Our bodies and minds recover and heal when we rest and relax.

Introduction to relaxation exercises 

It is useful for all of us to become familiar with and practice relaxation exercises. The ability to gently slow your breathing, relax your muscles and calm yourself are useful life skills. Our bodies and minds recover and heal when we rest and relax.   

Relaxation exercises are skills that men, women, children, anyone can learn and put into practice, whatever their age or experience. Included below is an introduction to a series of muscle relaxation exercises that some men who have been subjected to childhood trauma and abuse and their supporters find useful. 

Relaxation and sexual violence 

Men who have been subjected to traumatic experiences, including child abuse, can find relaxation difficult. An experience of sexual assault or repeated abuse can encourage hyper-vigilance, making it very difficult to relax or unwind – both mentally and physically. At one time, staying alert, constantly checking for danger might have been necessary in order to keep safe and reduce harm. It might even have been the difference between life and death. 

Relaxation strategies do not involve giving up choice and control. Relaxation strategies are designed to assist you to gain a greater sense of control and knowledge of your body – your breathing, your muscles and your thoughts. When the body has been harmed it can store pain and stress – avoiding or trying to deny the pain doesn’t make it go away. Relaxation strategies provide a way to acknowledge pain, discomfort and tension without setting up a battle between you and your body. An added reason to engage in relaxation exercises is that they can help you make the most of everyday life.   

Learning and practising relaxation exercises 

People are not born knowing how to do relaxation exercises or knowing which relaxation exercises work best for them, they are something that we can learn, trial and practice. Breathing and relaxation exercises work best when they become part of your everyday routine. Relaxation exercises are not about getting it right or wrong, they don’t require lots of equipment or you to work stuff out and, you are not wasting time when you are doing relaxation exercises.  Relaxation exercises help to calm our body and mind, help our body recover and put us in a better place to live life to the full.  

The exercises in this section may assist you to relax by focussing on one or more of 2 different physical domains: 

  1. Breathing 
  2. Muscle tightness/looseness 

Relaxation can be achieved through manipulating our breathing and our muscle tension by doing things like holding and releasing breath, clenching and releasing muscle groups, or by using our imaginations to create these responses in our bodies. 

What happens, physiologically, is that when our breathing slows down or our muscles become less tight and more relaxed, then our heart rate will usually slow. Many medications aimed at relaxation are simply muscle relaxants – we know that once the muscles become looser and relax then breathing will slow down and thought processes will also slow down. We cannot directly make our heart rate slow down but we can directly make our breathing slow down and make our muscles relax. 

There are times when we don’t want to relax – there are reasons for having a flight and fight response because this is what helps keep us safe in situations of danger. What happens in these situations is the our muscles tense and our breathing gets shallower and shorter. These are necessary physiological responses to situations of threat and they help us to activate our bodies to get out of dangerous situations. The problem is that sometimes these responses become a habit even when we are not in danger. They put us on “high alert” even when our brain tells us we are not requiring this response. When this response goes into overdrive – that is, when our breathing becomes too quick and short and our muscles become too tense and our heart rate races – then we can become immobilised or even lose consciousness (what is known as hyperventilation). Some people experience this set of sensations as “panic attacks” – relaxation strategies can prevent panic attacks from developing, especially if we learn to listen to the warning signals – racing thoughts, increasing heart and breathing rates and quickening heart rate. 

Relaxation strategies can help us deal with day-to-day situations, even those that are stressful, in more useful ways. By slowing down our responses, we can sometimes make better and more informed decisions, we can help our bodies to enter a state that is more likely to allow sleep to come, and we can be better able to communicate with others by being able to work out what we want our message to others to be, and hear more clearly what others are trying to say to us. 

The exercises in this section can be done together or individually. You are encouraged to try them and pick the ones that seem to work best for you. Each of the exercises has an mp3 recording which you can either stream to listen or download. It might be useful initially to do the exercises a few times while listening to the recording and when you have become comfortable with them to do them without listening. The exercises can mostly be done any time, anywhere. For people having difficulty falling or staying asleep they may be useful to do in bed, but you can do them in an armchair, at work or in other everyday or stressful situations. 

