I’ve read a couple of books by Dan Goleman, who is most famous for being the author of Emotional Intelligence, but this is the first time I’ve encountered one of his audio programs, and I was pleasantly surprised.
Relax: Six Techniques to Lower Your Stress is, as you might expect, about stress and how to relax. It offers six guided practices intended to help develop a sense of ease, relaxation, and wellbeing.
In the introduction, Goleman points out that there are many and varied symptoms of stress, including psychological tension, muscle tension, and nervous system arousal, and that not everyone experiences stress in the same way. Therefore, not every antidote to stress will work for everyone, and each person needs to find relaxation methods that work for them. It’s worth bearing that in mind while reading my review; just because I found a particular exercise more or less effective than others doesn’t mean that you’d have the same results.
Title: Relax: 6 Techniques to Lower Your Stress
Author: Daniel Goleman
Publisher: More Than Sound
Available from: More Than Sound as a CD or MP3 download, and from Amazon.com (CD only).
The program on the whole is quite short, at 43 minutes and 33 seconds, and a fair amount of this time is introductory material. But don’t let that put you off; the practical material is very effective, and the entire audio program has a sense of spaciousness. In fact people who are stressed would probably be better focusing on a brief program containing short exercises like this than on a longer program that they don’t have time to listen to.
The six exercises are as follows:
- Deep breathing: taking long, slow, deep breaths.
- Muscle relaxation: systematically tensing and relaxing major muscle groups
- Autosuggestion: dropping into the mind key phrases that induce a sense of physical relaxation.
- Countdown: a series of actions accompanying a count down from twelve to one.
- Breath focus: simply paying attention to the neutral sensation of the breathing.
- Breath count: counting the in and out breaths, and using mental focus to help you drop tension and worry.
Goleman’s presentation is authoritative, assured, and reassuring. Early on he mentions his background at Harvard, and discusses scientific research, and this helps reassure the listener that they’re in the hands of someone who has a deep background in the topic of stress and emotional regulation.
The guidance is well-paced, and accompanied by what you could call “free time” — time in which the listener can practice on her own without guidance. There is some gentle background music accompanying the dialog and running through the “free time.” The music is unobtrusive, although at times I was reminded of the “angelic” keyboard music that I’ve heard at funeral homes. That’s not entirely a bad association, though. At times as I listened to this program I felt like I was ceremoniously saying farewell to my stress.
I found that the individual exercises varied in their effectiveness, but remember that your mileage may vary. Your stress response may manifest differently from mine, and a tool that doesn’t work for me may be just what you need in order to relax deeply.
The first exercise, Deep Breathing, worked well. We simply take long, deep, slow breaths and let go of them, with the hand on the belly. In a stressed state, the breath becomes shallow, quick, and short, and breathing more slowly helps us to bring our physiology back into balance. In addition, simple body awareness has a grounding effect on the mind (as long as you get beyond noticing only the body’s tension).
The Deep Muscle Relaxation exercise involves systematically and consciously tensing and relaxing large muscle groups. This exercise was actually counter-productive for me. I found the periods of tensing to be too long compared to the periods of relaxing, and I ended up with a headache. But remember that not all techniques work for everyone.
I found the Autosuggestion exercise to be very effective. We just notice various parts of the body in turn while dropping in a phrase, allowing the body to respond without trying to relax. So we may notice the eyes and repeat “my eyes are soft and relaxed” This is an exercise I’ll definitely take up. I had one caveat: one of the instructions was to become aware of the heartbeat, repeating “My heartbeat is calm and regular.” Here we hit the problem of affirmations sometimes not being true. Research has shown that affirmations backfire with many people, because in repeating them they’re reminded that they’re very far from the state that they’re telling themselves they’re in. If, for example, you’re so stressed that your heartbeat is pounding and erratic, then simply noticing that fact would likely make your stress worse. Telling yourself under these circumstance that your heartbeat is calm and regular could induce even more stress. But again, this is a case where Your Mileage May Vary. Not all these exercises are going to work with everyone. And in any event, the listener could do this exercise on her own in a modified way, where the statement are true, and where stress triggers are avoided.
The Countdown exercise is described as being “simple,” but in fact it’s a complicated sequence of actions and suggestions accompanying a countdown from twelve to one. I rather liked the fact that I never knew what was coming next. The exercise constantly takes you by surprise, stopping you from getting into a rut, and making it very effective. However, of all the exercises I thought that this one would be too complex to be practiced alone. As long as you’re listening to the audio program, however, there would be no problem.
In Breath Focus, we’re back to a simple form of mindfulness of the breathing. This was a reminder to me of how much can be accomplished in less than five minutes. This in fact seemed like a much longer meditation, and also seemed oddly spacious.
Finally, there is the Breath Count, where we focus on the neutral sensation of the breathing to help us let go of stressful thoughts, and we count at the end of each in and out breath: In – 1 – out – 2 – in – 3 – out – 4 – etc. When we reach ten we start the counting over again. This is a very simple practice, and again it’s led in a very spacious way. After leading us through the practice a couple of times, Goleman gives us space to practice on our own. I suspect that for many people with very busy minds, there perhaps would be a need for more reminders to come back to their experience.
At the end of the exercises there are nice reminders to scan our experience and to take our time going on to our next activity.
This is probably not a CD that will appeal to experienced meditators, but then that’s not the target audience. For people who are stressed and who want simple exercises that help them to develop greater relaxation, this is an excellent program.