from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome:
A Guide to Self-Empowerment
By William Collinge,
Table of Contents
Chapter 8. The Healing Power of Deep Relaxation
"I realized that my greatest enemy was not the illness,
it was stress."
As evidenced by the research described in the
previous chapter, the relaxation response is a profoundly healing state.
In fact it may be the most fundamental healing state of which you are capable,
for what happens in this state is that all of your inborn tendencies toward
balance and harmony are allowed to express themselves.
The benefits of this special state are really
the result of helping your body and mind rest deeply. When you are free
of stress and tension, your body's inherent tendencies toward balance are
given the opportunity to assert themselves. Every cell has within its nucleus
a genetic code or blueprint, showing what perfect harmony, balance, and
health look like for you. That blueprint contains detailed instructions
for each individual cell, as to its own role in restoring that state of
I wish to emphasize here the importance of
this genetic code. Imagine for a moment that you had the responsibility
to direct all your body's functions. You must make a conscious effort to
pump your blood, to digest your breakfast, to filter your blood through
your liver and kidneys, to regulate your temperature, to grow white cells
in your marrow, to direct each breath, etc... You would very quickly be
overwhelmed with this responsibility. Fortunately your body has the programming
to do all this for you. You need not even be awake, and these vital functions
still go on.
Likewise, all your body's healing responses
go on without your conscious participation. When you have a cut or bruise,
the cells in that area know exactly what to do to restore that area to
health, to knit the tissue back together, to remove the debris, to clear
away the bacteria, and to restore the area to its original condition--in
accordance with the genetic code for that area. What an overwhelming responsibility
it would be if you had to understand consciously how to do this! None of
you would be alive today.
The best you can do is support these inherent
healing processes. And one of the most supportive things you can do is
to remove as much interference as possible. To the degree that stress interferes
with these healing processes, you will benefit by clearing the way for
the relaxation response to work its magic.
THE WISDOM OF FATIGUE
In CFS the relaxation response has particular
importance. The experience of fatigue is caused by certain cytokines released
by the immune system. These cytokines are detected by neural receptors
throughout your body. These receptors send the message to the brain that
there is an elevated presence of cytokines in the blood, and the brain
responds by trying to slow you down. Why would the brain do this? Is the
fatigue merely a mistake, an aberration which serves no purpose?
Let us consider the possibility that the fatigue
is a purposeful response on the part of your body. It serves the purpose
of getting you to rest. This is your body's way of getting the relaxation
needed to allow healing to take place.
Remember, your body knows how to heal. You
can respect the fatigue as an intelligent response. Rather than thinking
of it as an inconvenience or an adversary, it is part of your body's effort
to promote healing. Its intention is to allow the deep relaxation needed
so your body can realign itself with its inborn programming. When you argue
with your body--that is, when you attempt to go on and ignore the symptom,
it will escalate and win. You cannot defeat the wisdom of your body.
WHAT THE RELAXATION RESPONSE IS NOT
There are a variety of popular images of what
is meant by relaxation. To some people, it means lying on a sofa in front
of the television. For others it means an evening at the movies, or reading
a good book. For someone else it may mean taking a nap, or talking with
friends. Perhaps the common denominator for most people is that it means
not working or doing anything that is physically challenging.
However, none of these activities is likely
to lead to the relaxation response. In fact, it may be safe to say that
many people have never experienced true relaxation. This is because it
involves more than just a state of rest for your body.
The relaxation response is a state of profound
rest for both body and mind. This means that neither is active, which is
why many people have not experienced it. The body may be in a state of
repose, but the mind is another story. As long as your mind is busily engaged,
your body is unable to totally relax. Every thought and feeling that passes
through your mind has an effect on your body and its chemistry, however
This certainly applies to reading, television,
and movies. Your mind is directly engaged, and is flooded with images which
evoke reactions within you. This of course is the intention of such entertainment.
You can sleep without necessarily having the
benefits of deep relaxation. People with CFS know all too well how the
mind can disturb sleep. The sleep center in the brain is not functioning
properly, and the anxiety and other symptoms of the illness can further
impair your ability to have refreshing and restful sleep. Yet sleep is
the best your body can do on its own to approach the benefits of the relaxation
response. These factors, on top of the natural anxiety of having a chronic
illness, can seriously interfere.
