Neanderthals never used freeways or they would likely have been plagued by many of the same stress related illnesses we have in our present society. We inherited our fight or flight reaction from our primitive ancestors who were more worried about sabre-toothed tigers and dinosaurs than adjustable rate mortgages and traffic snarls on the way to work. Fortunately for them, the tiger or tyrannosaurus was either fought or fled from, and the biochemical responses to those threatening situations usually subsided within a few hours.

Unfortunately for us, the stresses and response-producing conditions that we face in present society are not so quickly dealt with. The mounting stresses that confront us linger; seldom can we run from them easily. Sooner or later the symptoms of excessive, harmful stress will develop in one form or another and if not heeded, more serious results may follow.

David has been feeling anxious and pressured for nearly a year and knows that he needs to do something about it. He enrolled in a health club and went several times a week for about two months, but found other obligations superseded his workouts. His doctor suggested self-hypnosis for relaxation, so David read a book and did some deep breathing and relaxation for a few weeks, but he lost the momentum when he left town for a week on business. He has been experiencing chronic indigestion for over two months and his doctor believes he is heading for an ulcer. David takes antacids, avoids spicy foods, and believes a vacation will head off an ulcer.

The reaction of many people to the symptoms of stress in their lives is to treat the symptoms. If the symptoms go away they believe the cause did, too. In our society we cannot afford the false security of the Ostrich Effect―putting our consciousness in the sand and ignoring the stress in our lives. The physical, emotional, and psychological effects of excessive stress cannot be dodged by ignoring them or escaped by good intentions to deal with them later.

The corrosiveness of stress cannot be ducked with Maalox and five days in Jamaica. If the stress-causing situations persist, you need an ongoing method of neutralizing them. Relaxation is a generality. It can mean anything from going to a movie to taking Valium. While active relaxation is a specific technique and requires learning a skill, it is one of the best long-term techniques for effectively dealing with day-to-day stress.

Active relaxation promotes good health and is an excellent stress management and stress coping technique. It is also the pathway to developing effective imagery and mental rehearsal to enhance any of the 10 high-level characteristics we have discussed. In this chapter we will show you how these strategies work and how you can apply them to specific objectives.

A typical example is Rita, a 34-year old sales manager in a cosmetics manufacturing firm. Rita is a single parent, and has an ailing mother. Six representatives in her region report to her, and she is responsible for meeting quarterly sales objectives. Her sales force has rugged competition, and she is searching for a new promotion tactic to achieve her sales goals.

Every Thursday she meets with her general sales manager to discuss her progress and plans. If she believes she is likely to fall short of her sales target at the end of each quarter, she feels the increasing pressure at the Thursday meetings. She is doing the best she can but still has a nagging sense of disappointment.

Add to these career pressures the responsibilities of raising a 7-year-old son and concern over her mother’s congestive heart failure. It is clear that Rita is under an ongoing, multilayered set of stress-causing conditions that our primitive ancestors never encountered. Fortunately, Rita’s company understands the need for stress coping methods and has provided all of their management people with workshops teaching stress management skills.

She exercises regularly, sets aside 25 minutes every day for private relaxation time, and goes out dancing with friends once a week. She is not ignorant of her need to dissipate the tension buildup in her life. Rita handles her life successfully. Success for Rita is measured by more than dollars. She derives a feeling of gratification from her work and her son. Rita’s friends tell her they can see the personal growth in her.

Research shows that our bodies and minds are deeply connected. As we focus on and develop one component of the relaxation response within us the other components are also initiated. Herbert Benson described the relaxation response as the opposite of the fight or flight response-the opposite of stress. The relaxation response is characterized by:

  1. Deeper and slower breathing
  2. Slower heart rate
  3. Increased blood flow to the extremities
  4. Lower muscle tension
  5. Lower metabolism
  6. More balanced hormonal activity
  7. Lower blood pressure

What Benson found in his research was that initiating any one of these characteristics will induce the others to follow. While most of these features of the relaxation response are under control by our autonomic nervous system, our breathing is controllable by our conscious mind. When we deliberately breathe deeply and slowly from the diaphragm, we start a chain of internal responses that lead to a quiet, balanced, relaxed state.

It has become clear in innumerable studies that our bodies and minds are deeply connected. Norman Cousins presents a well documented case for this duality from his own personal health experiences. In his book The Healing Heart, he explores the link between his heart condition and his high stress levels.

Cousins chronicles the connection of lower stress and his return to health. He comments, “Certainly, emotional and psychological factors, which figure so largely in bringing about heart disease, are vital to any recovery program.”

Friedman and Rosenman, in their studies of Type A and Type B personalities, found that the cholesterol levels of accountants shot up as federal income tax deadlines drew close. The same was found of medical students just before final exams.

The cost of stress to American business may be incalculable, but it is certainly enormous. In fact, recent court cases have allowed worker’s compensation for stress-related claims.  In California alone the number of mental-stress injury claims reported to the worker’s comp board more than tripled, from 1282 in 1980 to 4236 in 1984. According to the National Council on Compensation Insurance, the stress claims not related to physical injury first appeared in the late 1970s, accounting for only 2.5 percent of claims, but by 1983 the figure was 14.9 percent.

