Autorelaxation - How to do it and dissipate stress

By Edmund Messina, MD
Medical Director
Michigan Headache Clinic
East Lansing, Michigan

The purpose of this technique is to reduce general stress and muscle tension due to stress. When practiced regularly, there is a gradual reduction in the occurrence of tension-type headaches and migraines. Some people report that these techniques can relax a headache which is in the process of starting, but at the very least, consider this as more of a preventative strategy. Some people learn this same technique through the use of biofeedback as a teaching tool. The process is the same.

Find a comfortable place and lie on your back, preferably in a darkened room. Some people use a comfortable chair.

Breathe slowly in and out, saying the word “one” as you are slowly breathing out. (You can use any word you like).  Some people try to visualize a tiny point of white light in the distance while they are doing the breathing exercise

Next, you need to relax your body and this can be done in several ways:
- One way of doing this is to close your eyes and imagine waves of relaxation running down your body from your scalp downwards, washing out stress. Let the waves run in time with your breathing, first washing down over your head, then your neck, then your torso, then arms, and finally your legs. Feel the muscles in your body relaxing as the waves of relaxation wash over them.
-Another way, which may be even more effective, involves gentle contraction and relaxation of muscles starting from your toes and working up. For example, gently move your toes and then relax them, then flex your feet up slightly and relax them, then gently tighten your quadriceps (thigh muscles) and relax them, then buttocks, abdomen, chest, fingers, forearms, biceps, triceps, jaw and the brow. These should be very slight contractions which are slow and gentle, contracting as you breathe in and relaxing as you breathe out. Pay particular attention to your stress muscles, like your trapezius muscles between your neck and shoulders, which can be relaxed by a gentle shrugging movement.

Once you have relaxed your muscles, continue the breathing process for 10 to 20 minutes. You should not be falling asleep; this is not a nap! 

One effective way to time your sessions and enjoy relaxing sounds is to use a smartphone app called “Insight Timer” ($1.99) which provides a comforting tone in a timer. Alternatively, choose a calming sound and let your usual smartphone timer tell you when 10 or 20 minutes has passed.

If you feel you might need an electronic device to help you relax, check out the GSR2 Biofeedback Relaxation System which attaches to your fingers and emits a tone. The more you relax, the lower the pitch will be. These are available on Amazon and other online companies for about $70 and they include a booklet and CD. We have one in the office and the nurses can show it to you. Needless to say, we do not sell them nor do we have any financial connection to anything we recommend.

Whichever approach you choose, please know that there is published evidence supporting the concept that regular relaxation exercises can help reduce the effects of stress and this translates into less headaches.

Give it a try and do it regularly.

To learn more about the Relaxation Response and the work of Dr. Herbert Benson, click here.