needs to be learnt. When you have learnt how to relax, you will find that this skill makes a significant and worthwhile contribution to your mood and to your energy levels. This applies not only to when you are feeling tense or anxious , but at other times as well when you are not feeling anxious. Having relaxed attitudes and habits, and practising relaxation regularly also has a preventative and protective effect on your mental health. Regular relaxation improves mental and psychological fitness and helps to prevent mental health problems. Relaxation is a skill. For many people learning to relax does not come naturally. It is no good just telling youself, or someone else, to relax or calm down, because relaxation is a skill than needs to be learned before it can be applied. For most people it is unlikely that they will be able to relax properly and effectively unless they have spent some time and effort learning how to relax, and then spent time practising to relax in easy situations initially.

How to Relax.

Many people with nervous tension find that they lie awake at night feeling tired, tense and anxious. They try very hard to switch off and relax and go to sleep, only to find that the harder they try to go to sleep and relax, the more tense they feel. The paradox about learning how to relax is that it is making an effort not to make an effort. In other words working hard at not working or taking control in order to let go. Perhaps this is why some people with anxiety find a relaxed state so elusive: the harder one tries to become relaxed the more frustrated one becomes when it does not work. Psychologists often advise that learning relaxation is a four stage process.

  • Stage One: preparing to relax

There are many different ways and methods of relaxation and there has been little medical research comparing them and deciding which method works best. Research studies have shown that learning relaxation and practising regularly enables people to become relaxed, calm, and less tense and it may not matter which method you decide to choose. However what is important is that you choose one method of relaxation and stick at it until you have learned this method properly. It is best to learn one method first and try out other methods later. Some of the options of relaxation include: deep muscle relaxation, yoga, various types of meditation and the Alexander technique. There may be classes available locally in your area which teach these methods. Alternatively it is possible to learn these methods from videos, audiotapes or by following instructions from a book. The method described here is that of deep muscle relaxation.

  • Choose a method of relaxation which attracts you and then stick with it
  • Schedule a regular time each day when you can practice the half an hour undisturbed
  • Find a comfortable place for your daily practice of relaxation.

It takes time to learn how to relax, generally at least half an hour every day of the first few weeks. If you are feeling tense and nervous, then learning how to relax should be a priority for you. First of all decide which time of day is you best for your 30 minutes of relaxation. You need to find a time when you will not be disturbed either by other people, the telephone or other distractions. You need to be able to make yourself warm and comfortable.

If you are having difficulty finding a time to fit in relaxation during the day then it is important to ask yourself what you could give up in order to make time, or how you can ask others around you to help you protect the time and space that you need. By making relaxation into a regular routine and practising it at the same time every day you can relieve yourself of the pressure of deciding when you will do it. It also makes it easier to remember to practice your relaxation. It is not advisable to practice relaxation last thing at night because it may just send you to sleep. You need to use the practice to learn how to recognise your personal signs of tension and to learn how to let them go. In order to do this you need to be aware to you are doing's. Also if you happen to fall asleep during exercise you will have to disturb yourself afterwards in order to go to bed. Once you have learned how to relax then of course it is possible to use the method to help yourself drop off to sleep better.

It is important to learn to relax at your own pace. Like many things people learn at different speeds. When you are learning to relax trying to rush the process is counter-productive. The more you hurry the harder it becomes to relax. Deep muscle relaxation uses what psychologists refer to as the pendulum method. By this they mean that if you want the pendulum swing in the opposite direction then you first have to pull it back. Deep muscle relaxation involves tightening up muscle groups of the body and then letting them go. The aim of the relaxation practice is to work systematically through the body, usually starting with the feet or hands and working up to the shoulders, leaving the face and neck to last.

Psychologists say that it does not matter if you work through the body muscles in a different order but it may be difficult to start with the regions of the body where emotional and physical tension are concentrated, such as the shoulders face and neck. It seems sensible to start with the feet or hands and leave the shoulder neck and face to last. It is also often helpful to repeat the exercises for parts of the body that you find are particularly tense.