Without a stress management program for employees, many large companies are noticing not only more worker’s compensation claims, but also absenteeism and lower productivity. Effective stress control can mitigate these losses.

There are many ways to initiate the relaxation response.  Certainly, meditation, biofeedback, yoga, self-hypnosis, deep breathing, and other methods are effective. However, one of the easiest, most versatile, and most complete method of relaxation is active progressive relaxation.

The power of this mind/body connection is simple to utilize through the language of mind―imagery. It is imagery through which we can focus on and elicit any part of the relaxation response and thereby tip the first domino of the relaxation response.

The Active Relaxation Technique

Active relaxation was introduced by Edmund Jacobson in a form he called active progressive relaxation. Though there are many variations, we will provide you with the one we use most frequently and that we believe is the easiest to learn and the most effective.

Though you will soon be able to practice active relaxation almost anywhere, in the beginning we suggest you find a quiet, comfortable place where you will not be disturbed for 20 to 30 minutes. A place where you may sit or lie comfortably with subdued light is best. Have your calls held or disconnect the phone if you can.

Many organizations have set aside time-out rooms, where audio and video facilities allow employees to listen to relaxation, goal-setting, motivational, or other tapes privately with earphones. Time-out rooms also allow for uninterrupted segments of 10 to 20 minutes for active relaxation and imagery practice.

A study conducted by Ruanne Peters, Herbert Benson, and Douglas Porter on the effects of daily relaxation response breaks in working environments showed positive evidence of the effectiveness of such relaxation on health, performance, and well being. In a 12-week study it was found that the group that was taught and that practiced relaxation exercises daily reported significant improvements in physical and emotional symptoms, illness days off, performance, and general happiness over two control groups. One control group was instructed to sit quietly for two 15-minute relaxation breaks, and the other group received no breaks and no instructions whatsoever.

It was found that even with less than daily practice some improvements were noticed. Peters, Benson, and Porter found that the workplace is an ideal setting for stress prevention programs because most managers and executives spend at least half their waking hours at work. If brief periods of time are taken throughout the workday, increased performance is the result. Again we see that harm to SOPS comes not from an inability to be consistent with the A.I.M. program, but rather from not doing it at all.

You may wish to practice a relaxation experience right now. Or you may wish to make a tape of the following guide to active relaxation and play it during the time you set aside each day for active relaxation. We believe that audio tapes can be useful in learning and refining active relaxation, whether you create your own tapes or purchase some of the better tapes on the market.

An Active Relaxation Exercise

From your comfortable position find an object, a spot, or any  visual focus in front of you and fix your concentration on that visual spot. The process of active relaxation is accelerated by your channeled concentration and limited visual distractions.  As you focus on your spot visually, mentally concentrate on your slow, regular, deep breathing. Breathe in comfortably to a slow count of five, hold the breath for another count of five and then slowly release the air to a count of eight.

By holding the breath and releasing it slowly you prevent hyperventilation, so be conscious of your counting and do not take so deep a breath as to cause a burning or painful sensation in your chest or lungs. Diaphragmatic breathing is called stomach breathing, that is, as you inhale allow your stomach to bulge out. As your diaphragm stretches, your stomach distends, and though this may not appear very attractive to you, the nature of this type of deep breathing is much healthier than chest breathing.

The rib cage surrounding your lungs has a limited capacity for expansion. Expanding your chest to take breaths does not allow the depth that diaphragmatic breathing does. It is this sort of deep, slow, stomach-expanding breathing that begins the relaxation response. Your focused mental concentration on your breathing and your visual focus on the spot you’ve chosen eliminates conscious distractions and promotes the next phase of your active relaxation.

The next step in active relaxation is to systematically gather tension to each major part of your body and then deliberately release it. Becoming aware of the tension created in each muscle group gives you more control over the release of it. You may begin with any part of your body. However, for this illustration begin with your feet; extremities that take a lot of weight and abuse through the day are a good place to start releasing stress and tension.

Throughout active relaxation you may continue staring at the focus spot, or you may close your eyes and mentally picture the part of your body you are actively relaxing. Begin by imagining all the tension and stress in your legs moving down to your toes. As you imagine the tension flowing to your toes slowly tense the muscles in your feet by curling your toes downward and tightening the muscles. Continue your slow, deep breaths, and as you gather the tension in your feet over the span of two or three deep breaths take one more deep breath, hold that tension in your feet and then as you slowing exhale, simultaneously and slowly release the muscle tension in your feet. Repeat this process.

Next shift your concentration to your legs. As you continue your deep breathing, imagine the stress and tension in your body flowing to your legs as you gradually tense the muscles in your thighs and calves. Build the muscle tension in your legs for two or three slow breaths and imagine all the stress and pressures from the day flowing down to your legs as the muscles become more and more tense and contracted. Take one more deep breath, hold it and then as you slowly release it, slowly relax your leg muscles and imagine all the stress and tension of the day being released at the same time. Repeat this process.