Relaxation exercises

The Relaxation Exercises are available here for free:

If you are interested in checking out and trialling different relaxation exercises, feel free to click on the below links and make use of the information and audio files.

This “muscle tense and release” relaxation exercise is about tensing the muscle in one part of your body, holding the tension and then releasing it suddenly. We generally find that once the muscle is released, it is more relaxed than it was prior to tensing it. 

  1. Focus first on your hands.
  2. Clench your fists tightly for a few seconds -hold for the count of 3 seconds, counting them out – 1, 2, 3. You may wish to progressively hold for 4 seconds, then 5 or even more. Make sure you are able to do this reasonably comfortably.
  3. Release the tension all in one go – make sure that the tension is released all at once with a feeling of floppiness at the end. 
  4. Repeat this with your hands and lower arms. 
  5. Repeat this with your hands and your whole arms. 
  6. Repeat this exercise with your feet, then feet and lower legs, then feet and whole of legs. 
  7. Finally hold the muscles of your entire body tense, hold for the count of 3 and at 3 release all tension from your body. 

Download the transcript

Breathing exercises are a basic way of learning to relax. In this breathing exercise you will be guided to breathe in, hold the breath, and then release the breath. 

The most important part of this exercise is to allow the breath to release all in one go – there should be a sound like a “whoosh” when the air rushes out of the body. Don’t try to sound elegant or refined – it is important to let the breath be expelled all at once! 

  1. Take a deep breath – breathing in fully and as deeply as you can. 
  2. Hold the breath for a count of 5 – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. 
  3. One the count of 5, release the breath all at once. 
  4. As you continue to do this exercise you can slow down the counting a little bit each time so that the holding of the breath becomes progressively a little longer. 
  5. In between breaths that you hold you may wish to take a couple of normal breaths. 
  6. Remember that no matter how long you hold the in-breath that you let the out-breath escape in a “whoosh”, releasing all the breath at once. 

After a while you should notice that your breathing has slowed down. You may also notice that your muscles feel more loose and relaxed, especially after each sudden out-breath when your body may even go floppy for a few seconds. 

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This is a relaxation practice focusing on abdominal breathing for dealing with challenges of stress and anxiety. Abdominal breathing can be a useful tool, because we take our breath with us wherever we go. 

You might like to start with just placing your hand on your belly and feel whether it expands as you inhale and contracts as you exhale. If it doesn’t, this exercise will help you to bring our breath down to the abdominal area out of the higher parts of your chest & ribcage. Abdominal breathing or belly breathing helps to regulate irregular breathing patterns especially those that are due to stress or irritation. Anxiety, as you’re probably aware can lead to shallow, rapid breathing and even hyperventilation. Sometimes a panic attack can cause increased shortness of breath, thoughts of losing control and pains in the chest. 

By bringing the breath back into the belly you can help the body return to balance. So when anxiety arises, first acknowledge the feeling then gently practice bringing your attention back to the breath – the breath at the abdomen or at your belly. 

So start by sitting either on the floor on a cushion with your legs crossed or in a symmetrical posture on a chair, and just start to notice the gentle sensations of air flowing in and out of your nostrils. You an have your eyes closed or open… 

Just starting to take notice, spending a few moments sensing the breath there at the nostrils – in and out. 

And now notice how your attention can move down to the level of your chest and sense the movement in and out of the chest, as the air moves in and out of your lungs. Upper chest, middle chest, ribcage part of the chest, just riding the waves of your breath, focusing on the sensation of your chest rising and falling with each breath. 

And now noticing how you can let your attention move down to the level of your abdomen as you sense the inward and outward movement of your belly. You can put your hand over your abdomen if you find it difficult to sense your belly’s movement at first. 

As air moves into your lungs, the diaphragm pulls downwards, and pushes your abdomen outward. As air moves out of your lungs, your belly moves inward. Just sense the breath in and out, riding the waves of the breath as you focus on the sensation of your abdomen, moving in and out. 

Gentle natural breaths at the abdomen. No need to change your natural breath, no need to force it. You can practice this calming abdominal method of breathing wherever you are during the day; whether you’re standing in a queue waiting for your lunch, whether you are driving the car; just starting to become aware of where your breath is most prominent and moving your attention to where it is in your body. 

