Loyola University Maryland

Counseling Center

Self-Care and Relaxation

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The first step in self-care is caring about yourself. Although this may seem obvious, it needs to be said that if you don't care about yourself, you're unlikely to take care of yourself. Of course, this can be related to underlying self-esteem issues, but this page discusses practicing self-care and relaxation as a way of learning to care more about yourself. We have divided the basics of self-care into three parts:

The 3 R's of Self-Care

  1. Recognize your own signs of stress, such as shallow breathing, digestive changes, skin problems, trouble sleeping, or irritability.
  2. Develop healthy routines, including balanced meals, exercise, time with friends, pursuing interests, and sleep.
  3. Learn and practice relaxation techniques like breathing exercises, meditation, or yoga.

Our focus here will be on relaxation and we encourage you to learn some relaxation techniques and make them a part of your normal daily routine. This can be done in as little as a few minutes a day, or ideally closer to a half hour. Below, we describe several such techniques, and list some other resources which you can pursue further.

These, and all relaxation exercises contain the following four components: a quiet environment, a mental device to help you focus away from thoughts that are distracting and perhaps stressful, a passive attitude, and a comfortable position that allows muscle tension to be released.

Sample Relaxation Exercises

  • Body scan – In a comfortable position, focus on your exhalations; exhale and relax. For several exhalations, focus on the supporting environment (e.g., bed, floor, chair) and allow it to support your body. Sink into it. Following these exhalations, allow your mind to wander through your body, in any sequence that occurs. As your mind moves through the body, identify any sensations you notice (heaviness, warmth, heartbeat, contact with the floor, gurgling in the stomach, muscle tightness, stillness). Upon identifying a sensation, mentally acknowledge it. If it is muscle tension, take a moment to relax that area, and then continue to wander through the body, passively searching for other sensations. You will notice that the number of sensations diminishes after a few minutes. As the mind continues to focus inward on the body, the mind will become quiet. This can be a very pleasant way to drop off to sleep.
  • Observe your breathing – Take a few minutes simply to observe your breathing. Don't try to change it. Simply observe it passively.
  • Reverse breathing – Again, focus on your breathing, but this time start the cycle with your exhalation. Continue for several cycles, focusing especially on the exhalations.
  • Deep breathing – To practice, lie on your back, with one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Observe the movement of your two hands as you breathe. Now try to focus your breathing in your belly so that that hand moves while the hand on your chest stays virtually still. Allow your breathing to be calm and rhythmic rather than hurried, forced, or overly deep. As you breathe from deep in your belly, allow relaxation to flow into muscles throughout your body. You might find it useful to repeat a calming word or phrase to yourself, or to picture a calming image in your mind's eye. Experiment with what works best for you. Once you have developed some skill with daily practice, try the same techniques in other positions, such as standing, sitting, walking, or driving your car.
  • Counting breath 4-7-8 – This is an excellent quick relaxation technique. Place the tip of your tongue on the soft ridge of gum directly inside your top front teeth, a calming contact point. Inhale through your nose for a count of four, trying to breathe into your abdomen, per above. Hold for a count of seven. Exhale through gently pursed lips, still holding your tongue tip on your palate, for a count of eight. Repeat four times. Any counting rate works; it's the ratio that matters so use whatever is most comfortable for you.
  • Mountain meditation (adapted from Kabat-Zinn, below) – You can gradually elaborate this one on your own. The basic idea is as follows: Find a comfortable, stable position in a quiet place. Focus for awhile on the image of a mountain, whether a favorite mountain or an imaginary mountain. Elaborate this image. Notice the shape of the mountain, the peak or peaks, the flanks, the rock, the foliage. Begin to imagine that you are this mountain, rising from the surface of the earth. Feel your stability. Picture time passing. Day turns into night. The moon rises over the mountain. Gradually dawn comes again. Weather occurs. Rain strikes the mountain, and snow storms. The seasons change. Sun bakes the mountain. The surface of the mountain changes, but the essence of the mountain remains the same.

Other Resources

  • The Lifetime Sports program through the recreational sports department usually offers courses in yoga and meditation. Check their website, or call ext. 2330 for information.
  • The following are three of the many excellent books available that discuss self-care and specific relaxation techniques:
    • Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (NY: Delta/Dell, 1990).
    • Andrew Weil, M.D., Eight Weeks to Optimum Health (NY: Knopf, 1997).
    • Davis, Robbins-Eshelman and McKay, The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, 4th Edition. (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 1995).
  • For an introduction to mindfulness meditation that you can practice on your own, please click here.

We at the Counseling Center can meet with you to go over different relaxation techniques, and to discuss other ways to manage stress. Call or stop by for an appointment.