An overview of relaxation procedures and regeneration techniques
Relaxation is a physical and mental state, the opposite of tension. Tension is not negative, but a change from tension to relaxation is part of a healthy body. However, if tension is at the center, this leads to health problems such as inner restlessness, headaches, back problems, anxiety and poor concentration.
Relaxation methods are supposed to trigger a relaxation reaction. This manifests itself in the nervous system when the parasympathetic nervous system becomes active and the sympathetic nervous system decreases in activity. In the body this means: the muscle tone decreases, the reflexes also decrease, the heart beats slower, the blood pressure in the arteries drops. We use less oxygen, the skin loses conductivity. For the psyche, relaxing means: we can concentrate better and differentiate our perceptions better, we become more relaxed and feel better.
How do relaxation procedures work?
The psychologist Björn Hussman writes on the side of the German Society for Relaxation Procedures: "A common core element of the relaxation and mindfulness-based procedures is the so-called tophotropic reaction (relaxe response), in which the brain metabolism, the nervous system and the whole organism in the direction of body-soul relaxation "switch"."
The goal of all relaxation methods is to train the relaxation reactions so that they stabilize in the central nervous system. The more often we practice such a procedure, the easier it is to relax and the easier it is to initiate it. If we are in a stress mode, we can quickly calm it down with the appropriate exercises.
The procedures can influence the physical as well as the psychological level. The progressive muscle relaxation is an example of a technique that focuses on the physical processes, i.e. the tension of the muscles. However, since the psyche and body are linked during relaxation and relaxation, relaxing the muscles also has a psychological effect. The same applies in reverse. Autogenic training, for example, is a psychic technique that affects physical functions.
All evidence-based procedures share three elements: Rituals direct those affected to certain zones of perception. If relaxation takes place there, the participants observe it attentively (mindfulness) and thereby strengthen it. Autogenic training is about heaviness in muscle relaxation or warmth for vascular relaxation, while yoga is about tensing up certain muscle groups and then letting go.
All relaxation methods include specific exercises to reactivate the body and psyche.
One goal of the techniques is not only that they directly reduce the level of stress, but also that those affected understand how the body and psychological states influence each other. So you learn to act deliberately on mental states and the body.
If successful, they not only feel less tense physically, they also gain confidence through the experience of controlling stress-related complaints themselves instead of being exposed to them and feeling like a passive victim of their condition.
What do we need relaxation procedures for?
Regular relaxation techniques help to find a healthy balance, psychologists speak of psycho-hygiene. They strengthen health and regeneration and strengthen the resilience to stress.
They are not only preventive. Studies show that the procedures are suitable for alleviating or eliminating the following symptoms: sleep problems, chronic fatigue, anxiety (this does not apply to anxiety disorders and / or severe depression), psychosomatic tension, problems in the gastrointestinal tract or circulation.
In addition, they complement various therapies as accompanying measures, from the REHA clinic to psychiatry and from cancer therapy to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa (anorexia). Psychologists believe that relaxation procedures can make a valuable contribution to personal development.
Why is stress a problem today?
First of all, stress is not pathological - on the contrary. It is a natural alarm mode of evolution. When the brain receives the signal that threatens danger, the body releases dopamine, adrenaline and cortisol. The immune system is now inhibited, but the reactions are in full swing.
In the past, when people worked mostly physically, the physical reaction consumed this excess of stress hormones. This physical exhaustion is usually missing today. We feel our pulse rise, our blood pressure increases, we have digestion and headache problems, our shoulders tense, we sleep too little and irregularly. This stress can make us sick.
Not everyone has the opportunity to relieve themselves physically in these stressful conditions, to run around the city park or to chop wood. Massage, sauna, yoga or progressive muscle relaxation offer alternatives that can also be integrated into today's work rhythm. The basis, as banal as it sounds, is a relaxed mindset.
Some relaxation techniques start with breathing. The goal is to consciously perceive the process of breathing. To do this, practitioners focus on breathing in such a way that they displace other sensory experiences. For example, they close their eyes, do not speak during the exercises, and do no other activities. By focusing on breathing and at the same time breathing deeply in and out, blood pressure and pulse rate decrease.
