- Autogenic Training
- Guided Imagery
- Guided Visualizations
- Imagery, Guided
- Jacobsen's Relaxation Technique
- Mindfulness Meditation
- Mildfulness-based Cognitive Therapies
- Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR)
- Relaxation Response
- Transcendental Meditation (TM)
- Visualizations, Guided
Principal Proposed Uses
Other Proposed Uses
- Anxiety of Various Types
- Back Pain
- Bulimia Nervosa
- Cancer Treatment Support
- Colds (Prevention)
- Congestive Heart Failure
- Herpes (Prevention)
- HIV Support
- Immune Support
- Interstitial Cystitis
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Migraine Headaches
- Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)
- Pregnancy Support
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Stroke Rehabilitation
- Tension Headaches
- Ulcerative Colitis
Constant stress is one of the defining features of modern life, and the source of many common health problems. Stress plays an obvious role in nervousness, anxiety, and insomnia, but it is also thought to contribute to a vast number of other illnesses.
In the past, most people engaged in many hours of physical exercise daily, an activity that reduces the effects of psychological stress. Life was also slower then and more in harmony with the natural cycles of day and season. Today, however, our bodies are relatively sedentary, while our minds are forced to respond to the rapid pace of a society that never stops. The result is high levels of stress and reduced ability to cope with it.
There are several ways to mitigate the damage caused by stress. Increased physical exercise can help, as can simple, common sense steps like taking relaxation breaks and vacations. If these approaches don’t have adequate results, there are more formal methods that may be helpful.
This article discusses a group of stress-reduction techniques often called relaxation therapies . In addition to these methods, yoga , Tai Chi , hypnosis , massage , and biofeedback can also help induce a relaxed state. For potentially helpful herb and supplement options, see the Stress article.
What Are Relaxation Therapies?
There are many types of relaxation therapies, and they use a variety of techniques. However, most of them share certain related features.
In a great many relaxation techniques, one begins by either lying down or assuming a relaxed, seated posture in a quiet place and closing the eyes. The next step differs depending on the method. In autogenic training, relaxation response, and certain forms of meditation, one focuses one’s mind on internal sensations, such as the breath. Guided-imagery techniques employ deliberate visualization of scenes or actions, such as walking on a quiet beach. Progressive relaxation techniques involve gradual relaxation of the muscles. Finally, some schools of meditation incorporate the repetition of a phrase or sound silently or aloud.
All of these techniques are best learned with the aid of a trained practitioner. The usual format is a group class supplemented by regular home practice. If you are diligent enough, experience suggests that you can develop the ability to call on a relaxed state at will, even in the middle of a very stressful situation.
What Are Relaxation Therapies Used for?
Relaxation therapies are most commonly tried in medical circumstances in which stress is believed to play a particularly large role. These include insomnia , surgery , chronic pain, and cancer treatment support .
What Is the Scientific Evidence for Relaxation Therapies?
Although many studies have been performed on relaxation therapies, most of them suffer from inadequate design. To be fair, there are considerable difficulties in the path of any researcher who wishes to scientifically assess the effectiveness of a relaxation therapy such as hypnosis. There are several factors involved, but the most important is fairly fundamental: it isn’t easy to design a proper double-blind, placebo-controlled study of relaxation therapy. Researchers studying the herb St. John’s wort, for example, can use placebo pills that are indistinguishable from the real thing. However, it’s difficult to design a form of placebo relaxation therapy that can’t be detected as such by both practitioners and patients.
One very clever method used by some researchers involves the use of intentionally neutral visualizations. Instead of imagining lying in bed and sleeping peacefully, patients in the placebo group might be told to visualize something like a green box. The problem here is that researchers teaching the visualization method to participants may inadvertently convey a sense of disbelief in the placebo treatment. This can be solved by using relatively untrained people who are themselves deceived by experimenters to teach the method, but the practical obstacles are significant.
For this reason, many studies of relaxation therapy have made major compromises to the double-blind, placebo-controlled model. Some randomly assigned participants to receive either relaxation therapy or no treatment. In the best of these studies, results were rated by examiners who didn’t know which participants were in which group (in other words, “blinded observers”). However, it isn’t clear whether benefits reported in such studies are due to the relaxation therapy or less specific factors, such as mere attention.
Other studies have compared relaxation therapies to different techniques, such as hypnosis or cognitive psychotherapy. However, the same difficulties arise when trying to study these latter therapies, and the results of a study that compares an unproven treatment to one that is also imperfectly documented are not very meaningful
Even less meaningful studies of relaxation therapies simply involved giving people the therapy and monitoring them to see whether they improved. For at least a dozen reasons, such open-label trials prove nothing at all, and we do not report them here. (The reasons are discussed in the article Why Does This Database Rely on Double-blind Studies? )
Given these caveats, the following is a summary of what science knows about the medical benefits of relaxation therapy.
The Possible Benefits of Relaxation Therapy
Other conditions that have at least minimal supporting evidence for response to relaxation therapies include the following:
- Back pain 62,85
- Bulimia nervosa32
- Cancer treatment support , 16-22,91,92 including cancer pain 82
- Chronic pain in general 27-31
- Depression77,84 and depressive symptoms in people with chronic pain 86
- Congestive heart failure60
- Interstitial cystitis66
- Irritable bowel syndrome37,63,81,83,89
- Menopause38, 61
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)78
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)39
- Pregnancy support (reducing perceived stress) 56
- Rheumatoid arthritis41-43,65
- Stress in general 5-7
- Stroke rehabilitation44
- Surgery support (primarily reducing pain and stress before or after surgery) 8-15,51,54
- Tension headaches45,46,88
- Type 2 diabetes94 (may help improve mental health)
- Ulcerative colitis47
In many cases the results are marginal at best, and contradictory outcomes between trials are common.
How to Choose a Relaxation Therapist
There is no widely accepted license for practicing relaxation therapy. However, it is often practiced by therapists and psychologists.
- Reviewer: EBSCO CAM Review Board
- Review Date: 09/2012 -
- Update Date: 09/17/2012 -