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The Body’s Miraculous Plan for Stress Control

Breathe Deeply and Let Tension Go

By Marylou Gantner, Published in Natural Awakenings – Central Florida/Orlando Edition – February 2013

Several years ago the Journal of the American Medical Association listed 27 symptoms due to tension and improper breathing. Doctors warned of an over-reliance on anti-anxiety drugs that often lead to crippling dependency. I agree – there is a better way! For 35 years I’ve successfully worked with thousands of clients who suffer from anxiety/tension disorders and stress by using scientific relaxation skills, diaphragmatic breathing techniques and EMG biofeedback.

In my own life, anxiety nearly overwhelmed me at an early age. Through the years nothing I tried worked. Marriage, family, religion, meditation and therapy offered only brief periods of respite. In my junior year at Rollins College, I undertook independent studies in Psychology at the University of Florida. One morning I heard the renowned psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Wolpe speak. He was world-famous for his groundbreaking treatment of anxiety and stress disorders. He said, “If you are relaxed, you can’t be anxious and tense. Relaxation is a technical skill. Anyone can learn it.” Hearing these words changed my life.

I asked Dr. Wolpe to train me personally at his behavior therapy unit at Temple University School of Medicine. Later I worked at Orlando Regional Mental Health Center as a mental health trainee. I noticed what was called the “revolving door syndrome.” Patients went from one crisis to the next, returning in six to eight weeks for more counseling. With my supervisor’s encouragement and Dr. Wolpe’s help, I developed training programs for the Center and began working directly with patients. To my delight, even the most difficult patients benefited from the training.

The technical skill I taught is called Progressive Relaxation (also referred to as Scientific Relaxation). This Relaxation Response was discovered in the early 20th century by the brilliant internist, psychologist and physiologist Edmund Jacobson. As a young boy, he became curious about nervousness he felt in himself and saw in others. As a young man, Jacobson entered Harvard Graduate School in the departments of Psychology and Philosophy with the hope of understanding and correcting this human condition. Instead, he found his professor, the famous psychologist William James, to be extremely nervous and unclear about its cause or what to do about it. Jacobson was further disheartened to learn that James was the author of what was referred to as “The Bible on Relaxation.”

Inspired that so few understood the condition of nervousness, Jacobson made three landmark discoveries in the early 20th century. These truths are the backbone of my practice. Jacobson’s first discovery confirmed that when we think or imagine, it is a whole-body experience, involving the brain, nerves and muscles. The body is impacted by our every thought!

I train my clients to be aware of urgent, fearful, negative thoughts that the body transforms into extreme body tension. This condition is known as Canon’s “fight or flight” response. Over time, negative thoughts translate into chronic physical symptoms in the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and immune systems. Further, mental clarity is diminished and psychological symptoms surface, such as crippling anxiety.

Jacobson’s second discovery — a universal message of hope — assures us that no matter how stressed or tense, the body has an innate ability to release tension and unlearn chronic habits. Nature wired it into our nervous system! Jacobson developed a teachable skill and named it Progressive Relaxation. By practicing this simple skill, we return our body to a healthy equilibrium.

Jacobson’s third discovery was really an invention, the result of a collaboration with Bell Laboratories: the EMG biofeedback machine that measures muscles tension. I find people are simply unaware of the extraordinary tension they carry in their bodies. The beauty of this tool is that it gives the person’s brain immediate feedback when they succeed in releasing tension. In fact, 70 years of Jacobson’s impeccable research shows that we waste 30 to 60% of our energy in chronic tension and shallow breathing habits.

Clients arrive in my office with a list of symptoms. What they soon discover is that their discomfort is largely fueled by excess tension in their muscles and the habit of shallow breathing. This style of breathing deprives us of adequate oxygen and the rhythmic diaphragmatic action needed to nourish our inner organs.