When you are sleeping, your mind remains active,
in the form of dreaming. The dreams create all manner of feeling states
and chemical changes in your body. We have all had the experience of waking
up from a bad dream to discover sweaty palms or other signs of emotional
upset. The level of relaxation we seek is deeper than that attained in
sleep. And, if you can learn the art of creating this deeper state, then
sleep will be much more beneficial.
THE KEY: CALMING YOUR MIND
The key to creating the relaxation response
is calming your mind. A calm mind is a mind with minimal activity--little
or no thinking, analyzing, fantasizing, or worry. The more calm your mind
is, the deeper is the state of relaxation for your body. This may come
as a surprise to some, but the fact is that you can be fully awake, aware,
and alert while at the same time your mind can be calm.
This of course forces you to examine your
relationship to your mind. The most fundamental point you need to accept
is that you are not your mind. In western cultures you are led to assume
that "I and my mind are one... my mind is who I am." This view suggests
that your mind is at the center of your being, it is the most essential
part of you.
We can benefit, however, from the insights
of eastern cultures that there is much more to you than your mind. An alternative
point of view is that your mind is on the periphery rather than at the
center of you. In the center is your soul or spirit or consciousness, something
more basic than your mind. And your mind itself is like an organ which
you can activate or deactivate.
While this is a somewhat awkward way of saying
it, the point is that it is possible to separate from, or dis-identify
with, your mind. You can see ourselves as having a relationship with your
mind rather than simply being it. You must become interested in this relationship
if you are to have any hope of being free of stressful thoughts and feelings,
and their consequent ill effects in your body.
Fortunately for you there is a great deal
known about how to accomplish this. The relaxation response has been the
province of mystics and spiritual seekers for thousands of years. This
is because they have all discovered that your mind is the primary obstacle
to spiritual growth and insight. As a result, hundreds of traditions have
evolved for how to calm your mind.
Most of these traditions involve various forms
of meditation. Many mind/body programs teach meditation as a means to reduce
stress and create the relaxation response. While meditation techniques
were originally developed for spiritual pursuits, it is a welcome side
benefit that the states induced by meditation can create the optimal conditions
for healing to occur in your body.
All the traditions are based on the insight
that you can separate ourselves from your mind, and that by doing so you
can learn to calm it. In CFS, since your mind and its functioning can be
affected by the syndrome, this realization will help you to retain a sense
of power and volition, that you are not simply helpless victims of the
syndrome and its effects. When you can have some degree of mastery over
this, you can more easily accept that the syndrome is transitory, the symptoms
come and go, and that healing is possible.
HOW TO LAY THE GROUNDWORK
What I will present here are the common denominators
of many different traditions for calming your mind. There is no one right
way, but there are many ways to achieve this. They all, however, share
certain fundamentals, which are described below.
Willingness to Practice Regularly
This endeavor involves the development of
a skill. Regular practice is necessary to deepen your mastery of this skill.
And with practice, your relaxation will deepen, will be achieved more rapidly,
and the benefits will of course be greater. Yet without the commitment
to regular practice the skill simply cannot be developed. Regular practice
means daily, ideally at a specified time, and for a specified period such
as thirty or more minutes.
Willingness to Work with Your Resistance
The nature of the mind is to remain active.
It has a tremendous momentum to keep on thinking all kinds of thoughts.
When you initially sit down to learn the practice, you will discover how
strong this momentum is. You must constantly remember your intention to
stay with the practice, for your mind will resist the practice and prefer
to remain active.
Willingness to be Non-Judgmental of Yourself
One of the traps you need to avoid is evaluation
or judgement of your performance. These judgements, coming of course from
your mind, are in fact a way your mind can sabotage your efforts to calm
it. Most likely you will have thoughts such as "I'm getting nowhere with
this... I don't like this... This is boring... I can't do this... I'm not
doing it right..." etc. It is absolutely predictable and natural to have
these thoughts, but again they should be understood as part of the natural
resistance of your mind, and you must not be distracted by these judgements.
If you are not careful to remember this, you can be easily demoralized
or dissuaded from further practice.
Creating the Right Environment
This means attending to the physical surroundings.
Ideally you can find a place in your home which can become your special
place for practice. Perhaps a corner in your bedroom, or some other place
that is reserved for this process. This helps send a message to your mind
that when you are in this place, this is what you do. Have the space arranged
to be comfortable--a special chair, or cushions arranged in a certain way,
so that you can feel at peace in this place. Gradually your mind will learn
to expect relaxation when you are seated in this place.
