University Counseling Center
Deep Breathing Techniques and Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Deep Breathing Techniques
Deep breathing helps to facilitate relaxation and calm intense emotional states. Shallow breathing leads to increased anxiety and stress, whereas deep breathing slows you down and provides more oxygen to your body.
Begin by breathing normally, but paying attention to each breath. After several breaths, begin to breathe more deeply – longer inhalations and longer exhalations. With deep breathing, you breathe from your diaphragm, from your gut. Notice the three parts to your breathing – your chest rises, your ribs expand, and your belly rises as you breathe in. Place your hands for several breaths on your chest, then your ribs, and finally your belly, to feel the breath moving through you. Breathe deeply and slowly, focusing all of your attention on each breath. Don’t rush it or breathe quickly. As you exhale naturally, allow any tension to leave you with the breath. Imagine the tension draining from your body and mind as you exhale. Notice the feeling of calm and relaxation that comes with exhalation.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
The purpose of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is to learn how to relax by comparing relaxed and tense states. PMR can help reduce anxiety and anger by targeting the physical part of those emotions. The following is a brief example of how PMR can be done.
Begin by making yourself comfortable either sitting or reclining. Loosen any tight clothing or jewelry and remove your shoes. Keep your legs and arms uncrossed. Reduce as many distractions around you, such as TVs or radios. It can be helpful to play relaxing music or relaxation tapes while doing this, both to drown out other noises and to facilitate the relaxation. Practice some deep breathing before you start and continue it throughout the exercise.
The first muscle groups to work on are your arms. Slowly lift your right arm, make a fist and tighten all of the muscles in the arm. Hold the tension in that arm for several seconds, focusing on the experience of tension, then release it, telling yourself “relax,” (or another one or two syllable word that you prefer, such as “quiet,” “one,” “hmmm,” etc.). As you let the tension flow out of your arm, feel how relaxed and warm your arm becomes. Visualize the relaxation flowing in as the tension leaves your arm – flowing down your upper arm, through your elbow, down your lower arm, into your hands and fingers. Compare your right and left arms and notice the difference between the relaxed right one, and the still tense left one. Repeat the tension and release for your left arm.
Do the same for the following muscle groups: face muscles (squeezing eyes shut, wrinkling forehead, and pursing your lips), neck and shoulder muscles (scrunch your shoulders up and sink your neck into your shoulders), stomach muscles (tighten as if you’re blocking a punch), leg muscles (do legs separately, lifting each one and pointing toes toward head), and feet muscles (make a fist with your toes). **If at any time you feel any pain or discomfort, discontinue that portion of the PMR and move to a different muscle group.** As you do each group, avoid tensing other muscle groups, especially those already relaxed.
After you move through the muscle groups, do a body scan for any remaining tension or tightness in any muscle groups. If you find any, release the tension in the same way. Concentrate on the relaxed feelings throughout your body and enjoy how it feels – your body should feel warmer and heavier, it should be sinking into your chair or bed. PMR can take some time to learn to do, so don’t be discouraged if you need a few practices before you notice an effect. The more you practice this, the more likely you can create relaxation in your body when you feel tense by focusing on the feelings of tension in your body, deep breathing, and using the word you chose.
Compiled by Brigid Cahill, Ph.D. for the University Counseling Center.