Relaxation Exercises

Relaxation exercises are easy to learn and implement, and can be remarkably effective in addressing stress, test anxiety, all kinds of phobias, and other similar concerns. Below are two exercises recorded by Dr. Steve Sprinkle, director of the Counseling Center here at USD, and Dr. Bonnie Lambourn, a staff psychologist at Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Counseling Center.

The first exercise, called a “Progressive Relaxation Exercise,” is loosely based on one described in Chapter 4 of The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (5th edition), a best-selling self-help book (see more about this book below). This exercise will direct you to systematically relax your major muscle groups by briefly flexing your muscles and then slowly releasing the tension. It begins by having you flex your facial muscles, and continues with your neck and shoulders, and on down to your arms, abdomen, and legs. The exercise ends by directing you to breathe deeply and slowly as you review parts of your body. The recording is about nine minutes long.

The second exercise, called a “Combination Relaxation 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 Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (5th edition, see more below). In this exercise, you will progressively release tension from your major muscle groups, and then will be guided in using deep breathing, affirming statements, and the visualization of a “safe place” to achieve a relaxed state. The recording is about 15 minutes long.

You can listen to either exercise directly from this website, or you can download the exercises onto your computer. The recordings of these exercises are not copyrighted—they can be freely used or copied to a cd, computer hard drive, MP3 player, etc. View a Relaxation Exercise in Spanish.

Steps for using the relaxation exercises

  1. Try to practice whichever exercise you prefer at least once or twice a day. Expect your ability to relax to improve as you continue practicing, and expect to practice two or three weeks before you become genuinely proficient. Once you learn how to do one of the exercises, you may no longer require the recorded instructions, and you can tailor the exercise to your own liking.
  2. Avoid practicing within an hour before or after a meal (either hunger or feeling full may distract you). Also avoid practicing immediately after engaging in vigorous exercise.
  3. Sit quietly and in a comfortable position, with your legs uncrossed and your arms resting at your sides. This is especially important when you are first learning the exercise.
  4. Adopt a calm, accepting attitude towards your practice. Don't worry about how well you're doing or about possible interruptions. Instead, know that with repetition your ability to relax will grow.
  5. When you are ready, close your eyes, begin listening to the recording, and follow the directions. As you complete the exercise, you can expect your mind to wander a bit—when this happens you can simply re-direct your focus back to the recording.
  6. Once you've finished, stretch, look around and remain still another minute or two.
  7. As you become skilled with either of the exercises, try applying them to specific situations that might otherwise be anxiety provoking, such as tests, oral presentations, difficult social situations, job interviews, insomnia, and so forth. If you need help learning or applying the exercises, consider meeting with a counselor at the Counseling Center. Learn how to access services.

Additional resources

The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (5th edition), by Martha Davis, Elizabeth R. Eshelman, and Matthew McKay is a popular self-help book that provides a wide variety of sensible, straightforward, and effective strategies for addressing everyday stress. The book was published in 2000 by New Harbinger Publications. The book is available from Internet booksellers and most large conventional bookstores. View the publisher’s website.

Special thanks to Mike Black, manager of WEOS Public Radio in Geneva, New York, for his help in recording the relaxation exercises. Learn more about WEOS.