I consider three types of distractions especially
important here: noise, other people, and telephones. Perhaps you can think
of others. Remember, your mind prefers to remain active, and any of these
distractions will be seized upon immediately by your mind if given the
opportunity. The best advice is:
Noise. Avoid the interference of appliances,
televisions, or other sources of noise. If you live with others, you must
enlist their cooperation in maintaining quiet during your practice.
Other People. If necessary, place a
"do not disturb" sign on your door. Again, you must enroll the cooperation
of others. Make sure you communicate to them the importance of respecting
your quiet time. If you have small children, you may need to arrange help
with this, for otherwise your ears will be tuned to the slightest hint
of their needing attention from you.
Telephones. The first choice is unplugging
the phone at the wall. This way there is no ringing, no clicking of machines,
and no imagining in your mind about who is calling and what they may be
saying. Using an answering machine is the second choice, and if you do
use one, turn off the volume and ringer, if possible.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of the
prevention of outer distractions. They are the easiest to overlook, and
the most likely to sabotage your practice. Remember, your mind may find
the relaxation experience contrary to its nature, and may seize upon any
opportunity to be active, however subtle. You are doing yourself a wonderful
favor by creating the opportunity for true relaxation to happen, and the
fundamentals must be in place.
TECHNIQUES TO CREATE THE RELAXATION RESPONSE
Now that we have discussed the prerequisites,
let us turn to specific techniques. Since the full relaxation of your body
originates with the relaxation of your mind, you are basically working
with your mind. The mind has been described as a stampeding herd of wild
horses, a cage full of chattering monkeys, a freeway at rush hour, and
many other metaphors, all of which characterize its seemingly uncontrollable
nature. If left unattended, it will continue its random, chaotic activity.
In fact, in this process, you will get to know your mind more deeply than
ever before, for you will be in a new relationship with it.
Your mind can be slowed down and harnessed,
or brought under control, so to speak. The means to accomplish this may
be called mindfulness. This means your mind is full of what is happening
right now, and you use a particular focus to occupy your mind's attention.
Below are described some alternatives which you may use to practice mindfulness
Using the Breath
You may choose to use the breath as the focus
for your relaxation process. Each breath is long, slow, and deep, into
the belly. Being mindful of the breath, you become a student of it, and
concentrate all your attention on a particular aspect of the breath. There
are several ways the breath can be used.
Watching the breath. One method of watching
is to focus on the expansion and relaxation of your belly. Notice how as
you breathe in the belly expands outward as the diaphragm moves down, making
more room for the lungs. As you exhale, notice how the belly is drawn back
in, as if the belly button is reaching to touch the front of your spine.
Follow the rhythm of this in and out movement, like a circle with no beginning
point, just a continuous circular motion. This movement of the belly is
like that of a person rowing a boat across a lake, with the arms moving
in a circular motion, each stroke flowing into the next, with no clear
ending or beginning for each stroke.
Another method of watching is to focus on
a point just inside your nostrils. Imagine that there are millions of tiny,
sensitive nerve endings that can feel the air moving in across this area
of tissue. You might think of the air as an ocean of billions of molecules,
like marbles, all rolling over each other and over these nerve endings
as they cascade down you windpipe into your lungs.
Then the flow reverses, and this sea of marbles
pours back out, again over those same nerve endings, as it leaves your
body. And just as a tidal pool next to the ocean is constantly filled and
emptied by the ebb and flow of the waves, so too the ocean of air constantly
pours in and back out, through your nostrils. Maintain your focus on this
area just inside the entrance.
Counting breaths. This means counting
each in-breath and each out-breath, in pairs. For example: (in-breath)
one, (out-breath) one, (in-breath) two, (out-breath) two, repeating this
process up to ten. When you reach ten you begin again at one. Whenever
you realize you have been distracted by thought and have lost count (which
will happen!), rather than trying to remember where you were, you begin
again at one.
Beginning-middle-end. Another approach
with the breath is to focus on the beginning, middle, and end of each breath.
This means that you conceive of the breath as having three segments, and
you notice each of these segments, with each in-breath and with each out-breath.
