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Codependency Recovery and Managing Anxiety, Part II: Relaxation

A close-up picture of a woman's face shows her smiling and breathing deeply. In the first article in this series I discussed getting support from a therapist, finding out the facts, and beginning a regular exercise routine. After aerobic exercise, the next step to managing your anxiety is to learn relaxation training. Just as we have a stress response that raises our heart rate and speeds up our respiration, we have a relaxation response that does the opposite. Our relaxation training focuses on breathing properly. Sounds simple, right? We breathe constantly all our lives. Unknowingly, when we feel stressed, our breathing becomes shallow; we rapidly inhale and barely exhale until, finally, our body has to breathe out and we generally sigh. In order to sigh, one has to exhale.

To learn relaxation breathing, first become aware of your respiration. Inhale and exhale several times. The key to relaxation is to exhale fully. Relaxation training requires a daily practice session to become proficient in it. When you practice, please start with the following:

  • Find a quiet, comfortable environment
  • Wear loose fitting clothes
  • Sit with your legs uncrossed
  • Keep your hands relaxed and at your sides
  • Relax your jaw
  • Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth

There are various breathing patterns that you may use. A beginner should breathe in for three seconds and out for three seconds, repeating this three times. It is not easy to exhale when you feel anxious, so the practice will help. Keep practicing and gradually increase the number of seconds you inhale and exhale. When you increase to four seconds, breathe in for four seconds and out for four seconds, repeating this four times. You may keep increasing up to a maximum of six-second inhalations and  six-second exhalations, repeating this six times. Remember, always try to breathe all the way out. Try to force the last little bit of air out. Another tip that many people find helpful is to imagine inhaling calming air and exhaling all the stress and tension.

For many, the simple act of inhaling and exhaling deeply is enough to decrease their anxiety. Others may benefit from taking the relaxation process to the next level. The next level includes three different options. They are:

Guided Imagery

Before beginning the second level of relaxation, first do your deep-breathing exercise. With guided imagery, you imagine yourself in a scene that is relaxing to you. For some people it is being close to the ocean, mountains, in a forest, or other outdoor area. For others, it might be sitting in a hot tub, having a pedicure, or being at home with no children to take care of or interrupt you. Whatever it is, imagine what you see, hear, and feel. Some people find this easier to do with their eyes closed. Really spend time exploring all the sensory input you would feel in that setting.

Autogenic Messages

With autogenic messaging, you attempt to do self-hypnosis by giving yourself a soothing message. Repeat each message three times, then say, “I feel calm and relaxed.” For example, you may say, “My right arm is heavy, my right arm is heavy, my right arm is heavy, and I feel calm and relaxed.” You would then continue on with the same repeated message to your left arm, your right leg, your left leg, and your whole body.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

You may have done progressive muscle relaxation at the end of an exercise class. With progressive muscle relaxation, you tighten each muscle in the body, one at a time, for eight seconds, and then let them go for eight seconds, while you feel all the tension leaving your body. You begin with your feet, and then individually progress to your calves, thighs, buttocks, lower abdominals, upper abdominals, hands, arms, shoulders, chest, and face. In each case, you tighten for eight seconds, release for eight seconds, then progress to the next one. At the very end, you tighten them all in order, beginning with the feet and ending with the face. During this process, you do not release until the very end. At the end, imagine releasing all the tension from your body. When you inhale, imagine you are breathing in calming air, and when you exhale, you are breathing out all of the stress.

Exercise and relaxation training will give you a good start managing your anxiety. These are both healthy techniques. The next step is cognitive behavioral techniques, which is a fancy way of saying changing your thinking and behaviors.

© Copyright 2010 by Joyce Henley, MSW, LCSW, CEAP, SAP. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • viki

    November 22nd, 2010 at 12:46 PM

    it’s amazing how a breathing technique can help so much.I constantly used to be stressed.and that is when a friend suggested a form of yoga with a stress on breathing techniques.I have been using it ever since and feel much relaxed and less stressed now.

  • Joyce McLeod Henley

    November 22nd, 2010 at 5:25 PM

    Vicki, thank you for sharing your experience. I am so glad that you have benefitted from your yoga and deep breathing. You are using such a wonderful, healthy way to handle anxiety. Best of all, it works!

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