Endurance sports intervene at the biological origin of tension, a reaction of the brain, nerves and muscles that leads to an increase in "performance hormones". Endurance running, long bike rides, but also swimming or strength training are excellent for reducing these hormones. Sports that require a high level of fitness and self-control, such as boxing, are also ideal. But not everyone likes them.
Archaic people would have physically acted out if they had run away as a stress reaction or plunged into a fight. Today, this is particularly important for people who have to work intensively mentally without exerting themselves physically. Mental exertion combined with a lack of exercise is an excellent combination for developing stress symptoms.
Those who take up an office job are best advised to physically act out before they show the symptoms of a stress disorder such as high blood pressure, inner restlessness, irritability or undetermined anxiety.
Sit back and enjoy
Fewer and fewer people notice the easiest way to relax. You feel compelled to always do “full performance” and still never be satisfied; forced by real or perceived demands in the job, intensified exploitation, but also by ideals of beauty and ideological decals of eternally young, eternally dynamic “success types”. In addition, there are incompatibilities between a “healthy family world” and an everyday work routine consisting of competition and enforcement. The result is a permanently high level of stress that cannot be removed in the hamster wheel.
This chronic tension leading to disease can be broken by taking time out - no matter what the others say. Turn off your cell phone for an evening so that nobody can reach you. Visit a museum, walk in the forest or stroll around on the sofa, read, do what we enjoy - enjoy the day.
The Alexander Technique starts with recognizing the causes. The users ask here what causes tension, pain or sleep problems. What unfavorable habits do we maintain?
In everything they do, users learn to pay attention to how they do it, in order to recognize harmful habits that they were previously unaware of. This approach makes sense against stress because our brain stores habits because it knows them, regardless of whether they are useful habits.
It's also about movements. With the Alexander Technique, we notice whether we are straining our muscles too much when we are sitting in front of the screen, whether we are feeling restless when standing, etc.
Failure (of harmful habits) and pause are essential components of the Alexander Technique.
Look into the distance
Today many people work on the screen. This can lead to a special form of tension, namely the eyes (also the shoulders and the back). It is easy to relax here for a short time, and yet many leave it alone: all you have to do is look out of the window in between, watch the goings-on outside or fix a specific object. So relax your eyes.
Autogenic training is self-suggestion. The participants learn to put themselves into a light trance state as well as to get back out of it. In this state of trance, they talk to themselves about phrases that serve to relax.
Like autogenic training, meditation starts with the psyche. Many cultures use meditation as a religious practice. This is not what relaxation is all about. The spiritual practitioners describe the desired state, for example, as “emptiness”, as “oneness” or as “rising into the here and now”. Meditation is synonymous with deep and undisturbed reflection among writers and philosophers.
Similar to breathing techniques, it is also about hiding external stimuli; in meditation, this means concentrating on internal states. Even without sharing the religious background, Samantha meditation is suitable for getting into a state of relaxation.
Here the meditators concentrate on a single object. It can be a word or an image inside. This is to expose the flow of thoughts and calm the psyche.
From a medical point of view, regular meditation is suitable for reducing stress. Neurobiologists confirm a change in brain waves, deeper breathing and reduced muscle tension.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
If you don't believe in psychic techniques with a religious background, progressive muscle relaxation according to Jacobson is recommended. Here you relax muscle groups and tighten them again, and vice versa. This relaxation training is easy to learn, use in everyday life and also relieves symptoms associated with stress such as high blood pressure or headache.
In the sauna, the alternation between heat and cooling ensures a stable immune system, lowers excessive blood pressure and balances the metabolism. For the muscles, the change in temperature means: the heat widens the blood vessels, the cold contracts them. The organism runs at full speed, then it relaxes.
Saunas are a good remedy for permanent stress. In this case, the nerves have adjusted to stress as a normal condition. It is difficult for you to let go and a conscious "I don't want to have any stress now" is of little use because the nervous system is "conservative" once it has memorized a pattern.