First, relax and lie down in your comfortable and warm chosen place. Loosen any tight clothing, especially around your neck and waist. Psychologists recommend that you lie down on your back and close your eyes. If you find this particularly difficult, then you can try other positions such as sitting in a chair and starting with your eyes open. Initially give yourself a few moments before you tune in to your breathing. If you are breathing in a relaxed way then your stomach will move gently up and down as you breathe in and out. If you find that the movement is coming mainly from your chest then this indicates that your breathing is less relaxed. In order to relax your breathing, tell yourself to let go as you breathe out because this emphasises the natural body rhythm. It is harder to tell yourself to let go as you inhale in because this is going against the natural tendency of your body. One way to monitor how you are doing, is to place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your stomach. By doing this you can feel which way your chest and stomach are moving. Try to aim for relaxed diaphragmatic breathing. By this, I mean the type of breathing during which the hand on your stomach moves most, but remember to accept calmly whatever is happening at the time. You will find as you become more relaxed your breathing will take care of itself.

When you are settled, then start to work through the muscles of your body one by one. It is usually advised that you work out beforehand which order to work through the muscles. Alternatively you can make yourself a tape or audio recording of instructions which follow below. Alternatively, there are many excellent ready-made tapes, audio recordings and CDs of instructions to follow about deep muscle relaxation.

  • Stage Two: The Practice of Relaxation.

Deep muscular relaxation. Here is a suggested set of instructions to follow, to ensure that you do not forget any muscle group. Please remember that after tensing each muscle group it is best to let go slowly enabling you to feel the tension drain away. Don't forget to breathe.

  • Hands: Clench your fists. Now let go.
  • Arms: Tighten biceps and lower arms together, without the hands. Now relax.
  • Shoulders: Raise your shoulders as if they could touch your ears. Now slowly lower your shoulders.
  • Feet: Screw up your toes. Now relax.
  • Front of legs: Point your foot away from you so that it is almost parallel with your leg. Then relax.
  • Back of legs: Flex your feet upwards, stretching your heels down. Now relax.
  • Thighs: Tighten your thighs whilst pressing your knees down into the floor. Then relax.
  • Bottom: Clench your buttocks together. Now relax.
  • Stomach: Pull your stomach muscles in tight. Now relax.
  • Lower back: Press the small of your back down into the floor. Then relax.
  • Chest: Breathe in, hold your breath, and tighten all your chest muscles. Now relax.
  • Shoulders: Breathe in, hold your breath and raise your shoulders as if they could touch your ears. Now relax.
  • Neck: Stretch your head up, as if your chin could touch the ceiling. Now relax. Then bend your head forward until your chin reaches your chest. Now relax.
  • Mouth and jaw: Press your lips together and clench your teeth. Then relax.
  • Eyes: Close them up tight. Then relax.
  • Forehead and scalp: raise your eyebrows as if they could disappear. Now relax.
  • Face: Screw all the muscles of your face up together. Then relax.

The basic exercise.

First, turn your attention to your hands. When you are ready to start, tighten up all the muscles in both of your hands by clenching your fists. Hold the tension while you count slowly up to three (pulling the pendulum back), then relax your hands and fists, and let the tension go. Feel the tension drain out of your fingers and hands, and let them come slowly and gently to rest. Each time you breathe out allow your hands to become heavier. Let the blood circulate freely right down to your fingertips, as you feel more and more deeply relaxed. Remember to give yourself as much time as you like, to focus on your hands, before you move on and repeat the exercise with the next muscle group which is the arms.

The muscle groups.

The list above is the one that I would suggest following to ensure that you do not miss out any muscle groups and work methodically and logically through the muscles of your body. Work up to your shoulders from your hands, and then work all the way from the bottom of your body to the top of your body. Remember that it does not matter if you make a mistake, or miss out on a muscle group. It is much more important to learn how to recognise tension, and how to let the muscle tension go, in order to achieve a relaxed state of deep muscular relaxation. Finally, return to your breathing again. When you are exhaling, imagine that you can reach an even deeper state of relaxation. Try to enjoy feeling more relaxed for a moment or two before you start to move about again, and then rouse yourself very slowly. If you jump up to quickly, after the exercise you may feel a bit dizzy, and you will undo some of the benefit of the relaxation exercises. The whole process of deep muscular relaxation should take at least 20 to 30 min. It can even last as long as 45 min to an hour. After you have learnt this process thoroughly and properly then it is possible to shorten the time needed.