In other words, you notice the beginning, middle, and end of the in-breath,
followed by the beginning, middle, and end of the out-breath. This too
becomes a circular process, and you can fall into a comfortable rhythm
of flowing in a circular motion.
It is important in all the breathing techniques
to use your senses, rather than just doing it as an intellectual exercise.
Really focus your senses on the experience of each breath as intimately
as you can. Feel the texture of the air, feel the rising and falling of
your belly, the expansion of your rib cage as the ribs open like fingers
on a hand with each breath... Attune to your senses as much as possible
to experience the breathing. It is this use of the senses that will help
you stay focused on the process and, in turn, calm the mind. Fritz Perls,
M.D., the father of gestalt therapy, once used a phrase which captures
this process: "Lose your mind, and come to your senses."
Using Words or Sounds
Another method is to use a sound or word as
the subject of your focus. This involves the repetition of the sound or
word throughout the relaxation process. This too can be done in a variety
of ways. One is to repeat the word on the out-breath. You can use a simple
word, something which does not engage the mind, such as "one" or "ohm"
or any other word which has a calming effect on you.
An alternative in this approach is to use
a phrase which has a reassuring effect, such as "I am one," "I am calm,"
or "healing now." There are many variations of this technique possible,
but they all have in common the repetition of the sound or words. It is
the experience of repetition that has the calming effect on the mind. You
can choose any word or phrase that appeals to you. Just be careful that
it is not something that engages your mind or stimulates thinking. The
emphasis is on simplicity and calmness. The process of repetition fills
your mind and remains your focus throughout the process.
Using "Progressive Relaxation"
A favorite technique of many people is called
progressive relaxation. This involves a block of time and a quiet place,
just like the earlier techniques described. However, your body itself is
used as the focus of your attention. The aim is the same--that is, to disconnect
from thought and spend a period of time in a state of deep relaxation of
both body and mind.
Progressive relaxation may be done either
lying down or sitting. In either case, you find a comfortable position,
one from which you will not need to move for twenty or thirty minutes.
Observe the same fundamentals described earlier in preparing the environment
and having a special place.
This technique involves focusing on various
parts of your body, relaxing them one by one, spending approximately a
minute in each area. You tense, hold, and then release the muscles of a
particular area, before moving on to the next area. Hold or clench the
muscles in the area for a count of ten, and then release for a count of
ten, before moving on to the adjacent area.
In a variation of this technique, you can
forgo the tensing and releasing of muscles, and instead focus on simply
bringing your awareness to each area and imagining that area softening
and melting, releasing any tension that was present. At the end of this
chapter is a script to guide you through a progressive relaxation exercise
using this variation. You are encouraged to experiment with both methods,
and find which works best for you.
HANDLING YOUR MIND'S RESISTANCE
The greatest challenge in relaxation method
is staying focused, whether it be on the breath, word, sound, or parts
of your body. And of course the source of this challenge is your mind,
for it has a tremendous momentum toward continuous thinking. Your mind
will go through a variety of strategies to distract you and engage you
in its meandering ways. This may include continuously offering you its
analysis about the process, as in "I'm not getting this... This is boring...
I'm doing great... This is fun... How much longer? What time is it?"
If that doesn't capture your attention away
from the process, your mind may try thinking about the important issues
or problems in your life, or resort to showing re-runs of horror movies
about your illness. Its basic attitude will be, "Why waste this valuable
time that could be put to constructive use, thinking about how to solve
these problems?" Or it may choose to focus upon the details of daily living:
"Let's see, how full is the gas tank? How much do I have in the checking
account? When did I balance the checkbook last? What do I need to pick
up at the store?" Your mind will find both subtle and not-so-subtle ways
to distract you and engage you in thought.
Returning Home (Again and Again)
Each time you discover you have lost your
focus and have been caught up by your mind, your reaction is critical to
the relaxation process. It is not realistic to expect that you should remain
free of thought through the process and never succumb to your mind's seduction.
The process is not one of attaining a fixed state of no-mind. Rather, it
is a process of continuously and methodically returning back home to the
Some people find it helpful to imagine they
are sitting by a river bank, and the thoughts are merely debris floating
by. They do not need to jump in and float down the river with the debris.
Or you may imagine the thoughts as merely clouds drifting across the sky,
as you notice them and return to your focus.