The advantage of the sauna is that it sends an impulse from outside to the body, to which the body has to react. Tension only lasts if it builds up slowly, which you can observe yourself. If you suffer from stress, your nervousness, restlessness and concentration problems will increase after you start to creep. The cold pour after the sauna abruptly tenses the muscles - now the body can not help but relax just as abruptly afterwards.
If you don't have the time or desire to take a sauna, you can achieve a similar effect with hot-cold alternating showers. You should definitely rub yourself dry with a towel after the ice-cold shower, so that the heat can rise back into the body.
We can trigger the tension “by ourselves” by bending unreasonably to imposition and allowing ourselves freedom. For example, if we think we can never do enough to keep our boss happy even though we work through the weekend, we put pressure on ourselves.
Fears such as "I can't do it" or constant anger about work that we "actually" don't want to do, but also don't say "No" clearly, lead to a stress mode, for simple evolutionary reasons: fear and hate are not purely psychological Phenomena. Rather, they ensure that our "danger hormones" increase. Regardless of the task, the stress level increases.
It is even more problematic when we are currently unable to solve a current problem: we are furious or worry because we are earning too little, or because we are waiting for an authority's response. The level of stress is increasing and we cannot currently resolve the cause of the content.
Here it helps to pause and first make yourself clear about your own condition. That alone puts the anger and fear associated with the situation into perspective. Then it is time to analyze the situation, perhaps even write it down and reflect on how best to deal with your own strengths and weaknesses, and accept the reality.
Do you feel that your stress level is increasing because a certain colleague keeps raging you? Can't you fall asleep because you're worried about aspects of your life? One technique to relax now is to lean back, take a deep breath and exhale and cheer yourself up with sentences like "Others have already done it", "I can do it", etc.
Take your time
In today's society in particular, tension arises more and more through agitation - through the feeling that there is always too little time for the things that “have to be done”. More and more people feel "guilty" when they have to wait or have nothing to do. In this way, they cannot take advantage of such valuable phases in which they could relax. Instead, they have a guilty conscience, fear of not being "productive", and this in turn creates stress - a negative spiral continues to lead to inner restlessness and sleep disorders.
Instead, you should use voluntary or "forced" breaks and waiting times to relax. If the train doesn't come and they come late without their own help, then that's no problem. On the contrary: you can look out the window, start a new book, have a coffee in peace or watch the birds on the train track. Instead of building up senseless stress, you can reduce it.
Regeneration and relaxation go hand in hand, where regeneration means medically, someone is healthy. When we are sick or exhaust ourselves, we consume energy. This energy is not there again at the push of a button, but is slowly building up. We need a rest period.
The entrepreneur Arianna Huffington writes: "Our corporate culture consists of stress, sleep deprivation and burnout." It can be added: All three are mutually dependent. Acute and chronic lack of sleep lead to a lack of concentration, poor performance and trouble remembering. Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to delusions that are often associated with anxiety. Lack of sleep increases the susceptibility to stress with all its symptoms.
There is no better way to regenerate ourselves after a stress than to sleep. Tense muscles relax, increased blood pressure drops.
In the capitalist world of work, recreation primarily served to regenerate the workforce. But the general declaration of human rights formulates recovery as a fundamental right.
In addition to sleep, breaks are the best way to regenerate. Even in a profession with extreme stress factors such as surgery, a study by the Hannover Medical School in 2011 found that short breaks during an operation made doctors more efficient; they suffered less stress and made fewer mistakes. They released significantly less stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and testosterone than their colleagues who did not take breaks.
Tension as a physical reaction to stress, fear and anger can be reduced through positive suggestions. In this case, our thoughts and images shape our physical condition.
For example, you can close your eyes and remember beautiful experiences: your last kiss, an evening around the campfire, situations in which you were happy. Our brain works with impressions and does not distinguish whether the impulses that arrive really correspond to the current situation.
"Smile" sometimes looks like a mockery to people who are feeling bad. To relax, it's still an effective technique. You shouldn't just smile a little, but grin broadly and grimace. This loosens facial muscles that are tense under stress.
