Although well-meaning friends and relatives may tell you “Just relax, you will be fine”, this is often easier said then done. Like any skill, learning how to calm your body takes practice. If you have IBS, learning and practicing relaxation exercises will be time well spent due to the complicated interaction between stress and our digestive systems. As you learn these skills, you will find that they may become some of the most important tools in your IBS toolkit.
It is best to practice relaxation exercises on a regular basis. Spending five to ten minutes two to three times a day can help to reduce your baseline stress level as well as to provide you with the ability to successfully use the exercises in a truly stressful situation. It is best to practice relaxation while sitting in a comfortable chair. It is not a good idea to practice in bed; you want to teach yourself to relax under pressure, not to fall asleep! It is okay to practice right before bed as a relaxed body will sleep better.
Below you will find instructions for three basic relaxation exercises. In the beginning, practice each exercise together in the order given. As you practice, you may find that you get a greater sense of relaxation from one or more of the exercises. You can then pick and choose which exercises to continue to use on a regular basis.
Visualization is an effective way to calm the mind as it gives the brain something else to do other than focus on habitual worries. With practice, visualization can be profoundly relaxing. Think of it as a virtual vacation! Here’s how:
Close your eyes and allow an image to form of a place that represents beauty and safety to you. This can be a real place or a place that exists only in your imagination. The important part is that it represents a place of safety for you.
Imagine yourself in this place, using all of your senses. What do you see? What do you hear? Are there any particular smells? What time of day is it? What is the air temperature like? Try to make your time spent in this place as real as possible.
As part of out body’s natural stress response, our breathing tends to speed up and become shallower. Taking active steps to deepen and slow our breathing sends a message to the body that no outside threat exists. As you will see, diaphragmatic breathing is the most portable of the three exercises as you can spend a few moments slowing down your breathing no matter where you are.
To begin, place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Begin to exhale in and out to the count of three. Make sure to continue the movement of your breath for the entire count, rather than holding the breath until you get to “three”. See if you can breathe deeply enough so that your belly swells with an inhale and deflates like a balloon on the exhale. As you are doing that, try to keep the hand on your chest relatively still, focusing on keeping your shoulders in a lowered, relaxed position. Once you have mastered belly breathing, you can relax your arms at your side.
With each exhale, think the word “relax”. This becomes an important cue for your brain. It learns to associate the thought “relax” with an overall state of relaxation.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Many of us go about our day in a state of chronic muscle tension. This drains our energy and sends a message to the brain that we need to be in a state of high alert. Unfortunately, this state of alert can trigger unwanted changes to our digestive systems. The goal of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is to have a body that is as loose as a rag doll as we deal with the demands of our life.
PMR involves relaxing all of your muscle groups in turn, from the top of your head, down to your toes. The first time you attempt PMR, begin by making a fist with your right hand and holding it for a count of three. Focus on how the muscles feel when they are fully engaged. Then, with an exhale, think the word “relax” and let go of all tension in your hand. Take note of how your muscles feel when they are relaxed and no longer at work.
You will now tense and relax all of the muscle groups of your body, one by one. Tie the tensing and relaxing of each muscle group in with your breathing – tensing on inhale for the count of three, and then thinking the word “relax” on exhale for the count of three. As you work each muscle group, imagine the tension draining out of your body out to the floor, leaving behind muscles that are loose, relaxed, warm and heavy.
Here is the sequence to follow:
• Head: first forehead, then eyes, then jaws and cheek.
• Shoulders and muscles in upper back.
• Arms: upper then lower, followed by hands.
• Chest then abdomen.
• Legs: thighs, then calves, then ankles and toes.
Barbara Bradley Bolen, Ph.D.