There are numerous techniques that can bring about immediate stress relief and increased relaxation in therapy. These can include progressive muscle relaxation, breathing training, creative visualization, and mindfulness practice. These techniques can be used in conjunction with other cognitive behavioral techniques to aid stress relief. Relaxation training has numerous potential benefits, including decreased sleep problems, lowered blood pressure, reduced worry, and decreased impulsive behavior. It is most often used in CBT as a part of a more comprehensive anxiety reduction treatment.
Relaxation training works by sending physical messages to the central nervous system, effectively telling the brain that there is no danger, and everything is alright. Brain imaging studies have found that people who have higher levels of anxiety generally have decreased responsiveness and function of the parasympathetic nervous system. This part of the central nervous system is responsible for feelings of calm and relaxation. Normally, this system kicks in after the sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight response system) has been engaged for a while. Unfortunately this does not happen as much in anxious people, prolonging the fight-or-flight response, and maintaining feelings of anxiety. Relaxation training can remedy this deficit by helping people to learn to give their parasympathetic nervous system a jump-start. Studies have shown that over time, people who regularly engage in relaxation exercises are able to recover normal parasympathetic nervous system functioning.
Relaxation training fits into CBT as it is an intervention to change physiological components of anxiety. Because physiological anxiety has an impact on thoughts, feelings, and behavior, many people trained in relaxation techniques notice a decrease in worry, fewer urges to avoid difficult situations, and an overall drop in feelings of anxiety. In fact, in CBT for anxiety, relaxation training is often the first intervention, as people often find they are better able to engage in the rest of the treatment more fully once they feel less muscle tension and tightness.
It is important to note, that these techniques, when practiced without being part of a full CBT treatment regimen, have the potential to actually worsen anxiety longer term. This is because without the use of exposure strategies, relaxation techniques can serve as ways of avoiding feared situations, and avoidance is what maintains and escalates anxiety. When used with other CBT interventions, relaxation therapy techniques can help speed along the process, helping clients more confidently engage in exposure-based treatment. Click here to learn more about CBT for anxiety.
For more information about what CBT is, what it is used to treat, and the methods we use, explore our site using the navigation menu at the top of this page, or visit our cognitive behavioral therapy exercises pages.