Smile has a physical component: When we smile, the facial muscle squeezes the nerve, which transmits a positive mood to the brain.
You can also shake: the arms, the legs, the whole body. Remember to shake out your negative feelings. Such a shake also relaxes "purely physically".
Act out anger
Tension arises when we build up anger. Then our whole body can cramp. To avoid this, we can allow the anger and find a framework for it. Chopping wood or breaking something else, for example a cardboard box, is very suitable.
We think of what happened or the people who caused the anger. We clasp the ax, the hammer or the club, shout out everything we want to say and strike.
Then we put down the "weapon", stretch ourselves and take a deep breath.
Work out at work
When we work at the desk, we contract different muscles and move too little. If your job permits, you can do some pushups or jump in one place while holding your arms up.
You can also cross your arms behind your shoulders while sitting and turn them to the right and left.
Warm foot bath
Due to lack of movement when working at a desk, the feet are not sufficiently supplied with blood and are cold. Relax with a warm foot bath.
If you tense up for fear of a situation, it helps to say "there are worse" and to imagine this worse. Or imagine exactly what would be the worst thing that could happen after a missed exam or a job interview that went wrong and make yourself clear how you would deal with it.
This way you can take away the stress of stressful situations.
Place of silence
We often tense up unconsciously in everyday life because we are surrounded by a level of noise and our brain is working to unravel it, even if we don't want to actively focus on most of those noises.
To relax, you can do something that is becoming increasingly rare these days: find a place of silence, a place to retreat to. It can be a forest lake or an allotment garden - they themselves know which power location is their favorite.
Relaxation through warmth
Warmth ensures that the blood flows through the body. If your body is tense or you feel stressed, a hot water bottle under the blanket helps as well as an electric warming blanket or a warm pillow on the neck.
Idleness is the beginning of relaxation
Plan lazy hours or entire lazy days. In these hours or days, you don't plan anything, no appointments, no appointments. Whether you go for a walk in the forest or hang out in front of the television is entirely up to you.
When are relaxation procedures suitable?
Relaxation procedures are generally suitable for everyone who wants to reduce stress, get to know his body better or feel good.
People who are forced to control are unsuitable. The techniques also have little effect on certain mental illnesses: this applies particularly to psychoses or manic conditions. This can even worsen.
You should avoid such procedures if they serve to displace important medical treatments: for example, relaxation techniques help with mild anxiety, but if they suffer from a psychological anxiety disorder, they do not replace therapy.
Even if you use the exercises to avoid inconveniences, they are counterproductive: if you don't pay the phone bill, the phone will be turned off when you relax instead of transferring the money.
Esoteric boisterousness and charlatans selling hocus-pocus ensure that relaxation procedures are a kind of secret rite for the select with special abilities. It is not so. You don't need any special talents to learn these procedures.
However, you have to "stay on the ball". In the beginning there is a willingness to get involved. Then comes the discipline to do the exercises continuously. Patience is also important - that's why the techniques are not suitable for control freaks who want to see "results" immediately.
Don't expect miracles. No relaxation process makes them a super man or a super woman. It also does not prevent you from experiencing crises and stressful situations in your life again and again. But those who have learned to relax can master these crises better than before. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch
- Kristiane Gierra, Norbert Klinkenberg: Relaxation procedure. In: Volker Köllner, Michael Broda (ed.): Practical Behavioral Medicine, Thieme; Edition: 1st, 2005
- German Society for Relaxation Procedures: Relaxation and mindfulness-based procedures (accessed: October 11, 2019), dg-e.de
- Dieter Vaitl, Franz Petermann: Relaxation Procedure: The Practice Guide, Beltz; Edition: new edition, September 3, 2004
- Jon Kabat-Zinn: Healthy through meditation: The great book of self-healing, FISCHER paperback; Edition: September 9, 2006
- U. Petermann, H. Schomaker: Relaxation procedure; in: Textbook of Behavior Therapy, Volume 3, page 249-260, Springer, 2019, springer.com