Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Relaxation Techniques

Personal instruction for any relaxation technique is ideal. These relaxation instructions are meant to be used as a reference for students who have already received personal instruction in a relaxation technique. If you have not received personal instruction but are interested in doing so, please contact Health Promotion Services at 314-935-7139.

Diaphragmatic or “deep” breathing

During inhalation, the diaphragm (the primary muscle involved in breathing) contracts downward, allowing the ribs to move outward, increasing lung capacity. During exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes upward, allowing the ribs to close in, expelling the air from the lungs. This natural way of “belly” breathing is associated with rest and relaxation (in contrast to shallow, “chest” or thoracic breathing which is associated with the stress “flight or fight” response).

  1. Take a moment and allow yourself to sit comfortably in an upright position. Loosen any tight/restrictive clothing around your waist. Allow your eyes remain open or closed, whichever is more comfortable.
  2. Gently place your right hand over your abdomen (near your belly button) and your left hand over your chest (near your heart).
  3. Keeping your hands in place, breathe in and out naturally through your nose (while keeping your mouth closed). Notice the movement of your hands. Your right hand (over your abdomen) should be moving OUT as you breathe in and moving IN as you breathe out. Your left hand (over your chest) should remain relatively STILL during inhale and exhale. Remember:
    1. Breathe IN, belly OUT
    2. Breathe OUT, belly IN
  4. Begin to inhale silently through your nose while slowly counting up to 4 in your head (“one, two, three, four”). Pace your count so that when you reach 4 your lungs fill to capacity. Now exhale silently through your nose while counting back down to 1 (“four, three, two, one”). Gently draw your abdomen in to allow the air in your lungs to expel completely. Focus on the in and out movement of your abdomen while consciously keeping your chest still. Repeat for a total of 4 complete breaths (inhale + exhale = one complete breath). You may need to keep your hands on your chest and abdomen until you feel comfortable with the correct movement.
  5. Rest for a moment and breathe naturally without counting, before beginning the next cycle of 4 breaths.
  6. Resume the 4 count inhale/exhale cycle, but this time notice the pause in the breath at the top of each inhalation and again at the end of each exhalation. Allow yourself to “be” in the pause for a few seconds. Repeat for a total of 4 complete breaths.
  7. Rest for a moment and breathe naturally again without counting.
  8. Resume the 4 count inhale/exhale cycle, and this time allow yourself to gradually slow down the counting during inhalation and exhalation. Repeat for a total of 4 complete breaths.
  9. Relax and breathe naturally for a few minutes before standing. Take a moment to notice how your body feels before you resume activity.

Notes for practice:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing exercises should be practiced gently, without straining. Remember that the diaphragm is a large muscle and requires slow, progressive strengthening.
  • Keep your breaths quiet. If you can hear yourself breathing, you may be “forcing” the breath. Try adjusting the count of 4 to a comfortable pace that allows you to breathe silently.
  • The entire breathing exercise may take anywhere from 4-10 minutes, depending upon the pace of your counting, the length of time resting between breathing cycles, and the length of time relaxing at the end. Spend the amount of time that is comfortable for you.
  • While diaphragmatic breathing can be practiced anywhere, make an effort in the beginning to protect your time spent practicing by turning off your phone and removing any other distractions that may interrupt you.

Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness is a concept borrowed form ancient eastern traditions. It is commonly defined as a state in which one is attentive to and aware of the present moment.

  1. Take a moment to allow yourself to sit comfortably (with eyes closed if that is comfortable—if not, direct your gaze downward and outward about 4 ft. in front of you).
  2. Bring your attention to the rhythm of your breath. Allow your awareness to stay and “be” with each inhalation and exhalation.
  3. Every time you find that your mind has wandered, notice what distracted you, observe it without judgment, and then gently bring your awareness back to the breath.
    • It is normal and expected that your mind will wander. That’s okay. Simply bring your awareness back to “being” with each breath. Assume a passive attitude, without worrying about how well you are doing.
  4. Begin practicing for 5-10 minutes in one sitting; gradually increase to 15-20 minutes per sitting.
  5. If you feel restless or uncomfortable during meditation, just observe this feeling without judgment and resist the urge to get up right away if you can.
  6. Remain seated for a moment before returning to activity.

Adapted from Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living. NY: Bantam Dell.