Relaxing mentally as well as physically.

Some individuals with anxiety find that they can relax more easily physically than mentally. These people keep having worrying or upsetting thoughts, even when their muscles are deeply relaxed. This is when making use of relaxation imagery can be helpful. This applies especially to those who have problems sleeping.

See this link to a page about learning to relax by controlling your thoughts: treat anxiety and insomnia with mental imagery

Psychologists sometimes suggest making a list of situations or places that you find relaxing and calming. As you relax after doing your exercises, imagine that you really are in one of these places. Try not to worry if the images keep changing because mental images are rarely static. Simply try to guide your images into calm waters and away from sources of trouble. To give an example, your chosen spot may be a calm place on a beach in the sun. But your thoughts might wander and you find yourself thinking about the problems of today or tomorrow. Try to gently bring your attention back to the relaxed place on the beach.

Making your own relaxation tape.

First, write yourself a basic script to follow using the instructions above. Start by reminding yourself how to settle down. Then slowly talk yourself through the relaxation process, including all the instructions about how to tune in to your breathing. Tell yourself which muscles to tense up, starting with your hands, and don't forget to remind yourself how to tense the muscles and then to tell yourself to relax and let the muscle tension go. As you are letting the tension go, talk to yourself about what you are trying to achieve. Try talking to yourself in this suggested way: " let all the tension drain away stop allowed the muscles to feel warm and heavy, as your relaxation becomes deeper and deeper. Each time you breathe out, let yourself go a little further. Try to imagine that your limbs have become too heavy to move, and that you are comfortably and completely supported". ...and so on. When making the audio recording, you should remember to talk to yourself in a calming and quiet voice. You may wish to add your variations, such as repeating exercises that you find difficult, and you may wish to add some music that you find relaxing to listen to, before you begin the exercises, and after you have finished.

Problems people experience with physical relaxation.

If you suffer from joint pains, and/or arthritis then you may not be able to use the described method of muscular relaxation, because it may hurt to tense your muscles before letting them go. If this is a problem for you, then it is possible to learn to relax just by focusing on each muscle group in turn, or by using another form of relaxation more closely aligned to meditation. Some people find the sensations they have when starting to relax rather alarming. Some people feel as if they are about to lose control, rather than sinking into a state of restful calm. Usually it does not take long to realise that nothing alarming happens when you relax, particularly if you proceed slowly, at your own pace, and follow the advice set out in stage four below.

  • Stage Three: application.

The following is very important for learning how to use your new skill of relaxation, as you go about your daily life. Once you have learned how to achieve a state of deep muscle relaxation using the above exercises, it is important to learn how to use this valuable skill, in ways that make you feel better, and treat your anxiety. It is not possible to remain in a deeply relaxed state as you go about your daily life, so it is important to move on to the next stage, which involves learning how to recognise small degrees of tension and anxiety early, and how to let them go before they build up. To achieve this you need to learn how to shorten the exercise so that you can relax rapidly and in increasingly difficult situations as described next.

Shortening the relaxation exercise.

Over the next 3 to 6 weeks, gradually shorten the exercise time. For example, it is possible to collapse some of the muscle groups until you only work on your arms, legs, abdomen, chest and face. Alternatively, another method is to settle down and see how relaxed you can become just by tuning into your breathing, and then working on any muscle groups that still feel tense. Another method is to work through the first half of the exercises, and then to see if you can finish the rest just by becoming aware of all the different parts of the body, one by one. Another way, is to leave out the tension and only work on the relaxation. The aim is to be able to relax quickly and when required. This seemed impossible to start with, but as the weeks progress you will gradually learn to relax more quickly and when needed. Use your imagination to find ways of shortening exercises that work for you. It is important to initially learn the whole body exercise, to learn how to recognise the signs of tension and let them go, however small they are. Remember to continue to practice daily, and as the practice times become shorter then look for opportunities to practice more frequently. Some people will find a daily practice of periods of relaxation lasting 45 min to be very useful in maintaining a relaxed state of mind and state of well-being. Some people practice daily relaxation or meditation for the rest of their lives. This is a healthy habit to develop.

