Overview of the Relaxation Training

The Yoga Style of fighting against negative thoughts is to push them away by focusing on a distraction. In American culture, the most common distractions are work, TV, or exercise. As I mentioned before, that’s why if you take a week off of work or school with no plans at all, you will usually feel more anxious or depressed. Evolution likes it when we keep our minds busy. I’m going to teach you Buddhist-oriented forms of distraction such as focusing on your muscles and your senses. The advantage of these techniques is that they are quick and they are portable. For each technique, I’ll teach you the long version first, then I’ll teach you how do a quicker version that can be done in front of people without them noticing. I usually use a Yoga Style distraction for 30-60 seconds, then I focus on an American style distraction (such as work or a chore I have to do).

In general, the Yoga Style is most effective for mild and moderate anxiety but often won’t work at all for intense anxiety. That’s because when anxiety is really intense, you won’t even be able focus on a distraction. I have had some patients who were good enough at relaxation techniques to be able use them for intense anxiety, but it’s rare. Most people are like myself: we find the Yoga Style to be most effective for anticipatory anxiety and debriefing anxiety. However, decreasing anticipatory and debriefing anxiety goes a long way towards decreasing social anxiety. The less you worry about something before and after, the calmer you are in the moment itself.

11-Muscle Relaxation

The first Yoga Style technique I’m going to teach you about is called 11-Muscle Relaxation with abdominal breathing. In this technique, the distraction is going be focusing on your muscles. For example, at one point, I’ll tell you to make a fist with your hands and bend in at the wrists (there's a recording of my voice later on that you can click on to play). Whenever you do the tension moves, I want you to do them hard enough that it hurts a little. If you do it that hard, it should be strong enough that you can focus on it. Then, after a few seconds, I’ll tell you to release the tension very slowly and focus the muscles as they relax. We’ll start with your hands, then your arms, then your feet, then your legs… moving through your body. It’s 11 moves overall, so it’s called 11-Muscle Relaxation. Then, I’ll count from one to five and I'll ask you to become even more relaxed as I count. I’ll then ask you to breathe in a very specific way for 1 minute. Basically, I’ll tell you to breathe through your diaphragm or abdomen, and say the word ”Relax” silently in your head every time you exhale. During that minute, the distraction will be focusing on this weird way of breathing and remembering to say the word “relax” every time you exhale. Then, after a minute, I’ll count from five to one and ask you to sort of “pull out of it” and we’ll go over how it went.

Instructions for the breathing part of this exercise: Abdominal (or diaphragmatic) breathing is the type of breathing that actors, singers, and yogis use. To see how to do it, put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. Normally when we breathe, both hands move. But I want you to breathe in such a way that only your stomach moves. Expand your belly when you breathe in, and then suck in your belly when you breathe out. This is a counter-intuitive/unnatural way of breathing. It’s a better distraction because you have to focus on it. Try it a few times now. Expand your stomach as you breathe in, then suck in your stomach as your breathe out.

I’ll try to be clear about how to do each tension move in the relaxation audio. But if the move doesn’t seem clear to you, just give it your best shot. Any tension move that uses the corresponding part of your body will work just fine.

You can play or download my recording of 11-Muscle Relaxation by clicking here: 11-Muscle Relaxation.mp3. I have also posted a transcript of 11-muscle relaxation here if you'd like to read it: 11-Muscle Relaxation Transcript.

Try the full 11-Muslce Relaxation technique now via the audio or transcript.

What happened? If you feel more relaxed, then the technique is likely to work for you. Listen to the 11-Muscle Relaxation once a day for the next week. Most of my patients try it at night before they go to sleep. However, the point of the technique is not the tape. The tape is just training. The point of the technique is to do it "on-the-fly" throughout the day. What you do on-the-fly is just one or two moves. Most of my patients make a fist, pull up their ankles, or tighten their stomachs. You can feel those moves really well and you can do them in front of people without them noticing (just don't make a fist right in front of someone's face). So listen to the 11-Muscle Relaxation tape once a day, but more importantly, try it on-the-fly throughout the day. Whenever you notice anticipatory or debriefing anxiety, I want you to say "Screw you. I'm going to focus on my fist instead." or maybe on a series of moves like your fist then your ankle then a few breaths. After a minute or two of focusing on your muscles, then focus on an "American-style" distraction such as work, a TV program, or a chore you need to do.

Sensation Focusing

Sensation Focusing is the most straightforward and the most Buddhist of the Yoga Style techniques. I’ll be asking you to tune in to your immediate surroundings using each of your senses. First, I’ll ask you to close your eyes and listen to every sound you can hear. Then I’ll ask you to feel everything you can feel in your body (i.e. mentally scan yourself from head to toe). Then I’ll ask you to notice every color you can see in the room.  Then I'll ask you which of those sensations would have been he most distracting if you were trying to take your mind off of anxious thoughts.

Here are some tips for Sensation Focusing before you try it:

For the sounds Sensation Focusing, listen to one complicated sound and try to dissect it. For example, when listening to a computer, try to hear the fan, and then the hard drive humming, and the hard drive blipping. When you are driving with the windows down, try to hear the wind on the left side, then the wind on the right side, and then the wind rushing past each car as you pass them.

For the feelings Sensation focusing, try focusing on wherever your body meets the floor or chair (this is also known as “grounding”). Skip over any part of your body that happens to feel uncomfortable.

