Related Terms

  • Autogenic training, behavioral techniques, breath therapy, CBT, chosen relaxation, cognitive behavioral therapy, conscious relaxation, functional relaxation, guided relaxation, hypnotic music, imagery, Jacobson’s progressive, Laura Mitchell approach, meditation passive relaxation, mind/body medicine, mime therapy, muscle relaxation techniques, PMR, progressive muscle relaxation, psychomotor therapy programs, Qi gong, relaxation coping, relaxation exercises, self-hypnosis, Soong (Mandarin), visualization.

Background

  • Relaxation techniques include behavioral therapeutic approaches that differ widely in philosophy, methodology, and practice. The primary goal is usually non-directed relaxation. Most techniques share the components of repetitive focus (on a word, sound, prayer phrase, body sensation, or muscular activity), adoption of a passive attitude towards intruding thoughts, and return to the focus.
  • Deep and brief methods exist. Deep methods include autogenic training, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), and meditation (although meditation is sometimes distinguished from relaxation based on the state of “thoughtless awareness” that is said to occur during meditation). Brief methods include self-control relaxation, paced respiration, and deep breathing. Brief methods generally require less time and often represent an abbreviated form of a deep method. Other relaxation techniques include guided imagery, deep breathing/breathing control, passive muscle relaxation, and refocusing. Applied relaxation involves imagination of relaxing situations with the intention of inducing muscular and mental relaxation. Another popular technique is progressive relaxation, in which the individual is taught what it feels like to relax by comparing relaxation with muscle tension. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is said to require several months of practice at least three times per week in order to be able to evoke the relaxation response within seconds. Relaxation technique instruction is available in many hospitals, in the community, in books, or on audiotapes/videotapes.
  • The term “relaxation response” was coined by Harvard professor and cardiologist Herbert Benson, MD in the early 1970s to describe the physiologic reaction that is the opposite of the stress response. The relaxation response is proposed to involve decreased arousal of the autonomic nervous system and central nervous system as well as increased parasympathetic activity characterized by lowered musculoskeletal and cardiovascular tone and altered neuroendocrine function.
  • Relaxation techniques may be taught by various complementary practitioners, physicians, psychotherapists, hypnotherapists, nurses, clinical psychologists, and sports therapists. There is no formal credentialing for relaxation therapies.
  • Clinical studies suggest that relaxation techniques may be beneficial in patients with anxiety, although these approaches do not appear to be as effective as psychotherapy. For conditions with a strong psychosomatic element, relaxation may be beneficial, although it is not clear if effects are long-term. Relaxation techniques may be used for stress management using self-regulation. There is not enough evidence to form firm conclusions about the effectiveness of relaxation for other conditions. Relaxation has also been suggested in patients after surgery to speed up recovery, require less pain medication, lower blood pressure, and reduce postoperative complications. Relaxation techniques are sometimes used by people with insomnia or other sleep disorders.

Evidence Table

    Disclaimer

    These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.

    Anxiety/stress

    Numerous human studies report that relaxation techniques (for example using audio tapes or group therapy) may moderately reduce anxiety, particularly in individuals without significant mental illness. Relaxation may be beneficial for phobias such as agoraphobia, panic disorder, work-related stress, and anxiety due to serious illnesses, prior to medical procedures, or during pregnancy. However, because there are many types of relaxation techniques used in studies, and many trials do not clearly describe design or results, a strong recommendation cannot be made without better human evidence.

    Angina

    Early research in patients with angina reports that relaxation may reduce anxiety, depression, frequency of angina episodes, need for medication, and physical limitations. Large well-designed studies are needed to confirm these results.

    Asthma

    Preliminary studies of relaxation techniques in individuals with asthma report a significant decrease in asthma symptoms, anxiety, and depression, along with improvements in quality of life and measures of lung function. Further large trials in humans are needed to confirm these results.

    Chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting

    Early human trials report that relaxation techniques may be helpful in reducing nausea related to cancer chemotherapy. Better quality research is necessary before a firm conclusion can be drawn.

    Depression

    There is promising early evidence from human trials supporting the use of relaxation to reduce symptoms of depression,although effects appear to be short-lived. Better quality research is necessary before a firm conclusion can be drawn.

    Fibromyalgia

    Relaxation has been reported to reduce fibromyalgia pain. However, results from other studies are conflicting, and therefore further research is needed before a clear recommendation can be made.

    Headache

    Preliminary evidence suggests that relaxation techniques may be helpful for the reduction of migraine headache symptoms in adults. Study of relaxation in children with headaches has yielded unclear results. Additional research is necessary before a firm conclusion can be drawn.

    Heart attack risk reduction

    Early research of relaxation techniques in people who have had a heart attack suggests that fewer future heart attacks may occur when relaxation is regularly practiced. However, only a small number of patients have been studied, and better research is necessary before a firm conclusion can be reached.

