Relaxation Techniques for Health
What's the Bottom Line?
How much do we know about relaxation techniques?
A substantial amount of research has been done on relaxation techniques. However, for many health conditions, the number or size of the studies has been small, and some studies have been of poor quality.
What do we know about the effectiveness of relaxation techniques?
Relaxation techniques may be helpful in managing a variety of health conditions, including anxiety associated with illnesses or medical procedures, insomnia, labor pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea, and temporomandibular joint dysfunction. Psychological therapies, which may include relaxation techniques, can help manage chronic headaches and other types of chronic pain in children and adolescents. Relaxation techniques have also been studied for other conditions, but either they haven't been shown to be useful, research results have been inconsistent, or the evidence is limited.
What do we know about the safety of relaxation techniques?
Relaxation techniques are generally considered safe for healthy people, although there have been a few reports of negative experiences such as increased anxiety. People with serious physical or mental health problems should discuss relaxation techniques with their health care providers.
What Are Relaxation Techniques?
Relaxation techniques include a number of practices such as progressive relaxation , guided imagery , biofeedback , self-hypnosis, and deep breathing exercises. The goal is similar in all: to produce the body's natural relaxation response, characterized by slower breathing, lower blood pressure, and a feeling of increased well-being.
Meditation and practices that include meditation with movement, such as yoga and tai chi , can also promote relaxation. You can find information about these practices elsewhere on the NCCIH Web site.
Stress management programs commonly include relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques have also been studied to see whether they might be of value in managing various health problems.
The Importance of Practice
Relaxation techniques are skills, and like other skills, they need practice. People who use relaxation techniques frequently are more likely to benefit from them. Regular, frequent practice is particularly important if you're using relaxation techniques to help manage a chronic health problem. Continuing use of relaxation techniques is more effective than short-term use.
Relaxation techniques include the following:
In autogenic training, you learn to concentrate on the physical sensations of warmth, heaviness, and relaxation in different parts of your body.
Biofeedback techniques measure body functions and give you information about them so that you can learn to control them. Biofeedback-assisted relaxation uses electronic devices to teach you to produce changes in your body that are associated with relaxation, such as reduced muscle tension.
Deep Breathing or Breathing Exercises
This technique involves focusing on taking slow, deep, even breaths.
For this technique, people are taught to focus on pleasant images to replace negative or stressful feelings. Guided imagery may be self-directed or led by a practitioner or a recording.
This technique, also called Jacobson relaxation or progressive muscle relaxation , involves tightening and relaxing various muscle groups. Progressive relaxation is often combined with guided imagery and breathing exercises.
In self-hypnosis programs, people are taught to produce the relaxation response when prompted by a phrase or nonverbal cue (called a “suggestion”).
What the Science Says About the Effectiveness of Relaxation Techniques
Researchers have evaluated relaxation techniques to see whether they could play a role in managing a variety of health conditions, including the following:
Studies have shown relaxation techniques may reduce anxiety in people with ongoing health problems such as heart disease or inflammatory bowel disease, and in those who are having medical procedures such as breast biopsies or dental treatment. Relaxation techniques have also been shown to be useful for older adults with anxiety.
On the other hand, relaxation techniques may not be the best way to help people with generalized anxiety disorder. Generalized anxiety disorder is a mental health condition, lasting for months or longer, in which a person is often worried or anxious about many things and finds it hard to control the anxiety. Studies indicate that long-term results are better in people with generalized anxiety disorder who receive a type of psychotherapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy than in those who are taught relaxation techniques.
There hasn't been enough research to show whether relaxation techniques can relieve asthma symptoms in either adults or children.
Relaxation techniques such as guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and breathing techniques may be useful in managing labor pain. Studies have shown that women who were taught self-hypnosis have a decreased need for pain medicine during labor. Biofeedback hasn't been shown to relieve labor pain.
An evaluation of 15 studies concluded that relaxation techniques are better than no treatment in reducing symptoms of depression but are not as beneficial as psychological therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Studies of biofeedback and other relaxation techniques for posttraumatic stress disorder have had inconsistent results.
There's limited evidence that biofeedback or other relaxation techniques might be valuable additions to treatment programs for rheumatoid arthritis.
Ringing in the Ears (Tinnitus)
Only a few studies have evaluated relaxation techniques for ringing in the ears. The limited evidence from these studies suggests that relaxation techniques might be useful, especially in reducing the intrusiveness of the problem.
Limited evidence suggests that guided imagery may be a valuable tool for people who are working to quit smoking.
In a study that compared the two techniques, autogenic training was found to be less effective than cognitive-behavioral therapy as a quit-smoking aid. However, this study involved patients in an alcohol detoxification program, so its results may not be applicable to other people.
Preliminary research suggests that a guided relaxation routine might help reduce cigarette cravings.
Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction
Problems with the temporomandibular joint (the joint that connects the jaw to the side of the head) can cause pain and difficulty moving the jaw. A few studies have shown that programs that include relaxation techniques may help relieve symptoms of temporomandibular joint dysfunction.
What the Science Says About the Safety and Side Effects of Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation techniques are generally considered safe for healthy people. However, occasionally, people report negative experiences such as increased anxiety, intrusive thoughts, or fear of losing control.
There have been rare reports that certain relaxation techniques might cause or worsen symptoms in people with epilepsy or certain psychiatric conditions, or with a history of abuse or trauma. People with heart disease should talk to their health care provider before doing progressive muscle relaxation.
NCCIH is supporting a variety of studies on relaxation techniques. Examples of topics currently being studied include
The use of relaxation techniques and other complementary approaches for back pain in real-world health care settings
Guided imagery and relaxation response training for pain management in hospitalized patients
Who Teaches Relaxation Techniques?
A variety of professionals, including physicians, psychologists, social workers, nurses, and complementary health practitioners, may teach relaxation techniques. Also, people sometimes learn the simpler relaxation techniques on their own.
More to Consider
If you have severe or long-lasting symptoms of any kind, see your health care provider. You might have a condition that needs to be treated promptly. For example, if depression or anxiety persists, it's important to seek help from a qualified health care professional.
Tell all your health care providers about any complementary or integrative health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.
For More Information
The NCCIH Clearinghouse provides information on NCCIH and complementary and integrative health approaches, including publications and searches of Federal databases of scientific and medical literature. The Clearinghouse does not provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.
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