We're half-way through this resiliency roadmap project! Can you believe it? If you are just joining us, take a look here to see our introduction to this project and then day 1, day 2, day 3, and day 4.
Wednesday I reviewed how to engage the diaphragm for paced breathing to relax the nervous system. Relaxed, paced breathing is a quick, portable technique to use anytime in any situation. I hope you had a chance to practice, and that went well for you. If you are still learning what feels best for your body, keep at it!
Now, let's jump right into building from paced breathing with more formal relaxation techniques. I also like this link from the National Institute of Health's National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health which discussed the broad application of a variety of relaxation techniques.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a relaxation technique that shows benefits for stress, anxiety and insomnia. It has also been studied to help with distress and nausea in patients with cancer, to help with distress (anxiety, irritability, agitation) in patients with Alzheimer's disease, and, along with guided imagery (discussed below), to help reduce pain in patients with osteoarthritis. I find that it helps bring my attention to where I am holding tension in my body, and then I can intentionally relax or release that tension. Here is a guided progressive muscle relaxation video that you can try. If you have a lot of physical signs of stress on your list from day 1 of our series, this may be a good one for you.
Guided imagery and visualization are relaxation techniques with the added component of engaging the mind to create a calm, positive, or pleasant experience that leads to a positive emotional reaction as well. Certainly, you may feel emotionally better after other types of relaxation exercises, but I find that guided imagery or visualization helps me intentionally adjust my emotional state as well as my physical state.
The main difference between guided imagery and visualization is the guided aspect. In other words, does someone or a recording take you through the process, or do you do it on your own? To practice this technique on your own, I'd first encourage you to identify a scene or image that you find pleasant. Maybe a garden, a lake, a mountain retreat, being around the fire pit in your backyard--wherever you find pleasant and calming. Imagine yourself there. What does it look like? What sounds do you hear? Smells? Importantly, how do you feel? Allow yourself to feel it.
If you want more help, try these ideas if you like the beach or the forest? Or you can try this one where a guide will encourage you to visualize your own place of calm. If you have a lot of emotional signs of stress on your roadmap from day 1 of our series, this may be a good one for you to try.
Mindfulness has been a buzz-word for a while. So if you are rolling your eyes seeing this recommendation--bear with me! Mindfulness is really just about living in the moment. How many of you (like me) feel like you constantly have so many "files" open that it feels overwhelming? Practicing mindfulness can really help with that. Or, to put it another way, take a look at this video that describes mindfulness as keeping your music player on play (rather than fast forward or rewind). You can do anything, literally anything, mindfully. If you pay attention robustly to your present activity and without judgement--that's essentially mindfulness.
My two favorites are mindful eating and mindfully riding my bike with my kids. When I do these activities, I aim to engage all of my senses without judgment--How does my body feel as I sit down to eat? How does the food smell? What's the temperature? How colorful is the plate? What are the spices? What is the texture? If other thoughts come to mind, I merely notice them and then refocus on my meal. You can also review our recent post on mindfulness for tips for cultivating mindfulness while we're all stuck at home. If you find you have a lot of cognitive symptoms or emotional symptoms on your roadmap from day 1 of our series, this may be a good one for you to try.
Having so many "balls in the air" can cause trouble concentrating, but training your brain to focus on the moment can help with that. Worry often comes from living in a future that has not happened. Depression and sadness can come from living in a past we cannot change. Getting practice living in the moment can help ease those emotions.
Hopefully you stuck with me through the mindfulness technique and will keep reading about meditation. Mindfulness actually is one type of meditation, but meditation can encompass a broader more intentional active practice. Many individuals who meditate set aside time for an intentional meditation practice. Like imagery, the body scan can be guided or self-guided.
One example of meditation is a body scan meditation. The aim of the body scan is to focus the attention on parts of the body one at a time and notice all the sensations you experience. That's it. Just spending time attending, focusing, and noticing the sensations of the body without judgement. Here is a short guided body scan you can try for starters. If you want a full experience, here is a longer body scan meditation guided by Jon Kabot Zinn, who is well-known for his research and practice in mindfulness and meditation in relation to physical and mental health.
Finally, I want to recommend meditations led by a meditation expert at Mayo Clinic Arizona--Dr. Pauline Lucas. She regularly teaches meditation classes to the Mayo Clinic Arizona staff; here's your chance to learn from her! She authored a brief post with a 1-minute breathing meditation for relaxation for us, but you can also find her on Feast for the Soul where you can listen to her introduction and experience with meditation and follow her along NINE guided meditations--a body scan, a breathing meditation, countering negative thoughts (we will come back to this on Monday!), guided visualization meditation, acceptance meditation, gratitude medication (we'll come back to this next Wednesday!), sleep meditation, self-compassion meditation, and healing energy meditation. No matter what signs of stress you see most prominently on your roadmap from day 1, there is a meditation practice that has the potential to help!
Finally, if you like apps, here are three apps I recommend that were developed by the Veterans Administration and Department of Defense. They are free for anyone to download and use.
Mindfulness Coach. This app includes more educational information about the benefits of mindfulness as well as guided mindfulness practices. Everyone starts at Level 1, and as you complete more activities you will advance. They even have a guided mindful eating exercise you can try (one of my faves)!
PTSD Coach (Not just for PTSD!). Don't let the name scare you away! This app is packed with tools to try all the techniques I've mention and then some. There are tools in there that will also support topics we'll get to next week (healthy thinking patterns; focus on positive emotions; social support). To find these tools, tap "Manage Symptoms" from the home screen and then "Tools".
CBT-i Coach: This app was developed specifically to help with sleep and symptoms of insomnia. It includes education about sleep, ways to develop positive sleep routines and ways to improve your sleeping environment. If you have a short term sleep disruption, you may benefit from use of some of the other tools above or a sleep meditation to get back to your usual good sleep. However, if you have ongoing and chronic poor sleep, going through a more comprehensive program like CBT-i may be more helpful. You may also like this other article we've posted about sleep or this discussion group about sleep health.
Whew! Is your head spinning? This is a lot of new information and new resources to try. If you feel overwhelmed, don't worry, you are not alone. This post could take a bit to work your way through. I encourage you to try just one new tool or technique each day. Find some favorites and put them on your resiliency roadmap below. Don't forget to record the results of your diaphragmatic breathing practice from our last post. Check off the tools you like, cross out the ones you don't. Eventually you'll have some new tools for your tool box, and you can routinely practice the ones you want to keep sharp! See you again on Monday where we'll talk about healthy vs. unhealthy thinking.