Relaxation response

  1. Choose a focus word or phrase, which can be secular (one, love, peace, calm, relax, I am calm, I am relaxed) or religious (Shalom, Om, Insha’allah, the Lord is my shepherd).
  2. Allow yourself to sit comfortably.
  3. When you feel ready, gently close your eyes.
  4. If you feel tension anywhere in your body, relax those muscles.
  5. Breathe naturally and slowly, and as you do, repeat your word or phrase silently to yourself as you exhale.
  6. As you discover yourself thinking about other things, gently bring your awareness back to your word or phrase. Assume a passive attitude without worrying how well you’re doing. It is natural for thoughts to come and go, so when this happens, gently return to the repetition of your word or phrase.
  7. Continue meditating in this way for 10-20 minutes.
  8. Near the end of your meditation, remain sitting quietly for several minutes with your eyes closed allowing other thoughts to return. Remain seated for another minute with eyes open before immediately rising.
  9. Practice this technique once or twice daily, for example in the early morning (after exercise or a shower, but before eating or starting your day) and/or early evening (before dinner).

Adapted from Benson, H. (1996). Timeless healing. NY: Scribner

Notes for practice:

  • Choose a quiet environment and assume a comfortable position.
  • Turn off your phone or place a pillow over it to mute the sound.
  • Do not use an alarm clock to track the time (you don’t want to jolt yourself back into activity).
  • Practice before eating, but after exercising.
  • If old emotions/memories surface during practice, simply acknowledge them and bring your focus of attention back to your breath or repetitive mental word or phrase.
  • Eliciting the relaxation response takes practice. With time, you will find it easier and easier to let go.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is a strategy for achieving deep muscle relaxation. By alternately tensing and releasing large muscle groups, you can become aware of your ability to control muscle tension and remain comfortable in response to anxious thoughts or stressful events.

  1. Shoulders: Sit or lie down in a comfortable place and allow your eyes to close. Take a slow deep breath in while bringing your shoulders up towards your ears.
  2. Let your shoulders drop, release your breath, and relax as you release your breath. Repeat one more time.
  3. Arms: Hold your arms straight out in front of you and make tight fists. Hold them tightly for a count of four and relax, letting your hands drop to your sides. Repeat when you are ready.
  4. Hold your arms out again and this time bend your hands backwards until your fingers stretch out and point towards the ceiling. Hold for four counts and relax, letting your hands drop to your sides. Repeat.
  5. Bring your fingers to your shoulders and tense your bicep muscles. Hold for four counts and relax, letting your arms drop to your sides. Repeat. You should now notice a feeling of relaxation in your arms; warm, heavy, and comfortable.
  6. Legs: Press your knees together so that your inner thighs are touching and hold for four counts and relax. Repeat.
  7. Hold your right leg out, point your toes forward and tense your whole leg. Hold for four counts and relax. Repeat with the left leg. Repeat right, then left. Relax.
  8. Now hold your right leg out and flex your foot back, pointing your toes toward the ceiling. Hold for four counts and relax. Repeat with left leg. Repeat right, then left. Relax. Notice that your legs feel heavy, warm, and relaxed.
  9. Abdomen: Draw your abdominal muscles in as tightly as you can and hold tighter and tighter for four counts and relax, letting go of all the knots in your muscles.
  10. Push your abdominal muscles outward as far and comfortably as you can and hold for four counts. Relax and repeat drawing the muscles in, then pushing out.
  11. Neck: Pay attention to any tension you are holding in your neck. Gently tip your head to the right, being careful not to strain, moving your right ear towards your right shoulder. Hold for four counts, then slowly bring your head back up to center. Let it wobble until it comes to a comfortable resting position. Repeat on the left side.
  12. Bend your head slowly forward, bringing your chin towards your chest. Hold for four counts. Relax, bring your head back up to center.
  13. Mouth: Press your lips tightly together for four counts. Relax, letting your lips fall open slightly.
  14. Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth and hold for four counts. Relax.
  15. Face: Wrinkle your nose and hold for four counts. Relax. Repeat.
  16. Squeeze your eyes shut tight and hold for four counts. Relax and repeat.
  17. Frown and push your eyebrows down and hold for four counts. Relax.
  18. Draw your eyebrows upward and hold for four counts. Relax.
  19. Whole Body: Mentally scan your whole body and notice if there is any remaining tension. If so, focus on relaxing those muscles, and let go.
  20. Notice how you are very relaxed. Enjoy the feeling and let it sink in all over. When you are ready, bring your awareness back to the room, open your eyes, and slowly return to activity.

Adapted from Lusk, J. (1992). 30 Scripts for relaxation, imagery and inner healing. Duluth, MN: Versa Press