It is not possible for our bodies to be both relaxed and tense at the same time. Relaxing the body helps the mind to calm down. Consequently, learning to relax is a very useful skill for managing test anxiety. For maximum benefit, these skills should be practiced daily and over a period of time, as one would practice a musical instrument or a new language.
For the most benefit, practice one or more of these relaxation exercises daily. After several weeks, you may begin to notice an overall decrease in tension, both mentally and physically.
To practice, find a time when you will not be interrupted (put a "do not disturb" sign on your door, turn off your phone, etc.) and a place where your body can be comfortably supported. A bed or cushioned floor are often best, but be sure to put something under your neck and knees. Otherwise, a firm, comfortable chair will work. It may help to lower the light in the room and to listen with your eyes closed as you work through an exercise. If your mind strays, gently bring it back to a focus on your breathing and the dialog in the exercise.
The exercises may be downloaded to an MP3 player. These MP3s are made possible by the Counseling Service with special thanks to communications studies major Steve Hogan '08, composer of the music:
The Progressive Relaxation Exercise (MP3): Recorded by Steve Sprinkle, former director of the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Counseling Center, this exercise is loosely based on a technique described in Chapter 4 of the 5th edition of The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, a best-selling self-help book.
The Combination Relaxation Exercise (MP3): Recorded by Bonnie Lambourn, one of the psychologists at the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Counseling Center, this exercise blends several relaxation techniques, which used together can have a synergistic effect in creating a deep relaxation experience. It is loosely based on Chapter 11 of the 5th edition of The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook.
Adapted from Edmond Jacobson, M.D.
Learning to relax one's body intentionally can make a significant difference in managing both physical tension and emotional anxiety. It is difficult to feel anxious or frightened when one's body is deeply relaxed. Practice this skill daily, in a time and place without interruption. Wear loose, comfortable clothing that doesn’t bind you, and find a comfortable position in a chair or on a flat surface, where all parts of your body are well supported. Extend your legs and let your arms lie easily by your side. Close your eyes, clear your mind, and take several deep abdominal breaths to calm and focus your mind.
Repeat each tensing and relaxing cycle twice with each muscle group described. Tighten each muscle group for seven seconds, then allow the muscles to relax for 20 seconds or more. Do this twice for each muscle group. Continue taking deep, slow abdominal breaths as you tighten and release each muscle group. Continue to repeat relaxing phrases such as "let go, relax" or "you are more deeply relaxed as you breathe freely and evenly."
Begin with your arms, clenching both hands tightly and making them into fists. Squeeze them tightly, noticing the muscles contracting and experiencing the tension in your hands. Then let go of the tension, let your hands relax and experience the sensation of relaxation as you continue to breathe freely and evenly. Notice the difference between the tension and the relaxation.
Bend both elbows and tighten your biceps. Squeeze your biceps together tightly, feel the contract and experience the tension. Then let go of the tension, and as before, notice the difference between the tension and the relaxation.
To tighten your triceps, straighten your arms and push down as hard as you can with the palm of your hand. Hold for seven seconds, release, breathe deeply.
Moving to your head, lift your eyebrows as high as you can and feel the tension in your forehead. Hold the tension, then let your brow drop and smooth out. Notice the difference between the tension and the relaxation.
Bring every part of your face toward your nose and hold it there. Feel the tension in various parts of your face. Relax, breathing freely and enjoying the difference.
Close your eyes as tightly as you are able and feel the tension in your face. At the same time, smile with your mouth closed as wide as you are able, then hold, relax, and continue to breathe.
Clench your jaw and push your tongue up to the roof of your mouth. Again, hold for 7 seconds, relax for 20 seconds and repeat the exercise. Be aware of your arms and hands being deeply relaxed, continue to breathe in and out freely and evenly.
Press your head as far back as it can comfortably go. Gently roll it to the right, then to the left. Straighten your head, bringing it forward, and press your chin against your chest. Feel the tension in your neck at each point. Relax, and let your head return to a comfortable position.
Bring your shoulders as close to your ears as you can, hunching your head down into them. Hold for 7 seconds, then with an exhale, relax and return to deep, calm breathing. Feel relaxation spread through your shoulders and neck, repeat the exercise, and enjoy the relaxation again.
Take some deep diaphragmatic breaths and allow your body to sink more deeply into relaxation.
Continuing with the tense-release cycle and repeating each cycle twice, move to the following muscle groups:
Continue the deep breathing, enjoying the relaxation, and scanning your body slowly for any remaining tense spots. Return to the tense-release cycle if a muscle group remains tense. After a time of relaxed breathing, stretch and sit carefully upright until you are ready to stand.
This is a technique that may have limited results initially, but with practice, it will be possible to relax your whole body in only a few minutes.
Be careful when tensing the neck and back to avoid muscle or spinal damage. Go gently in these places, and avoid over-tightening any muscle group to avoid cramping.
We are born knowing how to breathe from our abdomen, but the stress of daily life causes the muscles in our body to hold onto a certain amount of tension. One set of muscles that often tenses as a result of chronic stress are the muscles in the walls of your abdomen. When these muscles tighten, they push against your diaphragm as it extends downward to begin each new breath. This limits the amount of air you are able to inhale, and results in a shallow breath, centered high up in the chest.
High, shallow breaths can lead to lack of oxygen, more rapid breathing, and eventually, even hyperventilation. You may feel dizzy or disoriented and as if you are not getting enough air. Your heart may beat quickly. You may feel that you are having a heart attack, and these physical sensations can escalate into a full-blown panic attack.
Deep abdominal breathing allows carbon dioxide and other wastes to be removed from your body, and more oxygen to reach your bloodstream. You have more physical energy, because oxygen is going to the muscles, and you have a greater ability to think clearly due to increased oxygen supply. Finally, deeper breaths will allow you to feel less anxious and more focused.
To practice abdominal breathing for relaxation, set aside 10 or 15 minutes a day at a time and place where you will not be interrupted. Lying comfortably on your back or sitting in a supportive chair, get comfortable and loosen any tight clothing that might be distracting.
Breathe in and out a few times and notice where your breath is centered. Note whether it is your chest or your abdomen that moves in and out as you breathe. Try to breathe in through your nose, as this will warm and filter the air.
Next, place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen, below your rib cage. Breathe in, letting your breath fill your lungs to their very lowest point. A hand on your abdomen should rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. Place your other hand on your chest, where it should remain fairly still.
Breathe in and out in a gentle and complete way. Breathe at a pace that is comfortable to you. Let go of any straining or sense of forced breathing; let the air fill your lungs in a relaxed and complete way.
As your breath becomes more regular, begin to count every time you exhale. After 10 exhalations, start the count over again and count to 10 exhalations again continue to breathe fully and deeply from your abdomen, counting exhalations in groups of 10 and returning to the count when your mind is distracted or wonders. Continue breathing and focusing on the count for approximately 10 minutes.
Try to practice relaxed abdominal breathing daily, as many days of the week as possible. As you become more comfortable breathing abdominally, you will be able to use this skill to relax in any situation of stress.