    Heart failure

    Early studies suggest that progressive muscle relaxation training may benefit patients with heart failure when used as an adjunct to standard care.

    High blood pressure

    Relaxation techniques have been associated with reduced pulse rate, systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, lower perception of stress, and enhanced perception of health. Further research is needed to confirm these results.

    HIV/AIDS

    Mental health and quality-of-life improvements have been seen in preliminary studies of HIV/AIDS patients. These findings suggest the need for further, well-controlled research.

    Huntington’s disease

    Preliminary research in patients with Huntington’s disease has evaluated the effects of either multisensory stimulation or relaxation activities (control) for four weeks, with unclear results. Further research is necessary before a conclusion can be drawn.

    Insomnia

    Several human trials suggest that relaxation techniques may be beneficial in people with insomnia, although effects appear to be short-lived. Research suggests that relaxation techniques may produce improvements in some aspects of sleep such as sleep latency and time awake after sleep onset. Cognitive forms of relaxation such as meditation are reported as being slightly better than somatic forms of relaxation such as progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). However, most studies in this area are not well-designed or reported. Better research is necessary before a firm conclusion can be drawn.

    Irritable bowel disease

    Early research in humans suggests that relaxation may aid in the prevention and relief of irritable bowel disease symptoms. Large, well-designed trials are needed to confirm these results.

    Menopausal symptoms

    There is promising early evidence from human trials supporting the use of relaxation techniques to reduce menopausal symptoms,although effects appear to be short-lived. Better quality research is necessary before a firm conclusion can be drawn.

    Obsessive-compulsive disorder

    Results of randomized controlled studies of relaxation techniques for obsessive-compulsive disorder show conflicting results. Further research is needed before conclusions can be drawn.

    Osteoarthritis pain

    In a randomized study of patients with osteoarthritis pain, Jacobson relaxation was reported to lower the level of subjective pain over time. The study concluded that relaxation might be effective in reducing the amount of analgesic medication taken by participants. Further well-designed research is needed to confirm these results.

    Pain

    Most studies of relaxation for pain, including post-operative pain and low back pain, are poor quality and report conflicting results. Better research is necessary before relaxation techniques can be recommended either alone or as an addition to other treatments for acute or chronic pain.

    Paralysis (facial)

    In a randomized clinical trial, mime therapy – including automassage, relaxation exercises, inhibition of synkinesis, coordination exercises, and emotional expression exercises – was shown to be a good treatment choice for patients with sequelae of facial paralysis.

    Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)

    There is early evidence that progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) training may improve physical and emotional symptoms associated with PMS. Further research is necessary before a conclusion can be drawn.

    Rheumatoid arthritis

    Limited preliminary research reports that muscle relaxation training may improve function and well-being in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Additional research is necessary before a conclusion can be reached.

    Smoking cessation

    Early research reports that relaxation with imagery may reduce relapse rates in people who successfully completed smoking cessation programs. Better study is needed in this area before a firm conclusion can be reached.

    Syncope (neurocardiogenic)

    A small study showed that biofeedback assisted relaxation (BFRT) benefits patients with neurocardiogenic syncope. Further study is necessary to confirm these results.

    Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)

    Relaxation therapy has been associated with benefits in preliminary studies of tinnitus patients. Further research is needed to confirm these results.

    Well-being

    Studies assessing relaxation to improve psychological well-being and “calm” in multiple types of patients have reported positive results, although the results of most trials have not been statistically significant. Although this research is suggestive, additional work is merited in this area before a firm conclusion can be drawn.

    Myocardial infarction (heart attack)

    Initial research in which patients were given an advice and relaxation audiotape within 24 hours of hospital admission for a heart attack found a reduction in the number of misconceptions about heart disease, but no benefits on measured health-related outcomes.

    Post-traumatic stress disorder

    Relaxation has been studied for post-traumatic stress disorder with no benefit seen in these patients.

*Key to grades:

Tradition

    Disclaimer

    The below uses are based on tradition, scientific theories, or limited research. They often have not been thoroughly tested in humans, and safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider. There may be other proposed uses that are not listed below.

Safety

    Disclaimer

    Many complementary techniques are practiced by healthcare professionals with formal training, in accordance with the standards of national organizations. However, this is not universally the case, and adverse effects are possible. Due to limited research, in some cases only limited safety information is available.

Attribution

  • This information is based on a systematic review of scientific literature edited and peer-reviewed by contributors to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration ().

Bibliography

    Disclaimer

    Natural Standard developed the above evidence-based information based on a thorough systematic review of the available scientific articles. For comprehensive information about alternative and complementary therapies on the professional level, go to . Selected references are listed below.

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