Student Life

Counselling and Personal Development


Relaxation techniques

Learning to relax

The most common concern of students is a fear of failure or of not performing to their desired level of achievement. Many students fall in a heap when exams approach because they are worrying excessively about the results of the examinations.

Students can decrease their level of anxiety by learning how to relax and gain more mental control. If you develop an effective way of keeping mental control and staying calm then your body will respond similarly (Orr 1988, p.97). Learning to relax is a skill that can be mastered with practice. Once you have mastered the technique you will be able to induce a relaxed state quickly and easily whenever you need to and in any situation.

Deep breathing for relaxation

This technique can be used at any time and any place.

Practise: it will take daily practice for several weeks to develop the skill to induce a relaxed state when required. Two 10 to 15 minute sessions, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon or early evening, would be ideal.

Expect to relax: develop the positive expectation that you will relax.

Find a place: where you won’t be interrupted by telephone calls or people.

Make yourself comfortable: sit in a comfortable chair or lie down. Loosen any tight clothing around your neck or waist.

Focus on your breathing: close your eyes and focus your attention on your breathing. Take in a deep breath counting slowly to four, hold to another count of four. Then slowly breathe out saying “relax” to yourself, letting all the tension go as you do so. Continue breathing slowly in and out to the count of four saying “relax” as you breathe out. Expel from your mind any problems or concerns. Think only about your breathing and the release of tension in your body as you release the air. Picture the tension flowing from you.

You can deepen your level of relaxation by fixing your mind on a relaxing scene. Choose a scene that you have experienced as quiet and relaxing, e.g. a long stretch of beach where you can only hear the sound of the surf, the seagulls and the breeze. In your mind, try to experience the warmth of the sun, the smell of the sea, the feel of the sand under your feet and the coolness of the water.

Another alternative is to use positive self-talk while in this relaxed state. Repeat a statement to yourself that will enhance your confidence in an exam situation, such as “I can study effectively and handle the exam calmly”, “I can learn to have control over the way I feel", “I can relax my mind and body and be in control”.

Come slowly out of this state of relaxation. Count from one to five, allowing yourself to become gradually more alert as you count. When you have reached five, open your eyes and stretch your arms and legs so that your body gently returns to a normal state before you get up and resume your daily routine (Orr 1988, pp.96-99; Orr 1992, pp.94-103).

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Progressive muscle relaxation

This relaxation is based on the theory that physical tension leads to mental tension, which then leads to increased mental tension and so on. By breaking this cycle and physically relaxing, mental relaxation can be achieved as well. Progressive muscle relaxation teaches people how to relax as well as how to become aware of unwanted muscle tension.

In this technique you are asked to alternately tense and then relax specific muscle groups. The goal is for you to become aware of the difference between feelings of muscle tension and relaxation. Each muscle group is tensed for 5 to 7 seconds and then relaxed for 20 to 30 seconds, so that the difference between relaxation and tension can be experienced. The procedure is repeated for each muscle group.

Basic Procedure

  • Find a quiet place where you will not be interrupted.
  • Make yourself comfortable – sit in a comfortable position or lie down. Loosen any tight clothing.
  • Relax – you may need to take a couple of minutes to breathe deeply and expel the tension in your body, as described in the deep breathing exercise.

Muscle groups

  • Hands and Forearms. Clench your right fist, tighter and tighter, noticing how the tension feels. Keep it clenched for 5 to 7 seconds and then relax for 20 to 30 seconds. Feel the looseness in your right hand and notice how different this is from the tension. Repeat with your left fist and then both fists at once.
  • Biceps. Bend your elbows and bring your hands up to your shoulders, tensing your biceps as hard as you can. Relax and straighten out your arms. Feel the relaxation, feel the difference. Repeat.
  • Head. Wrinkle your forehead and frown. Notice the strain. Let your forehead become smooth again and feel the difference. Close your eyes and squeeze them tightly. Relax your eyes and let them remain closed. Repeat. Clench your jaw and bite down hard, noticing the tension. Relax. Repeat. Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth – feel the ache at the back of your mouth. Relax. Repeat.
  • Neck. Roll your head to the right and feel the stress in your neck, roll it to the left. Straighten your head and bring it forward, pressing your chin down towards your chest and feel the tension. Drop your shoulders and feel your neck, throat and shoulders relax.
  • Chest. Breathe in deeply and hold your breath, noticing the tension. Let your breath out and your chest relax. Repeat several times and notice the tension flow from your body as you breathe out.
  • Back. Arch your back without straining excessively. Relax. Notice the difference.
  • Abdomen. Tighten stomach muscles and press lower back into the chair or the floor, depending on your chosen position. Notice the tension. Relax.
  • Buttocks and thighs. Tighten your thighs by pressing your heels into the floor as hard as you can. Bend you toes downwards, making your calves tense. Relax. Bend your toes toward your face, creating tension in shins. Relax.
  • Shoulders. Hunch your shoulders up towards your ears. Keep hunched for a few second then relax.

Feel the heaviness throughout your body as you relax more and more deeply.

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The shortened version of progressive muscle relaxation

Follow the basic procedure but contract several muscle groups at the same time.

  • arms and hands: clench fists and tighten biceps and triceps like a body builder, flexing arm muscles
  • face and neck: wrinkle forehead, squeeze eyes shut, clench teeth, tense neck muscles
  • torso: take a deep breath and hold, arch your back and release. Take a deep breath and hold, tighten your stomach muscles several times to promote blood flow
  • stretch your arms, legs and back if you feel your muscles are still tight
  • take another slow deep breath and release slowly, saying “relax” before you return to your exam tasks

Taking it further

  • Beyond Blue - Lots of information on anxiety and depression.
  • The MoodGym - Change the way you hink to reduce your anxiety

Getting Help

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17th March 2011