We take our breath with us wherever we ago so it’s a tool we can use in times of stress, anxiety, frustration, irritation, just noticing… noticing the breath at the abdomen, will often allow you to recapture some groundedness and some calm in order to move on with your day 

While you are sitting in this practice right now, focusing on your breath at the abdomen, you will notice that thoughts arise. They may be about ‘what am I doing this for?’, ‘this is a bit crazy’, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this’ – just notice those thoughts as thoughts and let them go. And bring your attention back lovingly to your breath at the abdomen. As your abdomen gently rises and falls. Breath after breath, in and out, moment by moment. 

Shoulders relaxed, face relaxed, the only movement is your abdomen rising and falling. 

And now this exercise is finishing. Open your eyes if they were closed, looking around you, coming back to the space where you’re sitting, taking a few long deep inhalations and exhalations, stretching the body, and moving on with your day. 

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The progressive muscle relaxation exercise is an expansion on the Muscle tense and release exercise earlier in this series. This is a great exercise to do lying in bed if you are having difficulty falling asleep, as by the end of it every muscle in your body will have been given a chance to loosen and relax. 

You can do this progressive muscle relaxation exercise either lying down flat on your back with your arms out from your sides, your legs just loosely on the ground, ankles flopping outward; or you can find a comfortable position in your chair. 

During a progressive muscle relaxation it is important that there is no physical movement. If you need to adjust your body posture, please do so with mindfulness – noticing which part of your body needs to be adjusted. 

It is useful to keep your eyes closed. Now take a deep breath and as you breathe out, feel the cares and worries of the day flow out of you. 

In this practice, you’re going to develop the feeling of relaxation in the body. It’s not necessary to make any movements or deliberately relax your muscles but simply to fall into the feeling of relaxation. 

It’s a little like the feeling you have just before sleep. But in this practice, it’s better to try to keep yourself awake. You can say to yourself: I will not sleep. I will remain awake throughout the practice. You will be functioning on levels of hearing and awareness, but the important thing is to follow my voice. It’s not necessary to intellectualise or analyse the instructions, just following the voice with total attention and feeling, and if thoughts come to disturb you from time too time, do not worry, just continue with the practice. Allow yourself to become calm and steady. And when you are doing this practice in your own time, allow a few minutes for this settling in period. And bring about a feeling of inner relaxation in the whole body. Concentrating on the body and becoming aware of complete stillness. Complete stillness and complete awareness of the whole body. Becoming aware of the fact that you are going to practice a progressive muscle relaxation. 

We’re now going to begin a rotation of consciousness, rotation of awareness, by taking a trip through the different parts of the body, as quickly as possible, the awareness is to go from part to part. Repeat the part in your mind and at the same time become aware of that part of the body. Just keeping yourself alert but not concentrating or working too hard at it, and letting that part soften. 

Becoming aware of your right hand. Right hand thumb, second finger, third finger, fourth finger, fifth finger, palm of the right hand, become aware of your palm. Back of the hand, the wrist, lower arm, elbow, upper arm, shoulder, armpit, right waist, right hip, right thigh. The kneecap, calf muscle, ankle, heel, sole of the right foot, top of the right foot. Big toe, second toe, third toe, fourth toe, fifth toe. 

Become aware of the left hand thumb. Second finger, third finger, fourth finger, fifth finger. Palm of the left hand, back of the left hand. Wrist, lower arm, elbow, upper arm, shoulder, armpit, left waist, left hip, left thigh, kneecap, calf muscle, ankle, heel, sole of the left foot, top of the left foot. Big toe, second toe, third toe, fourth toe, fifth toe. 

Now to the back. Become aware of the right shoulder blade, the left shoulder blade, the right buttock, the left buttock. The spine – the whole back together. 

Now go to the top of the head. Top of the head, forehead, both sides of the head, right eyebrow, left eyebrow, the space between the eyebrows. The right eyelid, the left eyelid, the right eye, the left eye, the right ear, the left ear. The right cheek the left cheek, the nose, tip of the nose, upper lip, lower lip, chin, throat.
Right side of the chest, left side of the chest, middle of the chest. Navel, abdomen, the groin. 