Next imagine the tension flowing to your groin and abdominal muscles. Take several deep breaths and slowly contract your buttocks, abdominal and groin muscles as you imagine the tension in your body, like sand in an hourglass, flowing into those muscles and becoming trapped there. After two or three breaths imagine the tension escaping from you as you release and relax those muscles. Repeat this procedure.

Take a deep breath and gradually tense your chest and back muscles. Imagine how your lungs can draw the stress and tension from all the parts of your body as you slowly breathe in and tense your back and chest muscles. Remember to breathe from your stomach, and even though it will be difficult to separately tense your chest muscles while allowing your abdominal muscles to expand with your breathing, do the best you can.

As you are breathing, imagine your stress being drawn into your lungs like dark smoke drawn into a balloon. Hold the tension there in your lungs for a few deep breaths, then take one more slow deep breath, hold it for a count of 10, then very slowly exhale and release the muscle tension at the same time. When you reach the end of your breath see if you can squeeze out just a little more air and a little more tension.  Relax even more for a few moments and let your breathing continue to be slow and regular. After a few minutes, repeat this process.

By this point you will be noticeably more relaxed. However, you have a few more muscle groups to relax, and there is undoubtedly more tension stored that you have yet to release.  But, it is valuable, particularly in the first few sessions of active relaxation, to pause at this point to recognize how much difference there is from the beginning to this level of relaxation. You might even evaluate what you believe your relaxation level presently is on a scale of 1 to 10. Make a mental note of your impressions at this point.

Next, clench both fists at the same time, and imagine grasping all the remaining tension in your body with those fists. Take a deep, satisfying, comfortable breath and gradually make your fists as tight as you can. Hold that muscle tension and let it build just a bit more if possible as you take one more deep breath and hold it. Then as you slowly exhale, release the tension in your fists and imagine letting go of all the tension and stress gathered there as you relax and open your fists.

Now, keeping your hands as relaxed as you can, take a deep breath and stiffen your arms and tighten your arm muscles as you concentrate on directing all the remaining tension in your body to your arms. Breathe deeply and hold your breath as you mentally gather the tension into your arms much like you might gather sticks in your arms for a campfire. Hold the tension and your breath for a count of 10 and then slowly exhale and slowly release the tension in your arms as you mentally imagine the sticks you were holding falling to the ground as your arms become loose and limp.

The next muscle group to focus on is your shoulders and neck. These are muscle groups that typically store a great deal of tension in many people. Be aware of how they feel just before you tense them. Then, take a deep breath and hunch your shoulders up as you tighten the muscles in your shoulders and neck. As you gradually tighten those muscles imagine all the weight of the day, all the pressures of the week loaded on your shoulders as you tighten and tense your shoulder and neck muscles. Imagine a backpack full of problems, worries, and tensions from the day pulling down on your shoulders as you resist with the muscle tension―image that as vividly as you can.

Take a deep breath, hold it for a count of 10, then as you slowly, deliberately exhale, imagine that backpack of tensions and worries breaking free and falling away from you. Take another deep breath and as you slowly exhale, imagine the backpack off your shoulders and on the ground; imagine the color of the backpack, the straps, the type of flap it might have and all the details you can.

Finally, focus on your face, forehead, and the muscles around your mouth. You use those muscles all day long for talking, for expressing your feelings, and for listening. These muscles perhaps more than any others are a reflection of your day’s activities. Take a deep breath and slowly tighten all those muscles. Imagine your mouth open as if you were yelling loudly. Imagine your forehead deeply furrowed as while you are deep in thought. Imagine your eyes squinting as they might if you were intently gazing at a distant object on a sunny day.

Gather all the remaining tension in your body up into your head and face and as the muscles become tight and tense imagine your face as a mask that you can cast off. Take a deep breath, hold it for a count of 10 and slowly exhale as you relax all the muscles in your face and head. As you relax the muscles imagine that tight mask falling away and leaving your face relaxed and calm.

Now, take several regular, slow breaths and focus your attention on how relaxed you are. Move your head slowly from side to side, and perhaps rotate your shoulders just a bit.

Take a few more moments of slow regular breathing to recognize just how relaxed you are right now compared with before you began the relaxation session. Rate your present relaxation on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the most relaxed. Do you notice a difference from what you felt a few minutes ago?

Place in your mental file the rating you put your relaxation at now so that you will remember how much difference there is after just 20 or 30 minutes of active relaxation. Appreciate what you have just done for yourself because it is a very healthy experience that will now lead you to many more positive experiences.

Notice any differences in your mood or thoughts. Be aware of any tingling in your hands or feet, or any sensation of warmth in your extremities or elsewhere. These are outward signs of physical changes that have come about as a result of your relaxation experience. They are positive indications that you can, indeed, bring about dramatic alterations in your physical and mental well-being.

For the first few sessions your goal may be to become as relaxed as you possibly can. As you repeat this process you will find that it takes you less and less time to reach the same level of relaxation. However, the essential thing is that you practice relaxation daily.

Remember that the A.I.M. program is not a trio of isolated events. Active relaxation, imagery of the end result, and mental rehearsal are powerful enlistments of your conscious, unconscious, and physical being to keep you healthy and your actions focused on your objectives.