The profound effect of stress on our health has led to increased interest in relaxation. Less stress may be a byproduct of practices such as yoga, tai chi, hypnosis and massage, or it can be approached directly through meditation, biofeedback and specific relaxation techniques such as guided imagery. Used daily, these practices can be useful tools for slowing down the body and stilling the mind.
There are four major types of relaxation technique:
* Autogenic training uses visual imagery and body awareness to reach deep relaxation. After imagining a peaceful place, the person then focuses on physical sensations such as warmth and heaviness in the limbs, easy natural breathing or a calm slow heartbeat.
* Progressive muscle relaxation involves a slow tensing and releasing of each muscle group from top to toes.
* Meditation such as Transcendental Meditation (a mantra [a single word or phrase] is repeated) and mindfulness meditation (attention focuses on moment-by-moment thoughts and sensations) works for many.
* Guided imagery uses a range of techniques, from simple imagery-based suggestion to metaphor and storytelling. This is also used to teach psychophysiological relaxation to relieve symptoms, stimulate healing and to help people tolerate procedures and treatments more easily.
How does it work?
Most of the evidence for the benefits of relaxation comes from studying meditation. But there 's proof that other relaxation techniques, such as visualisation and guided imagery, can also improve our sense of wellbeing.
Relaxation can reduce the perception of pain. Indeed, in one study, visualisation before surgery not only reduced the need for painkillers, but also prevented haematomas (bleeding into tissues) (Zentralbl Chir, 2000; 125: 380-6).
Relaxation also enhances coping skills in migraine sufferers, and reduces stress and improves mood in people with cancer. In those with sleep problems, practising relaxation for 20 minutes increased sleeping time by 30 minutes (Biofeedback Self Regul, 1976; 1: 253-71). Muscle relaxation, but not other techniques, helped asthma sufferers (Thorax, 2002; 57: 127-31).
Techniques such as biofeedback, relaxation, guided imagery and exercise can boost the immune system (Biofeedback Self Regul, 1993; 18: 1-22; Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1994; 26: 182-90).
Other data show that relaxation can help premenstrual syndrome (Obstet Gynecol, 1990; 75: 649-55), hypertension (Stroke, 2000; 31: 568-73) and anxiety (J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry, 1999; 30: 191-8), as well as IBS, rheumatoid arthritis, headaches, ulcerative colitis and stroke rehabilitation.
The purpose of this PROOF! Panel review was to find out which guided relaxation tapes/CDs really could help users relax. The products surveyed used a variety of approaches, including guided imagery and suggestion, music and other sounds, focused breathing and muscle relaxation.
Some provided quick five-minute sessions while others required a half-hour to an hour to complete the session. Only one programme, InnerTalk 's Accelerated Healing & Well Being, could be played in the background without the need for active listening, and this proved to be immensely popular with many of our panellists.
Most of our 12 panel members had had some experience of this kind of relaxation before taking part in our trial. Nevertheless, our survey was arranged so that the products requiring the most time, experience and ability were tested last. Each product was used for a week, with short intervals in between. Ratings were given for each product individually, but the total effect of using regular relaxation was also evaluated and scored.
Overall, scores were based on: how informative and appealing the packaging was; how well the programme fit into everyday life; the quality of the imagery, production values and programme; whether users found it relaxing; and whether they would continue to use the product after the trial.
Several important points emerged from this survey. For some panel members, committing to the time required was a problem. On receiving the tapes/CDs, two panellists dropped out immediately because they simply didn 't have the time to commit to the trial. The rest of our panel, however, used the programmes an average of four times a week - even the longer ones.
Each of the products had some redeeming features. First, you can't tell a tape or CD by its cover. The Philip Rogers and Jane Duncan CDs both looked somewhat downmarket - three of our panel members said they would have preferred not to have photos of the facilitators on the covers. Yet, many of our panellists found these useful.
In contrast, Yogafusion's Ultimate Relaxation Guide was beautifully presented, with many testers finding it initially useful. But, unlike InnerTalk 's Accelerated Healing & Well Being and Seashore Sunset by Nature's Way - which the majority continued to use - only three carried on using this Guide after the trial ended.
The difference between products was often subtle and subjective. As one panel member put it, "The voice of the person is as important as the content. The music also plays a major role and needs to be just right ". Without attention to these details, a relaxation programme can easily be jarring and intrusive instead of calming and beneficial. Given that many of these types of products are available by mail order, it is worth potential buyers first checking whether they can be returned if they are found to be unsatisfactory.
Two of the CDs, both produced by InnerTalk, used subliminal affirmations. These were generally benign in nature and are also printed on the inner sleeves. Accelerated Healing & Well Being included affirmations such as 'I am positive', 'I am whole', 'I am healthy' and 'I love living'. However, along with words such as 'good', 'calm', 'relaxed', 'safe', 'secure' and 'forgiving', the affirmations used in Hyperemperia also made mention of 'God', which one panel member, an atheist, felt unhappy about.
