Mellowing Your Muscles

One of the most thoroughly researched methods for teaching your body to relax is called progressive muscle relaxation. It sounds scientific and complicated, but you can find easy techniques for muscle relaxation in a variety of books, tapes, CDs, and on the Internet. Flat out: Muscle relaxation works. That's why, in this section, we give you one of our favorite muscle relaxation strategies. In the beginning, this technique will take you about 15 or 20 minutes. As you practice the exercise, you'll be able to accomplish relaxation in a shorter period of time. After a while, some people are able to relax their bodies within just two or three minutes!

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To get the most out of this relaxation exercise, find a quiet place where you're unlikely to be disturbed. Turn off phones and pagers. Wear comfortable clothing, take off your shoes, and loosen any tight belts or restrictive clothing.

Feel free to record these instructions on a tape. Following tape-recorded instructions is probably more relaxing than reading and then doing each step. Be sure to speak slowly and calmly.

The following relaxation procedure is excerpted from our book, Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies (Wiley). Practice this procedure frequently until you can do it without looking at the instructions. This technique involves systematically tensing various muscle groups and holding that tension for a few moments — perhaps five or ten seconds. Then you release the tension and allow relaxation to take over. The procedure starts with your hands and arms, moves through the neck, back, and face, and progresses down the legs and feet.

1. Take a deep breath from your abdomen, hold it for a few seconds, and slowly exhale, letting the tension go.

Imagine that your whole body is a balloon losing air as you exhale and release tension with the air. Take three more such breaths, and feel your entire body become more limp with each one.

2. Squeeze your fingers into a fist, and feel the tension. Release your hands and let them go limp, allowing the tension in your hands to flow out.

3. Raise your arms until they're almost even with your shoulders, and tighten the muscles. Hold the tension, and then drop your arms as though the string holding them up has been cut.

Make sure you tense the muscles on the inside and outside of both the upper and lower arms. If you're not sure you're doing that, use one hand to do a tension check on the opposite arm.

4. Raise your shoulders up as though you were a turtle trying to get into its shell. Hold the tension, and then let your shoulders drop.

5. Pull your shoulders back, bringing your shoulder blades closer together. Hold that tension . . . and let it go.

6. Scrunch up your entire face by squeezing your forehead down, bringing your jaws together, tightening your eyes and eyebrows, and contracting your tongue and lips. Feel the tension, and then relax.

7. Gently drop your head back, and feel the muscles tighten in the back of your neck. Notice that tension, hold it, let go, and relax.

8. Gently move your chin toward your chest. Tighten your neck muscles, and let the tension increase. Maintain the tension, and then relax.

9. Tighten the muscles in your stomach and chest. Hold the tension, and then let it go.

10. Arch your back (by pressing against a chair or just arching it on your own), hang on ^VNG/ to the contraction (but don't push too far), and then relax.

Be gentle with your lower back, and skip this step entirely if you've ever had trouble with this part of your body.

11. Contract your buttocks muscles so as to gently lift yourself up in your chair. Hold the tension, and then relax your muscles.

12. Squeeze and relax your thigh muscles.

13. Contract the muscles in your calves by pulling your toes toward your face. Hold the ^MG/ tension, and then relax your calves.

If you're prone to muscle cramps, don't overdo this exercise. Only contract your muscles as much as you feel comfortable with.

14. Gently curl your toes, maintain the tension, and then relax.

15. Take time to tour your entire body, noticing if you feel different than when you began.

If you find any areas of tension, allow the relaxed areas to come in and replace the tense ones. If that doesn't work, repeat the tense-and-relax procedure for the tense area.

16. Spend a few minutes enjoying the relaxed feelings. Let relaxation spread and penetrate every muscle fiber in your body. You may feel warmth, or you may feel a floating sensation. Perhaps you'll feel a sense of sinking down. When you wish to do so, open your eyes and go on with your day, perhaps feeling like you just returned from a brief vacation.

Although we recommend you spend 15 or 20 minutes a day on the muscle relaxation procedure at first, you can shorten it considerably. With practice, you'll be able to tense up several muscles groups at once. For example, you may tense hands and arms at the same time. Eventually, you may tense all the muscles in your lower body at once, followed by all the muscles in your upper body. If you carry all your tension in your neck, shoulders, or back, try tensing and relaxing just those muscles. Repeat the tense-and-relax cycle once or twice on especially tight muscles if that helps.

Use Worksheet 13-5 to track your thoughts and observations about using progressive muscle relaxation.

Worksheet 13-5

My Reflections

Getting Your Zzzzzzz's

Depression and anxiety disrupt sleep. Some people have trouble falling asleep, others wake up in the early morning hours and can't get back to sleep, and some people even have both problems. On the other hand, a few people with anxiety or depression sleep too much — way too much — and their sleep isn't refreshing.

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If you have trouble sleeping, it probably adds to your emotional distress. And as your emotional distress mounts from lack of sleep, your sleep problems deepen. Talk about a vicious cycle.

Serious, chronic sleep disturbances may be a symptom of a major depressive disorder or an undiagnosed physical problem. You should consult your physician if you have major, unremitting problems with your sleep.

In this section, we help you develop good sleep habits. First, jot down a few notes about your particular sleep habits by answering the questions in Worksheet 13-6.

Worksheet 13-6

Seven Sleep Situations

1. What do you eat or drink in the few hours prior to going to bed?

2. What activities do you engage in during the few hours prior to going to bed?

3. Describe the room you sleep in, including the bed, room temperature, and lighting.

4. About how long does it take you to get to sleep? How many hours of sleep do you get each night on average?

5. How often do you wake up in the middle of the night or too early in the morning? Does it take you long to get back to sleep?

6. Do you worry a lot about not getting enough sleep?

7. Do you have nightmares? What are they like? Are they disturbing to you?

Your answers to these questions should give you a good picture of your sleep patterns. If it doesn't appear that you have a sleep problem, feel free to skip the rest of this chapter! But if you clearly struggle with sleep, read on. The following sections tell you what you should know about each of the seven sleep situations in Worksheet 13-6 and what you can do about each one.

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