At first you may find that you stay focused
only for a few seconds at a time before thoughts start crowding their way
in. And each time you find yourself in thought, you simply return, as if
to say "Oh yes, back to the breath..." There is no need for judgement of
yourself or analysis of the thought. Just keep returning back to the focus.
This is when to be especially wary of self-evaluation,
for if you persist with a judgmental attitude toward yourself or your performance,
you will experience meditation as one insult after another because you
will quickly see that your expectations do not hold.
Labeling Your Thoughts
One strategy that may help you get some distance
from your thoughts is to label them when they arise. Each time you find
yourself captivated in thought, you take a step back and give that thought
a descriptive label. You need only have a very short list of categories
for, after all, most of your thoughts deal only with a limited range of
You may use any labels you find useful. You
could use a simple scheme such as worry, fear, desire, thinking, fantasy
or other labels. The point is to distance yourself a little from the thought,
and attaching a label can help you shift your focus back to the relaxation
With time and practice, you will find that
your skill increases noticeably. You will find the gaps between thoughts
become wider, you will catch yourself more quickly, and less and less effort
is required to return to your focus. You will also begin to notice patterns
or characteristic types of thought that seem to keep arising, and this
recognition will make it even easier to detach.
Ultimately you will discover deeper feelings
of calm and peace than you thought possible. Finally, after each session
you will find that your thinking is more clear and insightful. These are
all worthwhile benefits which will add to the physiological benefits of
the relaxation response.
THE USE OF MUSIC
Many people enjoy using music in relaxation,
and it can certainly have a soothing effect on your mind and emotions.
However, music can both help and hinder your creating the relaxation response.
One must be careful in how one uses it, and what music is selected.
There are certain guidelines for this. Remember,
since your intention is to calm your mind and body, it is best to select
music which does not engage your mind in following a melody. While this
may feel pleasant, it does not help in making your mind be still so the
relaxation response can arise. On the other hand, music which is simple
and non-intrusive, such as involving long tones or ocean waves gently lapping
on the shore, and no melody that compels you to participate in it, can
have a calming effect for your mind and facilitate the relaxation response.
Some people find that music is helpful in the early stages of learning
to deeply relax, but then later becomes a distraction as they become more
adept at calming the mind on their own.
EXERCISE: PROGRESSIVE RELAXATION
Allow about twenty minutes to move through
this process. Find a comfortable position, in an environment where you
will not be disturbed or distracted.
Begin by closing your eyes and bringing your
awareness to your breath. Take a few moments to breath deeply and fully,
emphasizing the length of the out-breath, letting it be long, deep, and
thorough. After a few minutes when you feel your breathing has softened,
bring your awareness to the toes of your right foot. Imagine that you can
direct your breath into your toes, and as you breathe, your toes are softening
and melting, letting go of any remaining tension. After a few breaths,
bring your awareness to the rest of your right foot, and breathe into the
entire foot, allowing it to soften, melt, and let go of any remaining tension.
Now let this feeling of softening and melting
spread up through your right ankle, and bring your awareness to your right
calf muscle. Again breathing slowly into this area, feeling it soften and
melt with each full deep breath. Spend a few moments sensing the feeling
of softness and melting, and then let this feeling of relaxation slowly
move up through your right knee into your right thigh, and again, feel
your right thigh muscles softening and melting, just letting go of any
Continue this process through the major muscle
groups of your body, taking your time in each area (about a minute) until
you feel a definite softening and melting sensation. Move from the right
thigh to the hip, the buttocks, over to the left hip, down into the left
thigh, knee, calf, ankle, foot and toes. Then move up through the pelvis,
lower back, middle and upper back. Then around to the lower abdomen, solar
plexus, rib cage, and chest. Then out to the shoulders, down the arms,
the hands, to the finger tips. Move to the neck, throat, up the sides and
back of the head, over the top of the scalp. Then down into the forehead,
into the sinuses, eyes and eye sockets, cheeks, and mouth. Inside the mouth
to the jaw muscles, the tongue, and the lips.
Now scan the entire length of your body, to
see if there are any remaining areas with the slightest tension. Direct
your breath into those areas, and with a long, thorough out-breath, let
it all go...
Audio CD Program
The Home Self-Empowerment
For information about Dr. Collinge's
four-CD audio program of inspirational talks and guided self-healing
exercises that accompany this book, click here.