Time of use was also important. Programmes that offered short meditations were most often used during the day whereas longer or more complex programmes, such as Hyperemperia were mostly used at night. Several panel members found Tina Everett 's Relax and Release, which helped to release 'body armour', particularly useful after work.
Almost anything that absorbs a person completely and allows them to forget their troubles can come under the heading of 'relaxation'. Thus, activities such as yoga, reading and gardening can all be considered forms of relaxation. Nevertheless, as our survey reveals, some people can derive genuine benefit from more structured forms of relaxation.
For example, one panellist, who suffers from IBS, found that the relaxation practice unknotted her stomach. After listening to Accelerated Healing & Well Being, another had a breakthrough in her counselling, although this may have been just a coincidence. Yet another panel member listened to A Walk in the Country, and then took her dog out for a walk. "It was as if I was seeing and hearing everything for the first time," she said.
Others experienced greater awareness of body tension - and were able to release it more quickly. Likewise, another noted that "by the end, I was less inclined to fidget, and found it easier to slip back into relaxation when my 'monkey mind' was difficult to control".
Two panel members found that they slept better and awoke more refreshed throughout the trial. And, for about half our panel, the discipline of scheduling time out for oneself was therapeutic and had other benefits: "I have been struggling with a need to use my creativity more. As the trial continued, I found myself doing things like getting my old knitting needles out, sketching and tinkering with short stories ".
Accelerated Healing & Well Being
This CD programme can be played in the background as you go about your daily chores or work. Imbedded in the gentle New Age music are affirmations for wellness, designed to appeal to the subconscious mind. Most of our testers found this product helpful. However, one tester noted that: "Used while I was working, it more often than not gave me a headache". Another panellist also commented that, played during the day, "feelings were occasionally a little too close to the surface".
Although initially expensive, it continued to be used by almost all of our testers afterwards.
Distributor: Nature's Way/Dawn Awakening
On this popular tape, the facilitator's voice is soothing, and the half-hour visualisation on the 'A' side - being in a boat on a gentle sea by a beautiful shoreline - was appealing to many users. The 'B' side of natural seashore sounds was also well-liked but, as one user noted: "How relaxed I felt depended on getting the volume just right; too loud and I found the ocean sounds stimulating rather than relaxing ".
A Walk in the Country
Distributor: Well Being
Although marred by a rather long introduction, this CD's visualisation - a pleasant walk in the country - was well appreciated. However, the programme might have benefited from breaks between the introduction, and the progressive relaxation and visualisation tracks so that, as the user becomes more experienced, he can skip more easily to the desired section.
Five-Minute Relaxation (Philip Rogers)
Distributor: Living Well
As a short relaxation, this was easy to fit in at any time. Many used it at lunchtime at work, and mornings and evenings. However, the packaging left something to be desired, and not everyone liked Rogers ' voice - at least, not at first. But "the more I played the tape, the more I got out of it," commented one panel member.
Life Supports You (Jane Duncan)
Distributor: Living Well
There are two meditations on this tape. The 'A' side has a light meditation, and the 'B' side has one for releasing your 'body armour' (muscle tension). The B side was by far the most popular of the two. However, half of the users found Jane 's voice - in both meditations - rather jarring. The packaging was informative, but the tape "was more aimed at healing physically and emotionally than for relaxing". Two panel members also found that, at first, while trying to release their body armour, they began to feel more irritated, negative and anxious than relaxed. But this improved with practise.
The Ultimate Relaxation Guide
This CD is beautifully presented with an appealing content. Useful features include relaxation options of different durations, making it suitable for use at different times of the day. But one panellist disliked the pace of the programmes - "Too fast, and the woman's voice irritated me".
A unique CD containing Schumann resonance (the magnetic pulse of the earth), this programme is a new form of visualisation. Instead of directing attention inwards into the body, the mind is directed outwards - towards the cosmos. This, however, requires more advanced visualisation skills and not all panel members found it helpful or relaxing. Some found the 43-minute running time too long, and others disliked having to use headphones to hear it. Still others found the imagery "too complex" to be relaxing.
Relax and Release (Tina Everett)
Distributor: Speakeasy Audio
Almost very member of our panel found Tina Everett's voice "too commanding" or "to assertive". The music, too, was "too church-like, not very relaxing". One user, who improved her sleep with the other products, found that she slept less well with this tape. Some felt Tina 's choice of words also left something to be desired. As one panellist said, "Instead of saying 'you might feel faint if you get up too quickly', it would have been better if she had said 'get up slowly after relaxing'."