When I was first diagnosed with anxiety and depression I found it incredibly hard to have any moments of relief from my symptoms. I also found it very difficult to sleep – or at least stay asleep – because of my constant heart palpitations and racing mind. I’m sure this is something which affects you, too, so I thought I would share my top tip for anxiety attack relief.
When dealing with anxiety, one of the hardest things to bring into balance is the fight/flight response. Our bodies are very clever things, we have inbuilt within us a strategy for dealing with potential threats. The fight/flight response is triggered by our adrenal gland which releases various hormones, preparing us to either attack or run. As such, we will notice an acceleration of the heart and lungs, tunnel vision, and a release of adrenaline which prepares the muscles ready to quickly spring into action as needed. This reaction would have been highly advantageous when we were facing threats from predatory animals but in the modern world we just don’t need to be able to respond this way.
So, whilst we might not be able to control the body’s own automatic responses, once we know that what we are feeling is totally normal, albeit frustrating – anyone have those moments where they want to scream at their own minds for not letting them feel “normal”?! – we are able to start taking action and control how those feelings of stress affect us physically and mentally. Hence the need for a handy technique for anxiety attack relief…
One of the very first things my psychiatrist taught me in order to deal with these feelings was progressive muscle relaxation, and it is still my number one technique if I am ever having a particularly bad day or attack. I sometimes use it just before bed, but it is not really a sleep-inducing technique. Ideally you need to stay aware of your body throughout the exercise, in order to understand how stress is affecting your different muscle groups.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique which requires you to slowly tense and then relax each muscle group in turn. This not only helps you to feel less tense and anxious but also teaches you the difference between feeling your muscles under tension, and how they should be in a ‘normal’, or non-anxious state – i.e. relaxed.
The method I was taught was to start by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes and feet, and then slowly working your way up to your neck and head. You should hold the tensing position for about five seconds and then relax fully for 30 seconds.
What makes this technique particularly helpful is (if practised regularly – and ideally you should do it every day) it will help you become aware of how your body feels when it is under stress and tension. It will also allow you to know how to relax your body; helping bring your anxiety under control.
However, it is important not to become anxious or worried about the technique itself! Be patient, as with anything it will take a bit of time to learn this technique but it has been proven to be very effective for treating symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Make sure not to do any movements that cause pain. If any of these exercises causes discomfort, relax a little, or stop. Try not to tense or squeeze to the point of cramping. Furthermore, if your body is too tense to begin with, sometimes progressive muscle relaxation isn’t the best technique. Instead try passive progressive muscle relaxation exercises. Here is a link to a useful page.
Read these instructions before you begin – A guide to progressive muscle relaxation
This exercise should take about 15 minutes to complete. Make sure you find a place where you can spend that time alone and without interruptions or disturbances.
Start by settling yourself into a comfortable position. This can be sitting, standing, or lying down, whatever you find most relaxing and restful – but remember the aim isn’t to fall asleep! Don’t worry though, you can shift around and change position at any time during the exercise if you need to. Make sure you are in comfortable clothing, that is easy to move about it, and take off your shoes – you’ll be needing to wiggle those toes!
Begin your progressive muscle relaxation exercise by bringing your focus to your breath. Breathe in deeply and then hold this breath for a few seconds, then release the air slowly. Repeat this about five times, and with every exhale try to expel tension from the body. Don’t force the breath, it should be deep but gentle – the aim is overall relaxation here.
Now you’ve brought your breath under control, it’s time to start the next part of the exercise. The key here is to bring a muscle group under tension, to then relax it. Focus on the muscle group you a targeting- say, your left foot – breathe in slowly and deeply, and squeeze the muscles as hard as you can. Focus on that feeling of tension – don’t squeeze too hard, you don’t want to cause pain or cramping! – and hold it for about 5 seconds. Now relax, breathe out and let all that tension go. Allow your muscles to relax completely, let yourself feel limp. Notice the difference between your previously tense muscles and now that they are more relaxed. Take a few deep, relaxing breaths before moving on to the next muscle group.
So, that’s the technique, now we need to apply it to different muscle groups. I find that, for me, the best order for this technique is as follows: start with your feet and work your way up to your forehead.
Foot – curl and squeeze your toes under your foot
Lower leg – draw your toes up towards you, tensing your calf
Upper leg -squeeze thigh muscles and point toes
(Do this on both sides of the body.)
Hand – clench and make a fist
Entire arm – maintain a clenched fist, tense your arm so it feels stiff (as though you are sucking it into your shoulder and feeling it pull down to the floor at the same time)
(Do this on both sides of the body.)
Buttocks – tighten by pulling your buttocks upwards (if you are sat down you should feel your sit bones dig into the chair)
Stomach – suck your tummy to your spine
Chest – tighten by drawing arms inwards, and shoulder blades back and down)
Shoulders – draw your shoulders up to touch your ears
Neck – Tuck your chin down to your chest
Mouth – open your mouth wide
Eyes – squeeze your eyelids shut
Forehead – raise your eyebrows up to your hairline
Once you’ve worked your way through this sequence, sit for a few moments and continue to breathe deeply. Focus on the feeling of relaxation in your whole body. When you are ready, gently wiggle your toes and fingers to bring awareness back to your body, and the room. Remember not to jump up and start being super active straight away – maintain your relaxation level a little longer. Stretch out if you feel you need to.
Some people can find this technique tricky to practice on their own – particularly at first. There are lots of great resources out there, such as guided progressive muscle relaxation. Alternatively, ask someone to help you – a friend, partner or relative. You can find a link to a progressive muscle relaxation script here, that could be of use if you struggle to practise alone.
I also enjoy using calming music when I practice this technique. This is one of my favourites. In fact, check out their channel – The Honest Guys – there’s a whole range of meditation music and guided meditations on there.
I hope you enjoyed this breakdown of progression muscle relaxation, and how it can be used as anxiety attack relief.
Have you used this technique before? How did you find it? Is there anything you find works better for you? Pop me a message in the comments, I’d love to know more!