Why You Should Relax About Relaxation

Don't stress out learning how to relax

Posted Nov 04, 2010

A childhood memory: I'm at the doctor's office, waiting to receive some immunization or other. As she takes a huge needle to my behind, the nurse tells me to ‘relax,' explaining that if my muscles are relaxed, the shot will not hurt. You can guess the outcome of such well meaning advice...

Such was my early introduction to the much-touted but often elusive benefits of relaxation: trying to relax is like looking for the darkness with a flashlight.

People respond in myriad ways to being told to ‘relax,' but relaxing is not commonly one of them. Being ordered to relax, by others or by oneself, is like being ordered to have an erection, right now! Certain things cannot be willed; they need to be invited and allowed.

The first problem, then, with the relaxation response is that it cannot be ordered around. This was not lost on the father of relaxation theory, Edmund Jacobson, who noticed early in his career that the knee-jerk response--a measure of nervous system activity--tended to increase during clinical examinations if patients were told to relax.

Another common problem with relaxation is that people have no idea what it means. And I'm not even talking about the complex neurophysiology that underlies the relaxation response. I'm talking about the mere bodily experience of relaxation.

It turns out that we pay attention to our bodily experience mostly when it is annoying us in some way. We are familiar with pain in its multiple manifestations. You can describe pain in great detail. But can you describe the subtleties of painlessness?

Similarly, when people are anxious, angry or tense, they pay attention to their bodily manifestations with vigor and great interest. But when their breathing is calm and deep, when their muscles are loose and their body is at rest, people don't dwell on these states, and hence cannot pinpoint what distinguishes and characterizes them.

Thus, even if your body is willing to cooperate when you invite it to relax, it doesn't automatically know what you mean. If you haven't created a clear connection between certain bodily states and sensations and the word ‘relax,' then imagining or speaking the word is unlikely to produce a bodily change. In the game of soccer, if you want to produce a scissors kick, first you must know what it is. In the same way, in order for relaxation to actually occur, you need to first learn what it feels like.

The story of the discovery of the link between relaxation and well being, at least in the scientific West, is in large part intertwined with the life story of Edmund Jacobson (http://www.progressiverelaxation.org/) (1888-1983), who made up his mind as a child to study fear after watching people's responses to a fire at his home. Jacobson's early work made use of the introspective method, big in Europe at the time. This method sought to train people to observe themselves expertly and in detail in order to isolate and identify the fundamental elements of perception, in the same way that chemists have identified all the elements of the periodic table from which all complex material phenomena are constructed.

By studying people who learned to relax through introspection, Jacobson first showed that their knee-jerk reflex was less than that of people who were asleep. Here was evidence that a person could be trained to achieve in waking the same neuromuscular state present during sleep. The nervous system reactivity, controlled by inside states (such as sleep) could, in other words, be controlled by outside training (relaxation). As his research progressed, Jacobson began to notice that the motor system is inseparable from the mind. He noted: "Tension is part and parcel of what we call the mind. Tension does not exist by itself, but is reflexively integrated into the total organism... If a patient imagines he is rowing a boat, we see rhythmic patterns from the arms, shoulders, back and legs as he engages in this act of imagination."

In 1929 he published the first account of his progressive relaxation method. His approach-focusing on the repeated tensing and relaxing of various muscle groups-embodied the ‘letting go' aspect essential for true relaxation.

Over the years, the practice of relaxation has undergone a series of makeovers. Like coffee, which has been repackaged in recent years not as a simple beverage but as lifestyle, worldview, politics, and meaning, relaxation is often presented these days as something more powerful than it is and sold as a cure-all. At its core, however, relaxation (like coffee) doesn't require fancy surroundings to do what it does. Still, with coffee as with relaxation, many people are willing to pay a premium for hoopla, for the false promise that they are buying something truly special, new and unique, that the simple act they are performing will actually produce real deliverance, change their personalities, perfect their spiritual lives, fill their internal vacancies, or bring their college football team to a national title. It will not.

There are several reasons to take any hype about relaxation with a grain of salt. First, the few benefits that relaxation can actually deliver may be inessential to the alleviation of many clinical conditions. Case in point: up-to-date protocols for the treatment of the most common anxiety disorders omit the relaxation procedures that were a part of earlier protocols because the data show that such procedures don't buy you much bang for your buck over and above the other, more essential components of treatment such as emotional acceptance, cognitive reappraisal, and exposure.

Second, being completely relaxed actually has drawbacks. In fact, some level of stress, or arousal, is required for adequate performance in many--perhaps all--domains (except perhaps in relaxation competitions, should those be staged). The relationship between arousal and performance is curvilinear. Too little arousal hurts performance (due to lack of interest, attention, and concentration). Too much arousal also hurts (due to ‘choking,' tunnel vision, ‘freezing,' and memory breakdown). This is called the Yerkes-Dodson Law in psychology, after the researchers who discovered it in 1908. Peak performance requires adequate arousal and tension, not complete relaxation.

That being said, relaxation, the letting go of muscle tension, has its uses. To learn proper relaxation, you do not need to spend a lot of time and money on a protocol with a fancy back-story and exotic sounding Starbucks-like terminology, high-end classes, or stylish gear. It is quite sufficient to use some version of Jacobson's original PMR method.

Relaxation is best approached as a tool for improving general body awareness and well being, rather than a means for managing specific clinical or situational conditions. As with brushing your teeth, steady practice, daily, even in small quantities, provides better results in the long run than sporadic bursts of vigorous activity on few specific, special occasions, like when someone takes a huge needle to your behind.