Feeling Stressed? Trigger Your Relaxation Response

May 25, 2016

As Dr. Csoka discusses in his new book When the Pressure’s On, being able to trigger the relaxation response is necessary to combat the negative effects too much stress can have on the body. A stressor is determined largely by the perceptions of the individual. Even “good” events can be stressful. For example, a wedding or a vacation can be just as stressful for some as the threat of losing a job. Relaxation techniques have been shown to lower blood pressure, slow the heart rate, and calm brain waves.  They also have been known to reduce the risk of heart disease by 30%, reduce depression recurrence by 50%, significantly reduce the risk of heart attacks, strengthen the immune system, and help treat anxiety and panic attacks.

Below are some simple relaxation techniques that can provide the means for recovery from stress to ensure re-engagement in the moment and continued high performance:

Relaxation Techniques:

Rhythmic Breathing 

Rhythmic breathing involves becoming aware of your breath and deliberately changing the timing of your inhales and exhales.  Focused breathing using the diaphragm stim­ulates major nerves in our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for balancing out our stress response. The exer­cise below is perfect because it often shows noticeable results within minutes, if not seconds.

  • Place a hand on the stomach just below the rib cage and inhale through the nose for about four seconds while feeling the stomach expand. This is followed by a six-second exhale while feeling the stom­ach compress and get pulled toward the spine.


Meditation involves focusing your attention in such a way that you feel calm and gain a deeper awareness of yourself.  The two meditation techniques most commonly used are concen­trative, which focuses on a single image, sound, mantra, or your own breathing, and mindfulness, which emphasizes awareness of all thoughts, feelings, sounds, or images that pass through your mind at the time.

  • Sit quietly for at least ten to fifteen minutes, accompanied by slow, rhythmic breathing.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Pro­gressive muscle relaxation is a technique for learning to gain awareness and control the state of tension of a particu­lar muscle group (since the body responds to stress with tension).

  • In a relaxation session, the objective is to focus on each muscle and then attempt to change the tension by deliberately tensing and relaxing each body area. You can add deep breathing as well by breathing in as you contract the muscles and relaxing them as you breathe out. You will feel the difference between tense and relaxed states.

Autogenic Relaxation  

Autogenic training restores the balance between the activ­ity of the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and the parasympathetic (rest-and-recover) branches of the autonomic nervous system. It teaches your body to respond to your verbal commands. These commands “tell” your body to relax and control breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and body temperature.

  • A relaxation technique would involve imagining your limbs are warm and heavy, breathing is slow and regular, heart rate is steady and slow, your body is relaxed, and your mind is calm.

Guided Imagery Relaxation 

Guided imagery is a relaxation technique that changes thoughts in order to achieve a positive desired outcome.  The brain does not differentiate between real and imag­ined experience; therefore, the body responds to both as though they were real. This principle helps make guided imagery a useful tool for relaxation, since you usually imag­ine soothing, peaceful scenarios.   A key advantage of guided imagery relaxation is that it involves all the senses, making the experience as real as possible.

  • Where is your happy place? The beach?  In guided imagery for relaxation, you would imagine yourself at the beach.  Hear the waves lapping on the shore, feel the sun on your face and skin, and smell the sea and suntan lotion.  Taste the salt air.  Feel that you are actually there. Let your body relax.


The goal of biofeedback training is to increase awareness, understand the physiological responses, and learn ­to manipulate them at will. Biofeedback can pro­vide accurate and real-time feedback on the smallest of changes that might otherwise be imperceptible. As with any learning, even the smallest positive feedback is enough to provide the motivation to continue.

  • There are a number of easy-to-use sensors on the market that allow you to track your heart rate and rhythm; they produce results that you can use to monitor your progress with reaching synchronization between your mental, emotional, and physical states.
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About The Author

LOUIS S. CSOKA, PH.D., has specialized in teaching performance under pressure for more than 30 years, starting as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a soldier in Vietnam. As a Professor of Psychology & Leadership at West Point, he adapted sports psychology to the demands of the military and founded the school’s pioneering Center for Enhanced Performance. He now serves as President of Apex Performance, which trains clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to professional athletes. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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