For colors Sensation Focusing, try matching the color of the first object you see. For example, if you first see a picture frame, try to match its exact shade with something else in the room.

Grab a timer and try the following:

For two minutes, listen to every sound you can hear.

For two minutes, feel everything you can feel in your body.

For two minutes, look at every color you can see.

How do you feel? Which sensation do you think would have been the most distracting if you were trying to stop anticipatory or debriefing anxiety?

During the next week, I’d like you to try sensation focusing “on-the-fly”. Pick one of your senses and focus on it for about a minute whenever you start to notice anticipatory or debriefing anxiety. Then try to switching to a more "American style" distraction.

Reciprocal Inhibition via Smiling

This is the silliest of the relaxation techniques that I teach but also the one that I use the most often. I want to you to use smiling to control your thoughts. In particular, I want you to smile when you are alone in order to shut off negative thinking.

This technique works via a psychological principle known as “reciprocal inhibition.” This principle states that it is impossible for human beings to have two different emotions at the same time. When one of the emotions is caused by something physical, it will almost always overpower an emotion that is just caused by something mental. For example, if you are feeling lazy one day but force yourself to go to the gym, usually within 10-20 minutes you are into the exercise. This is an example of the physical overpowering the mental. Smiling works the same way: it is almost impossible to have negative thoughts while you are physically smiling.

What I mean by smiling is actually a slight grin (i.e. when I do it in front of a mirror, I can barely notice it).

It’s surprising to me how well such a simple technique works. Smiling almost always blocks my negative thoughts. In fact, if I start having negative thoughts again, it’s almost always because I lost the smile. It’s also remarkable how hard it is to smile when I’m feeling really bad. It feels like I’m “lifting weights” even though the physical act of grinning is very small.

I’d like you to see how this technique works by doing an experiment: For two minutes, I want you to close your eyes and hold a smile. I don’t want you to try to have positive thoughts, I just want you to make sure that you are physically smiling and then I want you to see what happens to your thoughts.

Close your eyes, hold a grin, and observe your thoughts for two minutes.

What did you notice? About half of my patients have positive thoughts when they are smiling. They think of children or balloons or a funny video. The other half are like me: I don’t actually have positive thoughts when I’m smiling. It’s more that I just don’t have negative thoughts. I think of smiling as changing the “soil” in my mind. When I’m smiling, the same seeds will drop down, but for some reason the negative seeds just don’t seem to plant. My mind doesn’t seem to follow them.

Smiling is the relaxation technique that I use most often, about 2-3 times a day. I use it to block negative fantasies (i.e. “what if I get assaulted”) or fake arguments in my head (i.e. “What if that cop pulled me over”) or to block negative ruminations (i.e. “Why was I such a moron in 6th grade?”). Smiling has also been helpful in blocking my anticipatory and debriefing anxiety.

As with all of the Yoga Style techniques, smiling is most effective for anticipatory and debriefing anxiety and is less effective for intense anxiety and anxiety in the moment itself. In fact, I usually find that if I force a smile in front of people, I get more self-conscious rather than less. I use this technique specifically when I am alone and trying to control my thinking.

Permission Breath Counting

In this technique, you will count your breaths in a very specific way.

First, I want you to inhale and hold your breath. You must then keep holding your breath until you can visualize the number “1” and the number 1 is the only thing on your mind.  You then have permission to exhale. Then after you exhale, I want you to hold your breath again. This time, I want you to wait until you can visualize the number “2”. Once the number “2” is the only thing on your mind, you then have permission to inhale. Then visualize “3”, then exhale, then “4”, then inhale and so on. You keep a running count. The key is that you have to hold your breathe until the next number and ONLY the next number is on your mind.

You can visualize any form of the number “1” you want (for example, Roman Numerals, cursive, or typing).

This technique works by automatically punishing and rewarding you for thinking. If you are thinking too much, you have to punish yourself. You have to hold your breath. If you’re going really bad, then after 40-50 seconds, you mind will say, “We have to breath!” and so you’ll start focusing on the number again. In contrast, you reward yourself for being mentally quiet by being allowed to breathe relatively smoothly.

The technique a little bit subjective because it’s possible to count while you’re also thinking about other things. But I want you be as strict as possible. For example, I want you think “3… 3… 3… Ok, I’m just thinking about the number three. Now I can finally exhale”

Close your eyes and try Permission Breath Counting now for one minute.

What did you notice? Did you have to hold your breath much?

Try Permission Breath Counting again but this time for 5 minutes. If you ever notice that you are “cheating” (for example, after counting from 10-15, you suddenly realize were thinking about something else the whole time), that’s OK. You don’t have to go back to one. Just re-apply the task as soon as you notice that you are cheating.

Close your eyes and try permission breath counting now for 5 minutes.

For me, this technique is the strongest Yoga Style techniques because there is a consequence for not doing it (i.e. you have to hold your breath). I use this technique when I just can’t shut of my brain (e.g. if I’m worrying about something for two days in a row). When I do Permission Breath Counting, my brain usually sounds like “Worry Worry Worry … 1… Worry Worry Worry… 2... Worry Worry Worry... 3..” But then, after a few minutes, the anxiety "breaks" and my mind is quiet between the numbers. Try this technique during the week whenever you notice anticipatory or debriefing anxiety.