Most people find Progressive Relaxation training interesting. They appreciate learning a skill that puts them in control of their emotions and life energy. In our first session, I teach clients to make friends with diaphragmatic breathing. Most find it very relaxing and energizing. Next we begin an educational process of identifying tension and releasing certain muscle groups, working especially on areas that feel specific to their symptoms (i.e. tension in a tight jaw or grinding their teeth, perhaps shoulder and neck tension patterns that create headaches).

Even though the body has over a thousand voluntary muscles, the beauty is that they work in groups. Clients learn to identify the few locations necessary to let go of tension and relax.

This relaxation generalizes to the smooth muscles of their inner organs. I assign daily practice based on a person’s schedule and their commitment. From the biofeedback machine, I get a profile of the client’s baseline level of tension. As training progresses, we see these readings improve and symptoms become less intense and less frequent.

Progressive Relaxation

Progressive Relaxation releases tension more deeply than many hours of restful sleep. It minimizes the cumulative effects of stress, restores energy and promotes mental clarity. With daily practice the body literally releases stores of chronic tension from the muscles and nervous system. The benefits of this practice generalize to our waking, active day. Most people find this deep state of relaxation for the first time completely foreign and a “wonderful experience.”​

Differential Relaxation

In addition to Progressive Relaxation, I teach a second skill called Differential Relaxation. The client learns to selectively relax those muscles not needed to perform a certain task. Clients begin to notice when they feel tense, rushed or anxious. While breathing deeply, they learn to scan their body and release unnecessary tension. Let’s think about the task of driving a car. Most drivers waste a significant amount of energy behind the wheel; they grip the steering wheel when all that is required is that the person’s arms comfortably guide the wheel. After learning Differential Relaxation, people don’t drop in exhaustion at the end of the day.

Having read this, you can see how we simply need to stop tensing our muscles unnecessarily. The Relaxation Response is our natural state of being! The very fact that nature has wired this response into our nervous system indicates we have the potential to help ourselves! After one of my presentations, a doctor remarked: “The Relaxation Response is the best-kept secret in medicine.”

​Sometimes clients say to me, “Why haven’t I heard of this before?” I feel it is my mission to educate people. It concerns me that most people live their lives ignorant about how to optimize their mental and physical health with this simple skill. A skill that is designed into their very cells!

Simple Strategies for Reducing Tension

Sleep
To get sleep, wet two cotton balls with a drop of water and place one on each eyelid. You will receive “feedback” when you think. Relax your eyes and let your tongue relax into the floor of your mouth. Be patient, keep trying night after night, sleep with come.

Scotch Tape
On a day you are home alone, place a piece of scotch tape across your brow. Notice as it tugs at your brow as you began to “effort” or think anxious thoughts. Relax your brow and mental images.

Smile
Smile, even when no one is around. It is true that it relaxes 42 muscles on your face. Start at the corners of your mouth and feel it lift up your cheeks and light up your eyes.

Neck and shoulder tension
For a relief from neck and shoulder tension, provided you have no neck problems: Allow your head to fall forward for only one minute. Try this several times a day.

Exercise
The benefits are plentiful. If you can’t start a formal program, choose simple ways like taking the stairs or walking briskly to your destination.

Basic nutrition
Eat breakfast. Minimize caffeine and sugar intake. Eat regularly.

Be kind
Be unusually kind to everyone your meet. You never know what difficulties a person may carry.

More info
For more information about your personal stress score, Google: “Holmes and Rhea Social Adjustment Scale.”

The Quick Version of Progressive Relaxation

To experience a modified version of Progressive Relaxation, lie flat with a pillow under your knees, or place your legs on a chair. Take a couple of deep breaths and let go best you can. Watch your breath: on exhale mentally and physically let go. If you go to sleep, what you had was a nap. Try again another day. Eventually you will remain awake and experience the mental quiet.

“If you are relaxed you can’t be anxious and tense. Relaxation is a technical skill, anyone can learn.” 
​– Joseph Wolpe, MD

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Phone: (407) 740-6299
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