Practice in increasingly difficult situations.

Once you have learned to become proficient at basic relaxation, then try carrying out the exercises in different positions such as sitting, rather than lying down. Try to relax sitting in a comfortable chair, and then try relaxing sitting at a table, or walking around the garden. Then try it whilst you are reading, carrying out daily chores and watching television. Try to think about only using the muscles that are necessary for the job at hand. If for example you find that there is tension in your neck when driving or sitting at a computer then try to let it go. Tense the neck muscles up to begin with to make use of the pendulum effect and then allow the tension to drain away. Once you have learnt how to relax during normal daily activities, then try to relax in the difficult situations that make you tense. At first you will be unable to apply the relaxation successfully in the most stressful and difficult situations without a great deal of practice, so do not expect this to work at the first attempt. Remember, to work up to the hardest situations by relaxing in the easiest ones first,and remember it is always easier to relax if you catch the tension early. Remember to check your tension levels regularly to begin with and tell yourself to relax every time you check and find tension. It is surprising how often there is unnecessary muscle tension present which needs to be let go.

A quick relaxation routine. The quick fix to muscle tension and anxiety:

  1. Tune into your breathing. Take a deep breath in, hold it, and then tell yourself to relax, and let go as you breathe out. Breathe naturally for a few minutes, repeating the instruction to let go every time you exhale. Try different instructions until you find one that suits you, for example: "let it go, keep calm, take it slow, hang in there, relax," etc.
  2. Choose a single muscle group such as your hand, foot or stomach and then tense up this muscle group and follow this up by relaxing the muscle group. When you let go, try to let all the built-up and unnecessary tension slip away.
  3. Drop your shoulders.

If you start with the full relaxation exercise, then shorten it to a quick routine, and then apply your newly learned relaxation skills in increasingly difficult and stressful situations. You will rapidly begin to see, and feel the benefit. It is a good idea to occasionally, or even daily, go back to the whole exercise as a reminder, or as a means of maintaining a state of daily calm.

  • Stage Four: the extension course: six ways of developing a relaxed attitude.

Remember that relaxation is a habit, an attitude and a skill as well as a restorative. Make it a part of your life in every way:

  1. Adopt a relaxed posture. Having a tense body and tense state of mind wastes a lot of energy, so remember to allow your body to rest when you get a chance. Do you find yourself sitting on the edge of your chair? Do you find yourself fiddling and fidgeting with objects? Try to adopt a relaxed posture and therefore save energy.
  2. Stop rushing about. Rushing about only winds you up, and increases your tension and anxiety. Most people find that they get as much done when they go slowly, as when they rush. Remember "less haste more speed". It is also possible to keep going for longer, if you pace yourself and do things slowly. Doing things calmly is much less tiring and saves energy.
  3. Make a habit of doing the things that you find relaxing. Tried to do the things that relax you, whether they involve peaceful and calm things, such as reading and doing not much of anything for a while, or strenuous things, like vigorous exercise or going to parties.
  4. Seek out treats and pleasures. The more you are enjoying yourself, the more relaxed you will feel.
  5. Spread the risks. Try not to put all your eggs in one basket. If you do this you will feel very tense and on edge if that basket is threatened.
  6. Give yourself breaks. Take short breaks during the day, for example like spending half an hour talking to a friend. Remember to take long breaks at sensible intervals as well by taking regular holidays.


  • The techniques of relaxation can be learned.
  • Practising relaxation will give you more energy, reduce anxiety and irritability, and reduce aches and pains due to tense muscles. Thus minimising neck ache, backache and headaches.
  • Learning to relax is a habit, an attitude, a physical skill and a restorative.
  • Learning to relax involves four steps:
  1. Preparation. A regular place and time for daily practice is required until you become competent.
  2. Practice. The basic method involves initially tensing each muscle group in order and then letting go.
  3. Application. Once you have become skilled in the basic method of relaxation you can shorten the daily relaxation period and continue to carry out many relaxations throughout the day.
  4. Extension. Make relaxation are part of your way of life by extending it to include recreational and relaxing activities. Remember to take regular breaks and holidays.


It is possible to treat anxiety with relaxation