Whole of the right leg, whole of the left leg. Both legs together. The whole of the right arm, the whole of the left arm, both arms together. The whole of the back, buttocks, spine, shoulder blades, the whole of the front, groin, abdomen chest. 

The whole of the back and front together; the whole of the head, the whole body together… the whole body together… the whole body, together. 

The whole body on the floor or in the chair. See your body, lying or sitting perfectly still, in this room.
Visualise this image in your mind. 

Now draw your mind to an awareness of your breathing. Become aware of your natural breath. Awareness of the whole body and awareness of breathing. Your body… totally relaxed… on the floor or in the chair… breathing quietly and slowly… develop awareness of your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. 

Breathing gently, in  stillness… and now becoming aware of the floor or the chair and the position of your body lying on the floor or sitting in the chair… visualize the room around you. Become aware of your surroundings, and when you’re ready, just slowly starting to move your hands, maybe turning your ankles in circles, maybe stretching just taking your time. Making sure that you are wide awake, opening your eyes, taking note of your surroundings and coming back to the space you are now in. 

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In this exercise you will be consciously slowing down your breathing. This helps your body to feel less tense, your mind calms down and your thinking becomes clearer. 

  1. Work out the pace and speed that works best for you. 
  2. Breathe in for the count of three. 
  3. Breathe out for the count of three. 
  4. Continue to do this and each time slow the count to three very slightly. 
  5. Don’t force the slowing down process – just allow your counting to gently keep time with a minor slowing down or the breathing for each time you repeat the exercise. 
  6. When you have slowed your breathing down and notice that you have come to a pace that feels comfortable then stay at that pace, continuing to count your breath in to the count of three and out to the count of three. 

A variation to this exercise is instead of counting the breaths in and out you may wish to spell them in – you might wish to spell “c-a-l-m” or “r-e-l-a-x” 

  1. When you breathe in, spell the letters – “c-a-l-m” (or “r-e-l-a-x”). 
  2. Each time you repeat the exercise slow the spelling down a little. 
  3. When you get to a slower pace that feels comfortable then stay at that pace, continuing to spell your breath in and to spell your breath out. 

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In this guided visualisation exercise you will be encouraged to develop an image in your mind that can bring with it a feeling of peacefulness and relaxation. We carry our imaginations with us everywhere and the imagination can become a tool that we use to bring ourselves into a state of relaxation. 

Close your eyes and bring into your mind a place that for you has elements of peacefulness, calm and relaxation – this may be a real place that you have been to in your life or it may be a place that you are creating in your imagination from bits and pieces of memories or real places 

Once you have started to develop a picture of this place in your mind, start to fill in some of the details in your imagination; 

  • Look around you in that place and notice what objects you can see. 
  • Can you hear anything? 
  • Is it warm, cool, hot, cold in that place? 
  • Is there sunlight, shadow, are you indoors, outdoors? 
  • Is the natural world present in this place? What can you notice? 
  • Is there a breeze or is the air still? 
  • Notice where you are. Try to place yourself in the very middle of this place you have created in your mind – notice what is around you when you are in the middle of it. 

Once you have created the place in your mind – this place that is calm, peaceful and relaxation – just allow yourself to stay there for a little while and enjoy it. 

When you are ready to leave look around you for one thing in that place that you could take home as a memento or souvenir. This could be something that you could hold in your hand – if it is imagine it is now in your hand – or it could be an image, a sound or a sensation that you can carry in your memory. Once you have chosen your memento or souvenir, then take it with you as you gently open your eyes and take note of your surroundings. 

Finally, remembering your souvenir or memento, close your eyes again and use this souvenir as a key to take you back to this place that is peaceful, calm and relaxation. Once you are back there enjoy being there for a few seconds before taking your souvenir/memento and opening your eyes and noticing your surroundings. 

You now know that this is a place you can go to any time, anywhere – you have the souvenir/memento which can be the key to take you there. 

Use this exercise as a way of capturing this place in your imagination when you need it. 

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