Relaxation exercises have been proven to have a calming effect on the nervous system. They are therefore particularly helpful in reducing tension and nervousness in anxiety disorders. This in turn leads to fewer anxiety attacks overall. If an anxiety attack does occur, they help your body to regulate itself more quickly. Relaxation exercises thus offer good support on your way out of anxiety. You can find an overview of scientifically recognized relaxation exercises to reduce anxiety and panic in this article.
About 100 years ago, the physician Edmund Jacobson discovered that mentally ill people also suffer from muscle tension and physical states of tension and excitement. To counteract this, he developed progressive muscle relaxation (PME), also called progressive muscle relaxation (PMR).
In progressive muscle relaxation, we tense various muscle groups one after the other in a specific sequence, hold the tension for a few seconds and then release it again. In this way, we learn to consciously perceive differences between tension and relaxation and thus to actively induce relaxation ourselves. Progressive means progressive. On the one hand, it means progressively integrating more and more muscle groups into the exercises. On the other hand, over time, perceiving certain muscle groups as belonging together and actively letting go. In the long run, this has a relaxing effect not only on our body, but also on our psyche. In other words, this is a really effective relaxation technique for anyone who doesn’t want to lie down exclusively, but also wants to be active.
Autogenic training is a relaxation technique that can best be understood as a kind of self-hypnosis. The goal is to form a relaxation from the inside through mental concentration on the body. We focus especially on the calmness, heaviness and warmth in our body. This is built up one after the other and spoken through three times in a row. This usually sounds spoken in thought, something like this: “My left leg is all warm and heavy“. Through these so-called autosuggestions, the subconscious is activated to influence the body.
When we reduce stress in our daily lives, we also take away some of the breeding ground for our anxiety. The relaxation technique MBSR, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, teaches us how to direct our attention and go through everyday life more mindfully. We learn this through various body awareness exercises (e.g. body scan), breathing, yoga and meditation exercises. Above all, it is about perceiving the moment without judgment.
Through biofeedback, we can learn to perceive unconscious processes in the body and to influence them in a targeted manner. These can be the heartbeat, pulse or brain waves. We are connected to medical-technical devices that measure these processes and make them directly perceptible to us through visual signals or sounds. The goal is to positively influence these processes through breathing or relaxation and to learn through feedback (e.g. a green light) when and through which behavior the relaxed state occurs. Through practice we learn to induce this state even without technical devices.
In the classical sense, sport is not a relaxation exercise, but it is a helpful method to quickly reduce stress hormones. Because due to anxiety, the body releases more stress hormones. Exercise not only makes the body sweat out stress hormones, but also releases the happiness hormone endorphin. Endorphins make us feel relaxed and comfortable in our skin. This in turn allows us to keep a cooler head when we are anxious or panic attacks arise. Endurance exercise, in particular, has been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety symptoms. Just 30 minutes a day is enough.
Not only endurance sports, but also meditation and meditative sports are considered scientifically recognized methods to reduce tension and anxiety. These include, among others, Tai Chi, Qigong and Yoga.
According to studies, meditation has a direct effect on areas of the brain that regulate our emotions. The point is not, as is often assumed, to “think of nothing“, but to allow thoughts to arise, to perceive them, but not to evaluate them and thus to let them pass. One practices being present in the moment and consciously perceiving one’s environment.
Tai Chi and Qigong are considered traditional Chinese movement arts. Both include flowing, deliberate movement sequences that promote relaxation and concentration, as well as bring the body’s energies to flow. Qigong is part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and pursues a health goal by activating the self-healing powers. Tai Chi, on the other hand, belongs to the martial arts and is more dynamic in its execution than Qigong.
Yoga includes holistic physical exercises that strengthen, stretch and relax the muscles. Among other things, this has a healthy effect on the cardiovascular system, lowers stress hormones and reduces anxiety. In yoga, there is also an increased focus on breathing techniques (pranayama). Pranayama has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety by having a direct calming effect on the nervous system.
Here’s a little rule of thumb for calming breathing: exhale twice as long as you inhale.
Anxiety is accompanied by shallow breathing and palpitations. Through the breath we can directly influence our heart rate. The next time anxiety arises, try to breathe in as gently as possible through the nose and breathe out through a minimally open mouth for twice as long. It’s okay to make a pfff sound when you do this. Make sure you exhale all your air. If you can manage it, then pause breathing completely for a brief moment before gently inhaling again. After just a few such breaths, you’ll notice your heartbeat becoming noticeably calmer and your body relaxing.
In order to notice initial changes and also to record long-term relaxation successes, it is important to practice regularly over a longer period of time. In addition to on-site courses, there are many freely accessible online offerings. Simply enter the respective relaxation method in the search engine, app store or video and streaming portal of your choice. Some relaxation methods are also supported and subsidized by health insurance companies. To find out about individual offers for relaxation techniques, contact your health insurance provider directly.
Important: Relaxation exercises should not be used if you are in the middle of an acute panic attack or confrontation exercise!